The music was the first clue—Neil Young and 1960s folk, rather than bass-thumping top 40 hits. At the awards banquet, winners were met with hugs, not handshakes. Costumes were pervasive, and the biggest draw of the lunchtime trade show was a photo op with the founders.

Clearly, this was not your typical franchise meeting.

Instead, it was the 2017 global gathering of Ben & Jerry’s Franchised Scoop Shop owners, an annual event that attracted more than 500 people, including 150 Scoop Shop staffers. For some, it was the first time they would fully experience the company’s passionate commitment to peace, love, and ice cream.

“This is more about community,” says new franchisee Chad Scribner of Savannah, Georgia, as he compared the meeting to those he had attended for other companies. “It’s not so focused on drilling something into your head: ‘This is how we do it.’ It’s more about the people and doing things for others.”

Not meeting expectations

While there were the usual PowerPoint presentations and new flavor tastings, a large part of the four-day meeting in Orlando was dedicated to Ben & Jerry’s social mission. CEO Jostein Solheim spoke on operational excellence, but spent more time on structural racism. Co-founder Ben Cohen focused on the company’s 2017 campaign for racial equity. It was a far cry from results and deliverables.

“I don’t think Ben even mentioned ice cream,” says first-timer Jeff Lobb, who is building a Scoop Shop in Bluffton, South Carolina. “One of the things that was most pronounced [in the presentations] was the culture. It was really reinforced.”

General session on opening day featured Brian Ferguson, a black man wrongly convicted of homicide who spent 11 years in jail. With a speech that was both sobering and inspiring, he put a human face on racial inequality. Afterward, hundreds of T-shirt clad “zees” headed off to transform a nearby park into an outdoor learning center for children. Police sirens wailed in the background as the event organizer described the surrounding area as an at-risk community.

After mixing concrete, cutting trails, pulling non-native vines off trees, and clearing debris, the tired Ben & Jerry’s crew was joined by local school children for an ice cream party. Somehow, it all made sense.

Producing success and social justice

“When we keep our focus on the general good, that will produce the success we want,” says Debra Heintz, global director of Scoop Shop operations for Ben & Jerry’s. “The mission of social justice is at our core. It amplifies our sales and creates our success. It’s not easily copied, and it’s in our DNA.” Heintz noted that Ben & Jerry’s same store sales had seen several consecutive years of growth.

Another Ben & Jerry’s value on display at the meeting was the willingness to share information. “It’s a learning environment,” says Gregory Valloch, owner of a new Scoop Shop in Miramar Beach, Florida. “I’ve gotten ideas on how to improve my business. I have an MBA in business, but no background in retail. My ‘clue bag’ was empty. All the franchisees you meet, they’re very willing to give you advice.”

And finally, no Ben & Jerry’s franchisee meeting would be complete without costumes—lots of them. When Julie Williams and her team from Tennessee were given the “Big O” award for being Operators of the Year, the crowd burst into chants of “O! O! O!” and hands connected high above their heads in Y-M-C-A-like fashion. Julie was inducted with a red cape and a Big O crown. Later in the weekend, franchisees dressed as characters “ripped from the headlines” for the final celebration. There was Fidel Castro, a fiery Samsung Galaxy, and more than a few Princess Leias.

“I’ve probably been to 25 annual meetings,” says Lobb of his career at Pepsi, Walmart, and other national retailers. He looks for these meetings to accomplish five goals: inform, energize, recognize a performance culture, reinforce the culture, and deliver helpful tools. “I really had high expectations and those expectations were met,” he says. With a big scoop of Ben & Jerry’s unique flavor on top.

Laura Peterson is the manager of public elations, North America at Ben & Jerry’s.
Franchising, Outside Insights, Story, Ben & Jerry's