There’s been no lack of new faces and places on the frozen dessert landscape in the past 10 years, but with innovative flavors like Wildberry Lavender ice cream and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams stands out in the crowd.
In 2000, Jeni Britton Bauer was studying art history at Ohio State University and considering career possibilities. She had worked in a French bakery through college and thought pastries might be her calling, so she practiced her skills at home.
“My crème brulee was awful,” Bauer says. “But then I started making ice cream and my ice cream was good.”
Her first innovative flavor was what is now known as Queen City Cayenne, a milk chocolate ice cream with a pinch of cayenne pepper mixed in. “You get the chill of ice cream and then a spicy tingle of flavor about five seconds later,” she says. “The multiple layers of flavor are incredible.”
Bauer started selling her creations in 2002 at the North Market, a year-round public market in Columbus, Ohio. She called her business Scream and was a fixture at the market for four years until market officials told her she could no longer make ice cream on site.
“We were forced to get a kitchen, which was a huge expense for us already, so we went in all the way and opened a store,” Bauer says. “We had lines out the door, but it wasn’t enough to support the kitchen, so a year later we opened a second store in an arts district just north of downtown Columbus.”
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
HQ: Columbus, Ohio
Year Started: 2002
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 10
Franchise Units: 0
She says that’s when she and her husband and business partner, Charly Bauer, realized they were onto something with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. From that second store they observed a lot of other businesses move in nearby, make mistakes, and go out of business.
But all along, skeptics were telling Bauer she was the one making mistakes.
“I was told that I would never succeed because this is not how you make ice cream,” Bauer says. “People told me I should use a mix, and that I would make so much more money if I used cheaper ingredients.”
She says it was never a question whether she would use a mix or fresh ingredients, adding that she’d rather put money into the ice cream than her pocket. “I was inspired by art and ingredients,” she says. “I’m more inspired by art than business.”
Jeni’s has opened locations at the rate of about one store per year. There are now nine stores in Ohio and one in Tennessee that range in size from 900 to 2,000 square feet. Bauer counts the company website as a store, too, since it does as much in sales as a brick-and-mortar location. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams also sells products wholesale to 420 grocery stores across the country, including in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. Wholesale is about 40 percent of the company’s business, while the website is about 10 percent.
Jeni’s employs about 300 people. Approximately 40 employees are needed in the kitchen during winter and 60 in the summer to keep up with demand.
“In a modern ice cream factory, it would take about five people to produce the volume we produce,” Bauer says. “But we do everything ourselves. The caramel for our salted caramel ice cream is made with caramel syrup that we cook ourselves in copper kettles.”
And it’s all made with milk and cream from local Ohio grass-fed cows. “We work with three or four dairy farms that have about 100 cows each,” Bauer says.
While Jeni’s has three research and development professionals on staff, ideas for new ice cream, sorbet, and frozen yogurt flavors still come from Bauer. There are 17 Signature Flavors offered year-round that include Salted Caramel ice cream, Dark Chocolate ice cream, and Lemon frozen yogurt. Limited edition flavors, like Goat Cheese with Red Cherries ice cream, come and go every few months.
“It’s all about following our curiosity and not getting bored and learning about what our customers want,” Bauer says. “Customers love telling us what they think, and we take really good notes.”
Customers at Jeni’s are welcome to sample as many flavors as they want. “We don’t want anyone to walk away with something they don’t like,” Bauer says. Tasting and indecision can hold up the already long lines, which Bauer says is “part of the fun because you get to talk to your neighbors about ice cream.”
But one customer who was frustrated by the wait helped Jeni’s develop a mobile app that customers can use to send in their order and pay electronically. The order is then waiting for them when they arrive.
Bauer says she believes Jeni’s prices are in line with other ice cream concepts, despite her high cost of labor and ingredients. A “Trio” size serving, which is three golf-ball-size scoops, is $5.50, and pints to go sell for $10 each.
Bauer says that as some companies grow, they tend to cut corners and their products lose quality, but in the case of Jeni’s, the opposite has happened.
“We use so much vanilla now we can import vanilla beans right to our kitchen from our supplier in Uganda, and the whiskey we use in our Whiskey and Pecans ice cream is made just for us,” she says. “When you’re just one mom and pop shop, you can’t do that kind of thing. Financially it just doesn’t work.”