Everyone has their favorite flavor. But we can all agree that some ice cream makers simply take the cake when it comes to the best scoop in town (or, you know, the country). Celebrating her 15th year since opening, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream decided to take a different approach to the dessert from the very beginning - drawing her inspiration from perfume, and since creating between 200 – 300 flavors. Jeni gave us the scoop on their Fellowship Model, building a team of diverse thinkers, and her emphasis on making spectacular ice cream for communities, by communities.
How did your love for ice cream making begin?
I ate ice cream almost nightly when growing up. And I knew at age 12 that I’d rather be an ice cream maker in a great city than a doctor or attorney or businessman. When an ice cream company opened within walking distance from my home, I was the first to pound on their door while under construction to ask for a job (and got it).
But it wasn’t until much later when I was attending Ohio State University studying fine arts and art history, and working at a pastry shop that I had a revelation. At the time, I was also working with scent, both in art, and as a hobby. I was seriously considering becoming a perfumer and I had collected a large number of pure essential oils to play around with. A perfumer will either use a very high-proof alcohol to blend scent into, or a fat that is solid at room temperature, but that melts on contact with your skin — not all fats are equal in this way. I used to drive to Kentucky to get the alcohol. But one day I had the idea to blend the oils into ice cream and it worked perfectly.
In that moment, my life changed. I tasted the scented ice cream and realized immediately that ice cream could be so much more interesting.
The flavor unfurled slowly as it melted and warmed on my tongue. I was hooked. I knew that cream contained butterfat, which has the perfect melting point for this use. And I suddenly realized that even an inexpensive, synthetic vanilla ice cream could be considered an edible perfume.
Ice cream is about scent, but there’s more to it. There’s temperature, which wakes up your senses; touch, which makes your tongue feel soft and luscious; sight, it’s colorful and somewhere between liquid and solid; and how it tastes on your tongue: a combo of sweet, sour, bitter, umami. But mostly, it’s about scent, which most people would never think of.
All of this flooded my brain because I had engrossed myself in a number of areas, from pastry making to art and storytelling and perfumery. Because I had hundreds of scents in my drawer, I knew scent better than most people. For instance, when I say “floral” you probably think “grandma’s underwear”. But I think of a dozen or so foundationally different scents that are derived from flowers. To me, there is no such thing as one “floral” note. Rose, ylang ylang, vanilla, lily of the valley, and lavender are all so completely unique from one another as to have nothing in common at all. And so many of them are absolutely wonderful in ice cream.
So, I knew in that moment, that we could use ice cream to explore flavor, which is scent + taste. And that I’d spend the rest of my life doing it. And I set sail that very second and have never looked back. That was 22 years ago.
You operate with what you call a Fellowship Model — what essentially sounds like a “farm to scoop” mentality. Can you share more with us about your supply chain and how you developed these kind of direct relationships with your suppliers?
I got my start selling ice creams in Columbus’ North Market, a century-old market with produce, meat, and specialty food vendors, which meant that we created a seasonal rhythm inspired by the gardens and farms of Ohio, as well as the emotion and energy of the season. I learned what I know about service from the other merchants who always took everything personally — the quality of their products, their displays, their suppliers. They built businesses based on over-the-counter relationships with growers, suppliers, producers, and customers.
When one person does well, we all do well. When one struggles, we all do. These lessons became who we are at Jeni’s to this day.
We still work with many of the same farms and growers we have worked with for years, many who we met through the market. We operate by season, and think about our community, including our beloved customers, first in everything we do.
Who are your role models (in business and life)?
Joe Biden. LeBron James. Barack Obama.
Jeni’s is one of the incredible Certified B Corporations that are held to high standards of social and environmental performance and transparency. Why was operating according to these values important for you to prioritize as a company?
It takes a whole community of people to build ice cream from the ground up, like we do. Making ice cream this way is certainly the harder way to do it, but we’re setting the new standard for 21st century ice cream. And that means we get to champion every grower, producer, and supplier who helps us bring that vision to life.
What is the most unexpected flavor you make?
Our Lemon Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt is unexpected because it completely changes everyone’s perception of what frozen yogurt can be. It’s delicate and nuanced and perfect. It’s the one all the chefs love. I have been making this flavor since the beginning, but it’s never been better. About two years ago we added buttermilk and that reacts with the small amount of cream in the recipe to thicken the whole thing and make it really creamy.
You mention some of your other values include employing a diverse team and working with women and minority-owned businesses? What is the most rewarding benefit from making these conscious decisions about who you work with?
We like people who are themselves. People who think differently. We hire for what we call “talent, hustle, and guts,” and that changes the way we look at who we bring onto our team. People who, at their core, are kind and generous human beings. We also ask everyone to bring a sense of creativity to everything that they do.
Creativity requires diverse thinking, and we genuinely crave those kinds of differences on our team.
All this attracts a different kind of team—one that is soulful and vibrant.
Many entrepreneurs want to create products that are organic, ethically made, or are eco-friendly, but they have a hard time starting out this way due to the costs. You don’t use synthetic flavorings, dyes, or off-the-shelf mixes in your ice cream — have similar challenges come up by creating your product this way? What makes it the most worth it to do this?
There is nothing cookie cutter in what we do. Each time we open a store it is a new design. We spend time in the neighborhoods; we want residents and visitors to be our partners. We think of our company as a community. Every pint of ice cream represents the work of hundreds of people in our network, which makes it special and worth the extra effort in every form.
Also, it’s really easy to make an all-organic, NON-GMO, all-natural product that is just as processed as any other out there. I understand the overall benefit of it, but I would rather treat people well and make great ice cream and have that be our thing over labels. You have to trust us. We are not perfect, but we also don’t pretend to be. All we care about is: making really, truly beautiful ice creams, in a way that brings people together. And that’s it. We work each day to do that better. We like to talk about it and show you what we do as long as you will listen!
This month at Yellow, our series is focusing on Conscious Consumerism. What is one of your go-to ways to stay socially and globally conscious as a consumer?
As American women, our money, and the money we control, is real and has lasting power. If we use our dollars to support women-owned and -led businesses and companies that help women rise (be they in high-ranking positions or on the board), then we control everything.
This is not about boycotting anybody — it’s about supporting businesses whose missions support the sort of world in which we want to live.
We have power. We just have to use it.
What is something your customers might not know about Jeni’s?
We know we make ice cream look easy, but it’s far from it! The only reason we care so much about it is because it gives people an inspiring moment together. And that’s all we care about — being better for our community. We’re excited about what we know today about ice cream, but even more excited about what we are working on for tomorrow.
Photos courtesy of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams