Inside Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams’ Scrappy Climb to the Top
Jeni Britton Bauer built her company slowly, one bank loan at a time. Nearly 18 years later, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is an artisanal ice cream monolith that boasts 45 stores, a bestselling cookbook, and a forecasted $75 million revenue year for 2020.
In 1996, a then 22-year-old art school dropout named Jeni Britton Bauer launched Scream ice cream with a friend and a few bucks from her friend’s parents. She would spend 12-hour days creating new flavors in their stall at Columbus, Ohio’s local farmers market; her true education, as she puts it, was learning exactly what turns a passerby into a repeat customer.
Six years later, with the help of Business Plans for Dummies, Jeni laid the groundwork for a sustainable business that would become Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, an artisanal ice cream monolith that boasts 45 stores across the country, a New York Times-bestselling and James Beard Award-winning cookbook, and a forecasted $75 million revenue year in 2020.
Her key message? You can start a business with nothing but an idea and a willingness to grow through mistakes. Here, Jeni reveals how she fought her way to the top one bank loan after another, why she didn’t want to be the CEO of her own company, and how she’s handled being swept up in controversy as the face of her business.
The Helm: You closed Scream in 2000 and launched Jeni’s a little more than two years later. What did you do differently the second time around?
Jeni Britton Bauer: When you’re doing your first one, you really don’t know what you don’t know. You actually think you know everything, which gives you the confidence to start, and then you get your ass handed to you and realize you don’t know anything. The four years I spent on my first business, without a business plan, became my business plan for Jeni’s. The foundation of everything I know and do today—every single thing I believe in and I care about—goes back to that time for me. I poured through Business Plans for Dummies, did everything it told me to do, and focused a lot more on numbers than I ever had, which was hard because I wanted to focus on all the flavors I was going to offer. But the banker I met with was very straightforward with me: “I don’t care about that. I care about how you are going to pay me back.”
I learned how to do spreadsheets and spent time inputting numbers. I would think, “If I get 10 customers a day, can I pay back my loans?” And then I thought, “How am I going to get those 10 customers?” That was when I realized I cannot have 80 flavors of ice cream on my menu, because I won’t be able to afford them. They also had to be highly crave-able, so people would want to come back. You work backward, but the numbers are the most important part. My mantra is to “start small and build.” Everything I’ve ever done has worked that way, including Jeni’s. And those are the founders I like to talk to—those who are starting with almost nothing, who don’t have a Stanford education or even money.
"I started my business for the price of a car and it was still really hard for me to get that loan."
The Helm: You took out bank loans to get Jeni’s off the ground. Can you tell us about that process in 2002?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I took out an SBA loan for $35,000. I had a little stand in Columbus’ North Market, a public indoor market that’s operated since the 1850s, which is where I was making all the ice cream—using produce from the market as our ingredients. In fact, a lot of the farmers we still work with still sell at the market. Before that, for about a year, I made ice cream from my house. I had a $1,200 ice cream machine, which I had saved forever for, and then my now-husband, Charly, saved up and bought me a nicer machine. I was trying to convince the bankers to give me money, and I could not afford the machine I wanted. He bought it for me, and I still have it. At the time, I was making ice cream for local chefs and for people in the community who remembered Scream, my first ice cream shop, and because of that, the bank was more willing to give me a loan. They could see that I had a cottage industry. It’s a thing in Ohio—and most places, I think—where you make goods at home and sell them. There are rules, but you don’t have to have a license. I don’t know how the laws have changed; they probably have since the early 2000s when I was doing this because of food safety. At the time, you could sell a limited amount from your home.
I had been doing well, especially with chefs who were putting my ice cream on their menus. That helped me get the loan. But in 2002, I still needed Charly. I was not able to get the loan on my own; I needed a co-signer. They were not willing to give a woman in her twenties even that small amount of money. I wasn’t making very much money, but Charly had a real job and a master’s degree in library science. He was four and a half years older, too; he was stable. The bank liked stability! So he and I went in together to get the loan. I’ve always thought, gosh, I started my business for the price of a car, and it was still really hard for me to get that loan backed by the SBA and from the bank. It took us six months, and it was really because Charly signed on, which I always thought was a little unfair. If I could do anything of significance in America, bigger picture, I would want to find a way to get more people, young women especially, those small loans for businesses. Who cares if you fail? You learn so much if you fail.
The Helm: What were those early days of your business like? How did you decide what flavors to start with?
Jeni Britton Bauer: At Scream, I was still thinking like an artist. I had friends who were chefs, and I thought that when you were a chef, you were an artist. You made the things you loved, and people would come to experience what you made. But that is not how business works. That is not how restaurants work, though some smaller restaurants and high-achieving chefs get away with it. But most of us frequent a business because of what we had the last time—what we’re craving. If you are constantly changing your menu and your flavors, you cannot create that crave-able reason to return for a customer. With Scream, I only made what I wanted every single day, and you never knew what I had. I had flavors people loved, like Salty Caramel, which I would only do every once in a while and no one was doing in America at the time. People would drive from Kentucky to get it, and I wouldn’t have it. At Jeni’s, I didn’t make that mistake.
I put a lot of thought into why I visited other businesses. I knew that half of the flavors were going to be flavors that had done well at Scream, and then the other half would be flavors I just wanted to make for whatever reason—if an ingredient was in season, or if I was excited about it. From the moment we opened we were busy. I made it clear to customers that we would have limited pints of the rotating flavors and we would always have pints on hand of our signature flavors, which, no matter what time of day, you could always get. Then people could really fall in love with certain flavors and spread the word for us, and then new people would come out for them. That was how we started to blossom and grow into the community. We opened November 15, 2002 at the same North Market and we had a long line the entire winter. Sometimes it would be out the door. It was crazy. And that growth has continued.
The Helm: Charly is a current owner in Jeni’s Ice Cream. Were you 50-50 partners when you opened up?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I mean, I guess; I don’t know. I think Charly would have said that I was the owner of the business, even though he was helping me with the bank. We didn’t talk much about it. I wouldn’t have gotten the loan if he hadn’t been a partner for me; I didn’t have enough credit. The beautiful thing is that when he bought me that new ice cream machine, I was trying to get money from a family connection to be able to buy it. They agreed to give me the money at first, but then they told me not to take it. They told me to go to the bank and get a loan because then I would own 100 percent of the company. If I took the money from the family, they would own too much of the company. It was the best advice I’d ever gotten, but it was heartbreaking at the time because I wanted the machine. When Charly bought it for me, it felt like we were married at that point. I just knew we were life partners. We were 50-50 partners in life. We weren’t married, but we were not going to leave each other, either [laughs.]
The Helm: You now have shops across the U.S. How did you expand to so many places around the country?
Jeni Britton Bauer: It was a very scrappy strategy if you can even call it that. I knew I wanted to grow, but I wasn’t in a hurry and we had to make money. There was a lot to figure out. I was very naive; I called The New York Times early on and said, “Can I speak to Florence Fabricant?” She’s a famous food and wine writer. And she actually answered! I was telling her about what we were doing, and she asked, “Well, can I get it in New York?” I was like, “Um, no.” She said, “Call me when I can.” That’s when I said we have to have a website so we can ship all over the country! In 2004, The Food Network came out to film a spot at our 400 square-foot market stand, and we opened up the website then. We thought we were going to get 10,000 orders from that; we had a big party… and we got just one order. But that order was from 1 Central Park West in New York. We don’t know who it was, but it was someone awesome. They must have spread the word because then we got coverage in Daily Candy, Martha Stewert, and The New York Times actually wrote about us. Then it was Food and Wine. We started this almost national company from a little tiny indoor market in Columbus.
At that point, we were still making the ice creams in North Market, selling them over-the-counter during the day. Then at night, the UPS truck would show up to the market, and we would pack up orders and ship them out. By then, my brother-in-law worked for us, too; he and I would pack all the boxes. Those early days are the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It’s so much fun. It’s such an adventure. But I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. Once you do it and you work that hard, you can’t do it again.
Then, the Agriculture Department came in. When you are an over-the-counter ice cream shop, you are governed by your local health department; you get your license, then you can sell hamburgers or ice cream or whatever. But when you start selling across state lines—we were selling direct-to-consumer—you are then governed by the state’s Agriculture Department. You need a different license and it’s a whole different thing. I didn’t know anything about that. So, they came in and visited us and said, “You need to get a milk processing license. You can’t make it here in the market.” They gave us a year to move from the market, which was awesome. They worked with us. We opened a kitchen in 2006, and then in 2007, we opened our first store outside of the indoor market to pay for the kitchen. We didn’t know what we were doing and had to make adjustments to pay for what we’d already set into motion. In 2008, we opened our second store, and then it started to grow. We started to do wholesale, and in 2009, I hired a CEO.
"Entrepreneurship can be a way to truly move the needle on women’s freedom."
The Helm: We’ve come to 2008, which was the year the recession hit. Was your decision to bring on a CEO in any part due to that? Did you have any setbacks in your business at that time?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I don’t think I knew enough about the economy. I almost wasn’t paying any attention to the recession; I was just deep into the survival of the company. Ice cream is a little different than other professions, we do pretty well in a recession. Even if you are paying an extra 75 cents per cone, having Jeni’s is not the difference between a Honda Accord and a Lamborghini. You can spend just a little bit more and get a great experience at our shop. So we were doing well that whole time, through 2008.
However, [selling in] grocery has never been easy, especially during a recession because we were a $12 artisan ice cream pint. We didn’t want to be at $12, but that’s just what it cost to make and distribute it. We ended up working really hard with our growers to try to get certain flavors under the cost threshold so it could work in grocery stores. The economics of a pint is different; because it’s so much more volume, we can work with our farmers to get a different price point than we can when we are doing smaller batches for our 2,000 stores, so we’ve finally got it to $7.99 in a lot of places. But that’s a recent development.
The Helm: What made you want to tackle grocery stores?
Jeni Britton Bauer: We always knew we wanted to do it. I saw Ben & Jerry’s and thought, If they can do it, I can do it. I did not put as much business thought into it as some might have. I believed that if I wanted that ice cream, there were others out there that also wanted it, and grocery is how you got to them. We probably did something stupid, actually, because we did the three channels all at once: the shops, direct-to-consumer, and wholesale. We were also opening up stores all across the country where we were shipping a lot of ice cream. We realized we had pockets of people who really liked our stuff, and so we’d open there, like Nashville, Atlanta, Charleston, and L.A. We opened shops where we had fans and were growing grocery right alongside it. I think a lot of companies build a brand with stores and then cross over to grocery. It’s not been easy, because you are spreading resources thinly across your company. It’s challenging; it’s like having three different companies, you need completely different teams. That’s one of the reasons we needed a CEO. We only had five stores, we had just taken on Dean & Deluca, our first wholesale account. We were doing a pretty good job with our internet business, but we knew that as we grew, had more stores, I was not going to be able to manage all that and continue to nurture relationships with growers, makers, and farmers.
The Helm: I’d love to hear more about that decision. What convinced you to bring on CEO John Lowe in 2009?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I cannot imagine being the founder and also CEO. The role of the founder is so complex: you understand your customer and products better than anyone else, and if you don’t, you are opening up your product to serious competition. But if you spend as much time as you need to really do that, you will not be able to build the backend business organization to support your company and the people who work there.
When I opened Jeni’s, I was working backward from this vision that we could be the next great American ice cream company. I felt like it was time for ice cream to change in America, and felt the opportunities for reinvention were big. But I knew I couldn’t do it myself; I knew my strengths were ice cream and people, and I knew I didn’t want to worry about HR, legal, accounting, and finance. I never thought, “Maybe I can just be CEO.” I never really cared much about money, it wasn’t about that. I care more about life, my life and what I want to do. We knew what kind of company we wanted to be and where we wanted to go, yes, but I just never thought of myself as being the one to wear that hat.
I was really lucky that I knew the right person because I think it is harder to find than I might have made it seem. John has been my friend for 20 years. He just happens to be my exact opposite. We are equal opposites, though. We used to be drinking buddies; he was the only professional person I knew. He was working at General Electric, running businesses for them across America. John, my husband, and I used to hang out all the time—like every day after work. I knew he would make a great leader, and it ended up working out really well. We made him a partner, and he’s just been amazing; seeing how he works in a crisis, I can’t imagine having to manage all the working parts of the business in a pandemic, like he is doing now.
"There’s a lot of perceived power in being CEO."
The Helm: Speaking of COVID, how are you coping with the pandemic? Obviously, you can’t operate your shops.
Jeni Britton Bauer: We are doing curbside pickup and delivery from the stores; we have a whole contactless system. Allowing people to order directly from our website has helped keep people on payroll, so the stores are doing really well all things considered, even though they are obviously down a lot. But we feel like we’re in a really good place to survive and thrive coming out of the pandemic. For the past eight weeks, our e-comm has been way up—past anything we’ve ever done and any holiday we’ve ever had. We want to open our stores, but we want to do it safely. We have new plexiglass barriers that are going up so we can serve people. I do think our tiny little sliver of the world at Jeni’s will play a small role in this recovery, because ice cream is a positive thing. It’s a way to be with your community, and I think we need that.
The Helm: Speaking nurturing community, do you think it’s a mistake of new founders who try to juggle both founder and CEO roles?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I do see a lot of founders doing the founder/CEO thing, and I think that’s fine. There’s a lot of perceived power in being CEO. But I think we all need to understand that it’s a very specific role. The CEO is responsible for the health of the company—it’s about jobs internally, it’s legal, it’s the safety inside and out for customers. Before you take it on, you need to be clear about what that specific role is for your specific company, and if you really want to take it on. Because it’s more than full-time.
Of course, in the very beginning, you have to take that role on anyway. But I never called myself CEO for that reason; I understood it was something very specific. As a founder, if you know what you’re there to do, then you can start to create those buckets of who you need around you. The moment you start a company, you start a community. Every single thing you do in your work life has to be in service of that community, not in service of you. If keeping yourself as founder and CEO is the best thing you can do for that company, then great. But you also have to ask, is this the safest thing I can do for this community? Is this the best decision I can make? I think that’s the most important way to think about it.
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The Helm: As you grew and scaled, did you move beyond loans? Did you ever take on an investor?
Jeni Britton Bauer: We added investors in 2016, Castanea Partners, so it took a long time. We continued to get SBA loans; we would open a shop in a new location, get a five-year loan from the SBA for $100,000 or $200,000, and then pay it off. I think back and I always wanted to get a $10 million investment; but had we done that, our company would be very different now and I don’t think we would have succeeded. I needed to learn a lot of lessons about ice cream and how ice cream works, and the only way to do that is to be really scrappy and do all the work yourself and learn as you go.
I also wouldn’t have been able to challenge the way ice cream is made. We don’t use stabilizers and emulsifiers, which is really, really rare in ice cream—almost not done. And the only way I learned how to do that is by doing it slowly, having to do the work at the dairy myself, having to show up every day. If I had gotten a $10 million investment, I would have built a big factory. I would have brought in so-called experts. It was totally the right way to do it, it was just hard, it was painful. You approach it differently with a loan because you have to pay it back. You’ve got to make it work versus chase the pie in the sky. You’ve got to get out there and sell. You’re getting a $100,000 loan, doing a project with it, getting the money to pay it back, and then getting another loan and you keep going. But it was an awesome adventure.
The Helm: A lot of founders don’t realize the trade-offs of VC funding. Sometimes, it becomes less about your vision and more about what investors want.
Jeni Britton Bauer: I am so against that. I think a lot of young people believe that the word “entrepreneurship” is the same as saying you won the lottery. You become an entrepreneur, and then it’s all about the meetings you have, the pitch competitions, and then the first, second, and third round of funding. Those are the markers of success.
I feel very differently. I think a marker of success is making one sale with one person. Right? If you can get one human to buy a product, you listen to their feedback, and then you make it two. And that’s it. That’s freedom. If you are doing it the other way, I think you lose a lot of freedom. Freedom to explore, freedom of creation, and actually freedom to build a brand, because a brand is about emotion. It’s not based all on money. I’m pretty radical—well, not radical, but I feel we don’t teach young people right now that you can do this with nothing. You don’t need to have a Stanford education. You can build a business out of a dollar. When you bring in funders, you are now a salaried employee, and that is not the founder mentality. It’s not the American start-from-nothing, scrappy, build-it-yourself mentality, which is much more about freedom. Freedom is my number one value. If I feel too caged in, I get really stressed out. Every founder I know who is like that would never want to be on someone’s payroll.
That being said, I love our private equity company [Castanea Partners] like family. We come from opposite ends of the world, but they are great coaches. I have never met another founder who has that kind of relationship with their private equity company.
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The Helm: It can be hard to get that seed to start a company—whether it’s a loan or investment—like you experienced, where Charly had to co-sign. What do you think needs to change for women to be treated equally?
Jeni Britton Bauer: It’s really frustrating. I think the ideas women have don’t seem as exciting to the establishment—which is made up of mostly men—so they don’t see the value a lot of times. But if women are making most of the purchases in the United States, then women should be at the helm of most of the companies or starting them. We are seeing what people need. I do think the federal government can help on that front. I would love to see the SBA fired up with a focus on women and minority-founded businesses. I think entrepreneurship is a way to make big changes quickly, even if it’s just changing your own life.
It’s timely because we recently had Mother’s Day. Our ex-governor in Ohio, John Kasich—who I really like, actually—put an Instagram post up of his wife saying motherhood is the toughest and most important job in the world. And I think, What have you actually done to support mothers? Can we just talk about that for a minute? Men like to say it once a year, and I’m like, “You’re right. It is the toughest, hardest job. But you do nothing for us, and one of the things you could do is to help us start businesses because we know what people want and what families need.” You can say all day long how important women are in our society, but if you’re not supporting them, does it matter?
It’s a question of freedom. Are women free? My answer is no; I don’t think we are. It goes back to the narrow opportunities that are available for us, and then being forced into motherhood—everything points you in that direction your entire life. You just get stuck, and men don’t have an understanding of that at all. But entrepreneurship can be a way to truly move the needle on women’s freedom. If we could get banks and the SBA fired up, starting small and building is a perfect way to start your company. You can do that with very little and build a lot. With social media and the internet, we can build these female-driven companies over time—these movements. But you have to take the long game. That’s the game I’m definitely playing.
The Helm: After taking on investors in 2016, has the company changed at all?
Jeni Britton Bauer: We know who we are and our customers expect certain standards—it’s in our DNA. If you take on investors and you change entirely, that’s a big problem for the consumer. The investment establishment now is seeing “brand” as an opportunity; they’re investing in brands that people really love, for a good reason, and then not ruining them, but that takes a lot of diplomacy and also frankness, to work together. Our investors have a great bedside manner, and they ask a lot of questions; they never tell us what we have to do.
We were ready for a bigger challenge; we had a vision of who we could be, and wanted to grow faster. We started looking for a partner in 2013 and didn’t end up signing with someone until 2016. We have done so much and we’re ready for this kind of growth, but we put in the early work and there’s such freedom that comes with that. I want to figure out a way to get more people into entrepreneurship because it’s hard, but it’s also just an amazing journey. I know some businesses need to build with VC money; they need to move fast and that’s great. But for the bulk of us, it takes time. It’s a one-person-at-a-time thing.
"When you form a company, it isn’t about you. You’re guiding it, but you are not the queen."
The Helm: Recently, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi publicly proclaimed their love for Jeni’s; you’ve also supported Democratic candidates. This prompted #icecreamgate, where a corner of the right-wing internet criticized your politics and your pints’ price point. What was that experience like for you, especially at a moment where female-founded companies seem to be under such scrutiny?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I’ve never really thought of myself as that political, although I have an opinion. I was raised to believe that you participate; you get in your community and change what you don’t like. I never thought that would be considered controversial. I’ve always been a Democrat, I guess, but I think all of us have these nuances to what we believe that can’t be summed up by a political party, and I’m just trying to make the world better in the way I want to make it better. So I’m having a big problem with the division going on in this country right now.
We are a company from Ohio with deep roots in rural areas, working with farmers who we actually pay. We are trying to lift up our strawberry growers, for instance, and this is just what ice cream like ours costs. It’s literally rural and city working together. We don’t ask about politics. We just work together to make people happy. This #icecreamgate is just one of the countless ways of distracting people from what the real issues are. In my experience, when something like this happens, it’s almost always best to just stay out of it, and let the world do what it does and move on. We’re going through the thick of the vitriol in this country, and we, as a company, are really pushing forward with this idea that we’ve got to love everybody because there’s just not enough love out there right now.
The Helm: What’s it like to be the face of a company when you are swept up into a storm of criticism, or ridiculed personally?
Jeni Britton Bauer: I’m sensible enough not to read any of it. I’ve seen glimpses, but otherwise, I let my team handle it. I’m not the kind of founder sitting on her phone at midnight reading all the comments. I generally know when there’s a real problem in my company; I definitely listen to feedback on flavors and customer service—things like that. Those are the things I’m focused on. If it’s the low-blow type of stuff directed at me, or us, we keep focused on the bigger picture: our ideals, and what we’re here to do.
When I started Jeni’s, I realized when you form a company, it isn’t about you. You’re guiding it, but you are not the queen. Maybe that’s to credit my Midwestern upbringing, or maybe it’s because I am a woman and community-spirited; I don’t know. I do know that I have always tried to play that role of support in the company, and I am its biggest defender and pit bull when I need to be. I’m at every meeting, and I am active in sculpting the company, making sure it goes the way I want it to go. I have always felt like I represent the company, but I have struggled with it because I also, of course, represent me. I believe you should be able to be a founder and a human being, and campaign for [the political candidate] you want. I always thought of that as a wholesome thing to do, you know? Go campaigning! I never saw it as a radical thing to do. I’ve struggled with that, for sure. I’ve met lots of people in this position as founder, and it’s hard because you’re balancing being a human being with being a poster—someone who’s life people want to sum up in three sentences. That’s just not true at all. Luckily, I’ve been at this for 25 years, so I wasn’t thrown into the controversy.
The Helm: Has your vision for Jeni’s changed at all since you first opened?
Jeni Britton Bauer: It has not changed at all. It’s the same vision I had in 1996: that we could have stores across America, that we could be serving people. That said, the thing about vision is that it starts out foggy and becomes sharpened over time. There are things about Jeni’s I never would have been bold enough to imagine coming true, like how excited our fanbase would be or that we would even have a fanbase at all. Our store openings are crazy; 700 people come out, and people cry. I talk to every single person; there’s hugging and storytelling. It is crazy and wonderful. And we need this when COVID is over. It’s so personal.
The Helm: Do you have any advice for young founders who are starting and growing businesses in such uncertain times?
Jeni Britton Bauer: Just the idea that you can do it. You don’t have to know anything. You learn as you go. You can write your plans to the finest detail, but you really don’t start until you start. Trust yourself. You’ll be okay; I think we don’t hear that enough.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
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