Season 02 Episode 13
Jeni Britton, American entrepreneur and ice cream maker

Jeni Britton began making ice cream in 1996, as a 22-year-old art history student obsessed with scent. In her spare time, she studied perfuming and experimented with making her own essential oils. On a whim one day, she added cayenne to a tub of chocolate ice cream. When she tasted the combination of cold, sweet and spice, she knew she was going to make ice cream for the rest of her life.

In this episode, Jeni shares her journey of leaving art school to create an ice cream empire devoted to making the finest ice creams the world has ever known. From her tenacity to take creative risks to the grit and determination to navigate her business through a time of crisis, Jeni’s story is an inspiring testament to the power of perseverance, pushing boundaries, and staying true to your entrepreneurial vision.

Starting small and building slowly

Chris Allen: Well, I want to say welcome to Jeni Britton, thank you for coming to The Entrepreneur’s Studio all the way out here in the middle of Oklahoma City.

Jeni Britton: Thank you for having me. I love Oklahoma City and I’m so happy to be here.

Chris: Yeah, we’re really happy to have you here. I think, like we were talking about earlier, it has been amazing seeing how your story really embodies the story of what every kind of small business entrepreneur hopes to achieve. And so I want to unpack some of that and make sure everybody hears your story. But the thing for me is, this was the connection I was trying to make. I was like, “How do you go from being in college to just saying, I’m going to go make ice cream to winning a James Beard award?” And since 1996, you’ve sold what, 89.3 million pints of ice cream? How did that happen and where did that come from?

Jeni: Oh my God. That’s right. You guys are math athletes here, so that’s a great number. Wow. You guys figured that out.

OK. I mean, I would just say the short answer to that question is vision, effort, and time. And one of the things I do differently, I think in my business, or I’ve done differently in my life, or not so differently, but at least in terms of what the media tends to cover, is that I’ve taken a really long time. We’ve taken a really long time at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams to build this company, and there are a lot of really great reasons for that. We didn’t know what we were doing or I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning, but I knew what I wanted to do and I knew that nobody else was doing it and I was going to have to figure it out.

And when you do something like that, it takes time. But not only does it take time to figure out how to do it, it takes time to figure out what you can do. I knew in the beginning that I wanted to get really great dairy, for instance, really great milk and cream, and I thought that would be easy and it wasn’t. The dairy industry is very closed, very difficult to work with in the last 20 or 30 years. That was really the beginning of it. And then I started working at dairies and I started learning about milk proteins over time and what we can do with milk proteins that’s different from what anybody else has done in ice cream. And because I was looking for good dairy, I learned that. And so there were a lot of things like that over this time that I spent building Jeni’s over these decades, actually, where I learned what’s possible by starting really small and building very slowly. And that has become our advantage in the world today.

Finding your passion through creative exploration

Chris: That’s amazing. One of the things I try to ask everybody sitting on this side of the table is there was a moment that was either the catalyst or there was a spark, but there was some connection you made looking back in retrospect. What was the story of the biggest moment that was the spark or the birthplace of this idea to do ice cream and to do it the way you’re doing it? Where were you in your life when this moment was born?

Jeni: I have to take you back because there were things that were happening in my life at the time that enabled the moment. The moments don’t just come out of nowhere. In a way they seem like they do. But what had really happened is I had spent years kind of in this creative time in my life. I had gotten myself into Ohio State University, which was not a given at all. I was studying art and art history, but really not on a track. I mean, I was really just doing whatever I wanted there, which is really fun at Ohio State or places like Ohio State because it’s enormous and there is an expert on everything. One semester they might do vampire folklore and I was like there for that.

And then the next one, it’s like ancient Hellenistic economies. And I was like, “That sounds cool.” So I went over there and took the hardest class I ever took. Lots of art history, lots of fine arts, I love illustration, so a lot of that. And I was meeting a lot of people and also working in a French bakery I adored, with a wonderful French family that ran it. And I was learning about ingredients. I mean, I would literally lock myself in the pantry and just eat the little Valrhona batons you would put in the pain au chocolat they made from scratch there. I mean, it was incredible. I met this guy who worked in the chemistry department of Ohio State, and he was Parisian. Oh, I was so interested in him. I had just been in the Midwest. I hadn’t traveled anywhere and he was studying something, but it had to do with scent.

And so he would bring me little vials of scent from the chemistry department and I was like, “Wow, I’m really connected to my sense of smell.” And so I started studying perfuming and ancient perfuming in particular and thinking that maybe I could use that in art or that I would maybe become a perfumer. And pastry, one night I’m going to a dinner party, I’m thinking, “What am I going to do?” I’d been collecting mostly essential oils and making scents and blending perfumes and thinking about ancient perfuming. I decided to use one of those in ice cream. Store-bought ice cream. I got vanilla and I got chocolate and I made a spicy chocolate with cayenne essential oil. I made a rose petal vanilla just by placing one drop of this extreme, this $400 an ounce Bulgarian rose, into vanilla ice cream. And then the cayenne, which doesn’t have a scent, but it just has heat or the physical sensation of heat on your tongue.

When I took a bite of those ice creams, it was like I knew my whole life would be ice cream. I knew at that moment. I knew who I would become. And it has been true. What I didn’t know is how long it would take, the effort. I didn’t know how much, I didn’t know what it would take. I didn’t know anything about having a business. I didn’t know anything about making even ice cream. I just knew that the rest of my life would be occupied with ice cream. I started making ice cream, and from then on, everybody in my friend group knew me as the ice cream girl. Everywhere I went, I took ice cream. Everybody loved it. I was always scenting ice cream. But what happened was, when I took a bite of that ice cream, everything I had been playing with or learning about all the passions I had been following at Ohio State and beyond, I was really on my own very early.

And that was a blessing for me because I didn’t have parents who were saying, stay on track, get a degree. I was doing whatever I wanted to do. And because I was doing that, I was studying ancient perfuming, so I understood how fats work. I understood that ancient perfumes would use fat that was solid at room temperature, but melted on contact with your skin. From my grandmother, I knew that butter did that. She would always say, don’t put the onion next to the butter. Butter fat is the fat that’s in milk and cream. So ice cream is literally the perfect carrier of scent. It melts below body temperature. As soon as it hits your tongue, it relaxes and all the flavor comes out, or the scent actually.

So ice cream is really about scent. And in that moment, all of this stuff hits me. You can tell stories with scent, this is art, this is a craft. This is something I can do with my hands. This is something that keeps me busy. This is a way for me to have a business, which I always wanted to have. I didn’t want to work for anybody else ever in my life, including teachers. It was a path to freedom for me. Actually, that’s exactly how I looked at it.

Chris: Path to freedom. It’s like I could see you, at least as soon as you said that. Here you are in front of the freezer and you’ve got a pint of ice cream in one hand and you’ve got the essential oils in the next and you’re like, “I can do this. I can do something.” Your whole life unfolds right there. That is a moment for sure.

Jeni: And then I had to learn everything. I had to learn how to make ice cream. I had to learn about how an ice cream machine works. I had to become a chemist. I mean, I was an artist and I thought in my generation, and actually they still do this to kids sometimes, but they literally separated the kids that were supposed to be science and math kids from the kids that were supposed to be English and art. And I was always on that side, the language and art and literature side. Therefore I was like, I don’t know, almost shunned from science. And I really believed that story. I believed I was bad at science and math. It turns out I’m actually pretty good at it.

Chris: That is really interesting, the sense you have of not being good at something because of what somebody told you and you end up being really good at it. That is something I think a lot of young adults go through.

Jeni: Yes. I’m always there because ice cream is such a fun, safe place to talk about this. Creativity and science and the fact that scientists are creative and artists are scientists and that we’re all mathletes. We all understand math in our atoms.

Chris: Yes.

Jeni: We understand patterns to our absolute DNA.

Chris: I can’t do algebra, but I can do a P&L.

Starting a new niche

Jeni: Yeah. Well, you know what? I mean, that’s a skill. That is a skill. And there’s storytelling in that.

Chris: Yeah, there really is. The thing that I have just loved about the effervescence that’s about you is this idea that you made ice cream an art form and it’s not something that you would go like, “Oh my gosh.” Because a lot of people think, “Oh, culinary food, that’s an art form.” But ice cream isn’t what many think of for that sort of thing.

But just look at how everything has snowballed from when you had your epiphany all the way to what’s going on now and how crowded that market has gotten, how artistic that market has really become. What’s sort of the thing you’re thinking about today? And then we’ll get back to all of the things you had to learn. What’s the thing that as you stand back and look, that you’d say is its origin and where do you imagine it’s going to go next?

Jeni: I mean, I would just say that when you’re growing a company as I was in the middle of Ohio, as a woman who didn’t know much about business and the competition you see, as soon as we started getting press, we started getting copycats and competitors. And that’s actually a really, really hard thing for a founder to go through. It’s just really hard. And yet at the same time, you also know that it cannot become a trend unless you’ve created this movement, which means there’s got to be a lot of people doing it. Not just even in America, but around the world, which has actually happened. So on one hand, it’s like the coolest thing ever. I’m talking with women in South Africa who got my book and started ice cream. Cairo Creamery in Egypt. I happened to run into them at a library in LA and they recognized me and they’re like, “We started Cairo Creamery because we got your book.”

Chris: Oh wow.

Jeni: Little creameries all over America. But then of course you see the big companies sort of almost doing this, very much doing a similar thing and being shifted by this movement of storytelling and provenance of ingredients and really just getting closer to your makers, growers and producers. And also I think paying fairly. It’s the coolest thing in the whole world to see, actually to know, that this was something that was a passion for me in 1996, and it was just me and I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt alone for a long time. And now it’s this big movement in ice cream. Not just in America, but everywhere I go. I mean, I was in Berlin all summer and there’s just all these ice cream makers who are in this model.

Being an entrepreneur from the start

Chris: It’s incredible. You decided not only is this going to be your art form, but you had the wave of what your life was going to be like. When did you decide it was going to be a business? And where did you get started?

Jeni: Immediately. Because when I was growing up, my grandparents had a business and it was cleaning offices after work. So just this small business, it was called Medina Maintenance. That was the county they lived in. And after my grandfather got home from working at the newspaper, he would set type all day. Wooden type. Which is... I mean, it’s hard to believe that even happened in my lifetime when I was a kid. But then he would come home and we would eat dinner. And I was always at my grandparents’ house and we would get in his little truck and we would go clean office buildings. And they were so proud of this business. My grandmother always said, if you can’t find a job, make one. I always felt very entrepreneurial. I think when kids see that, and it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s their grandmother cleaning office buildings or their dad is some tech guy or whatever, it doesn’t matter what it is — you see that as a path to freedom. You see that you can create an idea of value for people, create something of value to other people, and build a life around it for yourself and other people.

And it’s a very simple, very powerful concept that kids get immediately. I think that somebody, I’ve heard that once your basic needs are met as a human being, food and love and safety and shelter, water, the next thing you do is you make things better. You make art. And I always think, I’m not sure if this is true, but I’m pretty sure because I feel like I’m pretty intuitive, the next thing might be to trade those things. Like, “Hey, you did that and I have this and maybe I can make your thing better and you can make my thing better by trading.” And that’s just so innate to humans.

So this idea of entrepreneurship to me was innate. I’m sure it came from my grandmother, but I think it’s something that we need to teach every kid by the time they’re eight. Because once you get it, it’s a lens. You see the whole world through that lens.

Listening to customer feedback

Chris: There’s a great book called “Kidpreneurs” that I read. I have four boys, and we all have read that book together. Just helping them understand entrepreneurship, how math is important, how to create an idea, what’s important about the idea, how to make it come to life. I think it’s really important if there isn’t ready availability, like you had with your osmosis observation of entrepreneurship. There are resources out there that can help you talk to kids about entrepreneurship because that resourcefulness is a really big part of life. You don’t have to be just an individual, like an entrepreneur or a small business owner to have that resourcefulness that an entrepreneur has, right?

Jeni: Absolutely. And I think sometimes about when I started Jeni’s, like I have lots of friends who are entrepreneurs and I see a lot of the business world and everybody’s really proud of their businesses and what they do. But I mean, I also see a lot of people... I don’t know, it’s almost like they go into business probably because parents want this of the kids too, but they almost go into business for the accolades. I was so brilliant that I did this. I played the game of business. Like it’s chess, and I won. I’m a business winner, and they go into business for that. That was not on my mind when I started Jeni’s. I didn’t know anything about that world. I started Jeni’s because I thought, “If I can make this ice cream and if I love it so much, maybe somebody else will love it.”

And if I can make them happy, if I can make one person happy, I can make two people happy. And if I can make a few hundred people happy, I can make a living. And if I can do that... it was really always about creating something of value for somebody else. And then if they want to give me their money for this, then I can live off of that and then I can make another job and another job and we can grow. So I feel like that is also missing from our discussion of entrepreneurship with kids. Because really all you have to do is make something that first maybe solves a problem for you, because if it does, it will probably solve something for somebody else. Then you can start tweaking it alongside your customers. Just listen to feedback.

Chris: Yeah. Just listening to feedback is a really short phrase, but it’s probably the most transformational. The most transformational thing that can happen is if you just start listening to feedback and listening means I’m going to do something about what I heard.

Jeni: Yes. Because when I started, I was an artist or I was a wannabe artist. I was coming from an art perspective. And my other grandmother was an artist. So my other grandmother, Enid, would never have taken money for her art. She would’ve taken money for her art that she made, but not a commission. She’s not going to make art because you want her to make something. She’s a true artist. She’s going to make whatever she wants, and if you want to give her money, that’s great. Otherwise she doesn’t care. She also doesn’t want to make the same thing twice. She’s moving on, which was absolutely amazing. But she would teach us how to make a basket or whatever. I tell the story that sometimes we would go to the ditch and literally pick the grasses and dye them in the sun or dry them in the sun, then dye them colors and make baskets out of them.

Every one of Enid’s baskets were different. I always wanted mine to be the exact same. But I would go to Betty’s house, my other grandmother, the entrepreneur grandmother, and she would be like, “Let’s make 20 of these and sell them in the neighborhood.” And when Betty and I would do it with my sister, my goal was to make the last one exactly the same as the first one. But when I started Scream Ice Cream, which was my first ice cream shop after I literally walked out of an art class, I was still thinking like an artist. I was still thinking the whole concept was that I would do something new each day, and that was what you came for. It took me a really long time to realize that’s not what people want.

Chris: Yeah, that’s not the repeat business model every time. There are a few people that like that, but those are the real early adopters or the innovators.

Jeni: But if you start with what you think is good and you’re just open to listening, your customers will tell you exactly where to go. You have to bring your thing to it and then listen. It is an act of co-creation in that way.

Succeeding via unending resilience and grit

Chris: Well, you mentioned Scream and you mentioned the next thing on your continuum was how to trade it. I read somewhere that it was at the farmer’s market, and you were surviving by making trades, like “Here’s some ice cream, give me some food.”

Jeni: Or give me ingredients to make more ice cream.

Chris: Yeah. Tell us about that. What was it like? I think there’s a nucleus here of the X factor that you have. It’s like, “I have grit, I have determination,” and you have, I’d say, a healthy dose of that. And being able to say, I want to do this so badly that I’m going to figure out how to make it work, is really, really huge. But trading is what I really wanted to ask you about.

Jeni: You’re going to suffer for it. I mean, honestly, I think sometimes people don’t believe it because now it’s so many decades in, and now I am where I’m at now. It’s a very different place than where I was for the first 15 years of the company. I mean, I lived out of my car for three months. I traded for food, literally traded ice cream for food. I mean, I loved it, to be honest. I thought it was the greatest adventure ever. I did not ever feel like I had a safety net, so it wasn’t like I could go home somewhere else. There wasn’t one. My mom was really, really sick. She had a baby. It was a hard situation there. My dad was out of the picture. I was really, really alone and I was just young and I was just like, “Whatever.”

I had a super punk rock attitude about it. And all my friends, I built the company really for my friends, and they were all the artists and musicians and whatever. I was just like, “I’m going to work harder than anybody else. I’m going to be here. I’m going to show up, and this is my adventure.” It was great, but also I could never do it again.

It was so hard that I can even sometimes get PTSD if I walk into the market because of the smell or whatever. It was so, so, so hard to work that much for as long as I did. I mean, it was decades — and when I say decades, two. Two and a half decades of at least 12-hour days. I mean, I was working nonstop. There was always, and there still is a little light in my head that’s little Jeni at a desk there with a light on working on a flavor at all hours of the day, to this day.

Chris: That’s incredible.

Jeni: I know. It’s always in my head. There’s always somebody who’s ready to jump in or who’s just always at it. But on one hand it was the greatest adventure ever. It was just the coolest. I’m so grateful to that 22 year old who walked out of class and went and did it. On the other hand, I also know how hard it was and how hard it was on my body and my mental health and my emotional health over time.

Chris: Yeah.

Jeni: And it’s like that’s what an adventure is. It has to hurt, it has to be really hard. And that was both what was fun about it and what was hard to get through.

Taking a hands-on approach as a founder

Chris: I like how you said I could never do it again. You’re like, “That was a lot and I would prefer not to revisit those moments.” One of the things that you, I’d say, are regularly noted for is that you had to take care of every aspect of your company. Talk to us about the first few things you discovered and then how it sort of advanced and the hands-on approach that you’ve taken.

Jeni: Well, at Scream, it really was just me. And there was a young girl in the market. Her dad was like the market electrician, and she would come hang out with me and we would make ice cream together. She was amazing. She’s like a chef in New York now, so it was really just me at Scream all day every day. Then at Jeni’s, because of my experience at Scream, because I’d really burned out, because I’d been there every single day for four years, I knew I had to be thinking differently. I had to be thinking bigger. I had to be thinking about what I want to do and what I like to do and what I’m good at. And over time, I had to get rid of, or hire for everything else to take that off of my plate. So from the very beginning of Jeni’s, that was really what it was about.

It was kind of working backward from, “What do we need?” I need to have somebody who’s going to be doing these tasks. And the first thing was making sure our finances were protected so that when our customers gave us money, we would be doing the best and most with that money that we possibly can. That was first, then it was various manners and of course finding people to work at the company, but I knew I didn’t want to be by myself. I also knew that at some point we’re going to need to get out of the market and not be just our little stand at the market. We needed to do grocery and we needed to supply restaurants.

Basically, I started working backwards. I was like, “Well, how much money do I need to make...” I mean, this is all very, very simple math. How much money do I need to make to afford someone to do that work? Then I went, “OK, well then I have to sell that much ice cream.” And I would figure out how to sell that much ice cream. Then I would get to that place, we would hire that person and we would get to the next one. And it was literally like, “OK, how many?” And I would say, “How many people do we have to get to walk up to our shop in order to sell that much ice cream?” And it would be like, OK, we’ve got to get 100 people today. And that was really how it went for those first years in the market.

Chris: Wow. I like how you just brought up distribution channels. So maybe you started thinking about that, but how did you end up thinking, “OK, I know I need to enter grocery stores and then maybe supply restaurants.” Those are two really great channels, especially for the niche you’re in. So how did you break into both of them?

Jeni: Well, first of all, when I had this idea to make ice cream, it was a much bigger idea than the market. I was thinking my whole vision was wrapped around this idea that Ben & Jerry’s did it. They were in the grocery stores. That’s what I should do. We can do it differently. We have a different target and make different ice creams, but if they can do it, I can do it. I mean, I had seen them, I knew they were smart, but not that smart, just like me. You know what I mean?

Chris: It’s not rocket science.

Jeni: Yeah, I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it. So we’re going to do it differently than them, but similarly.” So I knew we would be in grocery stores. I didn’t really know about restaurants but chefs started coming to me, which was really cool. And that was awesome to help us spread the word. And even before we ended up in grocery stores, this is a funny story — I called The New York Times one day and said, “Yes, can I speak with Florence Fabricant?” She’s the writer of all the news stuff in New York City, but I’m in Columbus, and it just didn’t occur to me. I read The New York Times food section every week. I read The New York Times on Sundays with my coffee, it was my newspaper. And I was like, “Hey.” She answered and I told her “Hey, I just wanted to let you know we’re making this really cool ice cream in Ohio.”

I kind of told her about it and she’s like, “Well, can I get it in New York?” I was like, “No.” So she said, “Well, why don’t you call me when I can?” And I was thinking, “Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense since you write about things that are in New York and not Ohio.” So then it was like, all right, we need a website. We need to be able to ship ice cream. Then the Food Network called. We were like, “OK, we have to have a website.” So in 2004 we launched our website and it was also our first Food Network appearance, and that launched our website, which is still our biggest store.

It was kind of a game-changing thing to do in 2004, to be able to ship ice cream we were making from scratch in the farmer’s market. But it enabled a lot of press, it enabled a lot. And the funny thing is that on the Food Network show, we had a party, we all showed up, a local restaurant shut down and just showed the Food Network. Everybody in the whole community came out. We launched this website. We cut it off at 250 orders because we thought we couldn’t make enough ice cream to sell more than that. We thought we got 10,000 orders, but we got one order.

We were in the restaurant, we had a computer open, we were looking at it, we were waiting for it, and we got one order — but it was the right one. I don’t know who it was, but it was in Central Park West. Everything started to happen for us after that.

Chris: No way. It was a New York order?

Jeni: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I don’t know if it had anything to do with what happened next, but then it was like all of a sudden we started getting tons of media and—

Chris: That’s ridiculous. You had one order and it was in New York.

Jeni: Yeah.

Chris: Wow. All right. So what was it like the moment you probably had a moment of disappointment? Was it days, weeks, or months after the snowball really started when you had the one order? When did it sort of have a mass effect?

Jeni: I mean there was never a snowball... Well, I guess it was a snowball. It just rolls very slowly. We thought it was a lot, every holiday was a big season. Maybe we would do 200 boxes of ice creams that we made and then packed and then figured out how to ship, and that was huge for us at the time. So for me now when I drive up to our kitchen or the distribution center and I see the entire truck waiting just to be filled by our team, they pull a truck up and leave it there for us to fill every day. And to go from thinking 50 orders in the holiday season, in peak season, might be massive and amazing and we were so happy about that to what we are seeing now is pretty cool.

Chris: That is.

Jeni: But yeah, I mean it was just very, very slow over a very long period of time.

Prioritizing people, vision and values above everything else

Chris: Well, you learned a lot playing a lot of the roles when you were a small business. Then you hit a moment of buildout, scaled up and chose new distribution channels. But I think it’s really important for you to talk about how you design teams and how important a team is to success, especially when you’re looking to scale a business.

Jeni: Well, I always like to be the entrepreneur who kind of represents the scrappy kind of American, “start small and build” entrepreneurs who didn’t go to business school. So I would say I make a distinction between the word “company” and the word “business”. I love the idea of building a company of human beings. And it just so happens that when I started Jeni’s, The Lord of the Rings movie was just starting to hit. I’ve always been a huge Tolkien fan. So when I saw those movies, it was like, “This is exactly what we’re doing.” I mean, we’re building a fellowship, a company of people. Each of us is going to have a totally different talent—

Chris: Superpower.

Jeni: Superpower. Then together we’re going to create something greater than the sum of our parts. We’re going to get the ring to Mordor. We’re going to have a vision, a vision quest, and we’re going to do it. We’re going to be united by our values, and that’s going to be what the company is. And sometimes I feel like it’s as simple as that. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Entrepreneurship is really not complicated when you think about it in that way.

Chris: And you’ve had to do some, I’d say mission-driven activities. You talk about a lot of the mission-driven work you do. What do you sort of center people around right now?

Jeni: What I would say is that while I think the principles of entrepreneurship are not complicated, the hardest thing about building a company is staying true to your vision and keeping everybody kind of going in the same direction and united by the same values. Because when you build a fellowship, everybody wants something or everybody has a pet project or everybody has a thing, and someone does have to decide what gets done and what doesn’t and how and what is important for this mission. And that is what is actually the hardest thing about entrepreneurship, building a company, being a founder, and being any kind of leader is keeping everybody going in the same direction and saying no when you have to have to say “no”, even though maybe they’re great ideas, they’re just not for right now.

I feel like that was the work. Actually, as for some of the failures over those early decades, it’s so easy to be like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Then all of a sudden you are kind of bloated as a company doing so many things aren’t really helping move this fellowship toward Mordor. So for us, those were the early years of learning about that. But you don’t realize it when you’re doing it, that it’s happening. It’s only afterwards.

Chris: Well, I’m thinking of two things related to frameworks regarding how you’re building a company and you talked about values and then you talked about how to decide. I always think of the framework of your values as how you screen people and who should be a part of the team and what seat they should have. Then your focus is how you decide upon opportunities. And if you can, as a leader, entrepreneur, leadership team, really distill and crystallize your actual values that you’re going to hire and fire by, and your core focus of how you’re going to say “yes” or “no” to opportunities, the decision’s sort of pre-made.

Jeni: Yeah, it’s exactly right. And that’s why your mission should be your marching orders. Your mission should answer a lot of questions for people in your company. It’s an important thing to have. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be on your website. It doesn’t have to be a part of marketing at all, but it should be something that answers questions for people so they can keep going in that same direction. You have to be very clear about that. I agree. You hire people for values. In fact, people will find you because they know your values, these are the people who are attracted to your company. This is especially true for a company like Jeni’s where we’re very clear about our values. That’s why people want to work for us. Then that becomes our superhero skill — we get some of the best talent because people want to work in a place where their values are aligned, and that makes them very passionate about the work they do.

Chris: You’ve got to have some pretty distinct values to make the move you did when you had the listeria scare.

Jeni: Yeah.

Chris: Tell us about that.

Jeni: Well, that’s where your values really help.

Chris: Yeah.

Jeni: We were very clear about who we believed. We were a company that cared deeply about our customers, our team, and our community. We’re a community-led company. We care about quality, we care about safety very, very much. And we believed all of that, but we had never really been tested. I think it’s interesting that when you get tested, that is the moment when you prove really first and foremost to yourself who you actually are. So when we got the call in April 2015 that there was a pint of ours that tested positive for listeria in Lincoln, Nebraska, it was obviously not a call we wanted to get. It was devastating.

But the first thing any of us thought about was our customers, because that was the only thing we ever thought about every day already. Our customers are why we live to do what we do and what we exist for. No one on our team thought about finance. It was the furthest from our mind. And I think that’s true to this day. So what we were able to do is very quickly move into a plan. And that’s actually really hard when you have a recall like this or when you have this kind of crisis. Because if we had thought about finance first, it would’ve dragged out because we would’ve tried to find whatever lot numbers and there are ways you can drag this out legally that didn’t occur to our team.

We knew the best thing for us to do was to get the ice cream off the market so we could make sure nobody gets sick. We didn’t know if somebody would be sick already. And that was terrifying. It turns out nobody was. And that’s great. We prevented an outbreak by recalling everything as quickly as we were able to. But that’s an example of when your values get tested and you hold onto them without even questioning them. Now I look back and I’m like, “God, every single person on that team was amazing. We all got there very quickly and no one questioned it because it was just part of who we are deeply.” And then you can say, that’s really your values.

Chris: Yeah, and there are times you can operate outside of your values and it really does something to you, your culture and things like that. I think it really says a lot about leaders to say, “We’re going to live in our values and that is the decision. We’re going to stay there. We’re going to live in them.” There’s degradation on reputational issues like what you were just saying like, “Oh man, we could have had a real crisis on our hands reputationally.”

But you are able to say, “Because of our value system and because of the way we operate, not only was everybody safe, but we were able to do something really meaningful to demonstrate to our company that we’re going to stand behind what we believe.” And then there’s the recovery, because there is a financial impact. You had to make a decision and you realized, “We are still a company that needs to fund things and still needs to provide jobs.” So talk to us about how your values may have reemerged and some of the specifics about how you faced recovery in the way that you did.

Jeni: That’s the hard part. In all of this and in any crisis that you go through personally or with your team or in business, wherever, the early stages of a crisis are actually pretty easy. I mean, it’s devastating, but it’s also pretty easy and in a weird way fun because you have to be wildly creative. But it’s as you get into it when you realize what has actually happened — that’s when you can really start to process it because before then you don’t have time. You’re in survival mode. You don’t have time to process anything really. So this is where our recovery took a really long time because we were an ice cream company, we were going into summer and we just recalled all of our products that we had spent the entire winter and even the summer before preparing as even the farmers were growing ingredients for us.

So those are all gone now. We have no ingredients, we have no ice cream, and the warm weather is coming. We also have no money because we’d just gotten through a long winter. So this was where we kind of woke up and were like, “Wow, how are we going to do this?” And I’ll tell you what happens when you get to this place personally because I’ve been there too and as a company the rules are different, and it’s kind of this weird freeing place when you’re actually at the bottom and you have to fight your way back from nothing. So we had an amazing family and community that came out to help us financially. But one of the reasons was because early on in this crisis, now we’re maybe a couple of months in, we had to close our stores and people from the community started coming out and leaving us notes, Post-it notes, somebody started this trend of Post-it notes on our doors and they were beautiful, beautiful messages from our community.

And that made us, internally at the company, because we didn’t have a voice externally because the FDA controls all of that —but internally, we heard that message from our customers and we felt that there would be a hole in the world if we disappeared, if we can’t find our way back. It made us fight harder than we ever probably could have otherwise, and also helped the family that came out to help us see that this was worth fighting for. So we had some people from the community who came out to help us, and this is that community value story where our values, which are well-known, our values of community, of being there for the community and being a part of the community and valuing community and making people feel loved, we’d done that for so long and now people were doing it back for us. And it was really incredible to see that. If we hadn’t been that company, we would not exist today. There’s no way we would’ve been able to come back from that.

Realizing the power of authenticity

Chris: That’s powerful. That’s an investment you made in the community. You’re selling ice cream and you had enough X factor to get a bunch of locals putting notes on your door. How did that happen? What do you think the secret sauce really was for your company?

Jeni: I think this can be true of any company, and I don’t think we were doing it intentionally except that we were just being us. I think we were doing it intentionally. And that is simply to say I think people felt seen and still do and heard when they’re in our presence, in our space, in our world. I think that especially with ice cream, people see themselves in their flavor and they identify with it very strongly. And I worked the counter for 10 years and made the ice cream flavors and served them. I just know that people, when they’re at our counter, they’re there to get to know someone else better and to reveal a little bit about themselves. And they do that starting with flavor, the flavor they’re choosing at the counter. And I think we make people feel seen and cared for and heard and help them feel a sense of belonging in a way they didn’t feel in other places.

That is really true of the best companies. I actually don’t love the word brand. I mean, the way I use the word brand is company. So that’s what your values are, what you stand for and how you make people feel. And I think that’s the way the best companies or the best brands do that. It is so much more than your graphic design or the product you put out. It is just how you talk to your customers. I mean, I still write the sides of the pints often. It’s how we talk to customers over the counter. It’s how we train our team. And probably the most important part of this is just to continue talking about the values of the company. When the people in the company, even the ones behind the scenes, the ones customers never see, when those people, those leaders, those workers anywhere in the company all abide by our values, we all show up every day.

We create this sense of pride. So that is the most important thing we do that trickles over the counter. People who work at our counters share that with our customers, they represent what they see in the company, not what we tell them. They represent what they’ve seen when they visited Columbus and they visited the market and they visited our headquarters and they saw how people talk in the company, and then they go back to their stores and they are so proud that they want to tell the customers about it. Do you know what I mean?

Chris: Yeah.

Jeni: And that is the brand. I mean, that is what it is.

Chris: Ice cream’s pretty transactional in most cases. This one is less so transactional. There’s more of a human element. But you’re selling in grocery stores too. How do you take that experience and deliver it in a grocery store?

Jeni: Art. I mean, that’s what we do. So on our little team, we make our own art and design. Even if it’s not perfect, it has character, it has soul. Every one of those pints is designed by Patrick and me and photographed by Erica, and then Beth and I write the pint copy. We also, that team and a couple other people, we created the flavor, we researched and developed the flavor, we got it through. Sometimes we aren’t sure if people are going to like it, but we love it and we put it through anyway. And even to this day, that’s how it is.

So we communicate through our pint, through the glass door in the grocery store to people. And when you look at our pints, they’re not just communicating that we’re a cool company and that we have great graphic design — because there are other companies that have that too. We’re communicating that we see you and that we have something here for you. So I always say that I want our glass, the door in the grocery store with our couple of shelves to look like a box of donuts. When you open it up, there is something there for you. They’re all different, but something is there for you. So even in a grocery store, I think our goal is to make people feel seen.

Chris: Is there sort of an ideal first introduction to a new customer in the grocery aisle? What are some of the things you’ve seen happen where they have been able to receive that message, then they connect with you in other ways and/or go visit a store?

Jeni: Well, I mean, we know that when we open stores in a city, grocery sales go up, not down, which is sort of interesting too. We weren’t sure how that was going to work. If we have 10 stores in Nashville, where are they going to get the pints from? Actually, they go up in both places. So it’s like awareness is great, but it also happens with shipping. People are shipping ice cream to their friends and then they see it in the store.

Our ice cream is sold in a few Targets and I love to visit them with my daughter. Of course, everywhere I go with my kids, we face the ice cream and we make sure they look good and whatever. But we love to just sit there, or my kids make fun of me, but I like to just listen to people in the ice cream aisle, whether they’re buying our ice cream or not, but especially of course if they’re buying ours, and then just see how they’re interacting with ice cream and what they’re getting and what’s exciting to them. And of course, especially if they’re looking at our stuff.

Chris: How awesome would that be if I was standing in the aisle and you’re there with your kids, and all of a sudden—

Jeni: Staring at you.

Chris: You’re staring at me like, “Which one are you going to get? Which one are you going to get?”

Jeni: “Not that one, not that one.”

Chris: “You should try this one. I think it’s for you.”

Jeni: “You look like a chocolate person.”

Stepping down as CEO or COO

Chris: Yeah, yeah. OK. Well, one of the things about building a team is that there’s a lot of leadership required to build a great team. We talked about the fabric of that with the values and the focus that ultimately resulted in what you promise as a brand today and how you’ve been able to deliver on that promise. Leadership is a really huge component.

How did you go from being somebody who’s been so hands-on to making the move to no longer being founder-led, and maybe getting a professional CEO —or was this somebody who had been with the company? Talk to me about that decision. Talk about what you’re doing in the company today that’s different and how you’ve sort of built a leadership team that’s maybe a little different than the way you were running it before.

Jeni: Yeah, I still feel companies like Jeni’s — and there are many kinds of companies, but companies that are like Jeni’s with this sort of visionary founder, a visionary is a role for a company and it’s very different than CEO, and there’s tons of different kinds of CEOs you can be, but the way I define CEO is they are responsible for the safety and health of the company in all aspects. So if you’re the founder and the visionary of the company and you’re also doing that, that’s a lot of work. That’s a lot. You’re not going to really be able to do both of those well. So the founder, the visionary, and the CEO or whoever you hire to do that work need to be working together very, very closely, and that’s how you make it work.

And it’s important. It’s important, obviously because I knew we were doing so much work and I wanted to protect it. I also didn’t know how to organize the company. I didn’t know how to do that, and I didn’t frankly want to learn. I wanted to spend my time with customers, with our team. So that was the best decision for Jeni’s. And I actually think it’s probably the best decision for any company, whether you call that person CEO or Chief Operating Officer, or whatever you call them. You’ve got to have somebody who’s really taking care of that in your company. At first it was like finance, that was the most important thing, and operations and organizational issues and management. That was really, really important for us to get done as quickly as possible.

Chris: Yeah, often there’s a founder and a co-founder, and I would say role-wise you do tend to have a visionary in maybe what EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) calls a visionary and an integrator. I think that’s really important, but it can be hard for some founders to sort of hand over their babies in some respects, right?

Jeni: It’s true, it can be very, very hard and it wasn’t that hard for me. It can also be hard for people in the CEO role or the operations role to collaborate, because those people are trained to be the big leader. And so it really is an effort on both sides, and you have to both come to the middle, and if you don’t, then it doesn’t work.

Chris: Well, tell us about a moment of friction where you were like, “We had this particular thing and this is how we solved it.”

Jeni: Oh gosh. I mean it was constant. Just it’s constant, but what’s—

Chris: What are your rules of engagement then? What are some of the ways that you handle it?

Jeni: Well, I guess it depends on what it is. I think that when it comes to marketing and branding, we kind of have some basic ground rules, which would be like if it comes to marketing and branding and she doesn’t agree with me, I win. But if it comes to finance or HR or legal stuff, and I have some questions and maybe I don’t agree with him, she wins, and we leave the room united. It’s just kind of the way it is. But I think that challenging each other is important, and being the type of person who can be challenged and walk away united is the skill, because that’s going to happen all day long.

That’s normal in a company. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to bring your awesomeness in, put all your ideas on your table, put all your concerns on the table, work through them together. And then also you have to decide who’s going to be the ultimate decider of those specific things or whatever it is, and then you have to be OK with that. If something doesn’t work, you change it down the road. You just have to make a decision. So it’s not that big of a deal, I mean really, most of the time.

Finding the right growth strategy for your business

Chris: OK, so you have locations all across the nation, many cities, and that requires a lot of scale. And something I think would be really good for you to kind of speak to is was there a moment that you felt like you were growing too fast or do you think there’s been a really good pace? And if there has been a good pace, what was the secret to not go too fast or too slow?

Jeni: This is always the question, internally too, right? Because we never want to be at a time where we’re not challenged and we’re not pushing ourselves, expanding and growing because that’s what’s fun about what we do. And yet at the same, yes, when you get overextended, that’s no fun either. So finding that sweet spot is really important. In times when we’ve slowed down, we’ve actually done a lot of work on the backend to support growth later. So what we’ll always do, and really, it’s funny because in a way I feel the same about Jeni’s now as I did when we were very small in that I’m still really excited because I’m still being pushed because I’m still expanding because I’m still learning. I think the company feels the same way in a way. So in the early days, opening one new store would’ve been an all-hands-on-deck effort.

And now it’s like if we open 20 locations a year, we can do that. Yes, we’re all working hard. Yes, it’s hard. It’s challenging everyone, but we’re creating these brand new training programs and the things we need to support that. That’s part of the fun we’re having. We’re not opening 75 locations a year, you know what I mean? We are opening what we can open this year and we’re having fun, challenging ourselves and ultimately serving customers and training people. Because one of the things I love the most, and I think we all do at Jeni’s, is working with the young people in our stores, or just the people in our stores. Not that they have to be young, but just people in our stores. I mean, that’s just the most fun thing to do. And I didn’t realize because I’m a nice Midwesterner — generally, not always — the more we almost expect from them or the more we put on, they want to be the experts.

It really blows my mind. It’s so much fun to give them as much information as we can about the ice cream so they can really be telling stories across the counter. And they were the ones who demanded that because I was trying to make it easier for everybody maybe 10 years ago. They’re looking up information themselves and finding out more information about ingredients so they can tell those stories.

So the more we can give them, this is what makes this whole thing fun. Obviously creating those processes and the channels of communication and managing all that stuff is not easy. It’s very complex and we have amazing people, we have a great team, but it’s fun figuring all this stuff out. I mean, it honestly feels like, I don’t know if you were like this when you were a kid, but this is how I played when I was a kid. I love organizing people around this idea. Then we would all get together with a big vision and you just kind of do it. Everybody would do something. I still feel very much like I’m still doing that now.

Chris: Yeah. Well, we’ve talked a lot about building the company. The brand obviously has got a pretty meaningful reputation, it’s well known. The one last thing about the company that I’d really love to know is what made you choose the chain over franchise? Or was it never even a thought?

Jeni: It has been a thought except I would say honestly in our discussions, it’s like nobody would do this. No one’s going to work as hard as we will to do this. Just having our ice cream freezers, the ice cream is on display, and they’re American gravity freezers, so that means they get ice buildup around them. We have to thaw them at least once a week. That is a herculean effort to do. There are just goofy things behind the scenes and we’re like, “Nobody will do that.” And it’s also fun to have control. I mean, to be honest, to have control as we’re building, as we’re learning about this. There are ways, and I’ve actually been kind of excited about the idea of franchising if we really can make it work for the person who’s a franchisee. I’ve been learning from other companies that do it really well and thinking, “Can we actually create an opportunity for someone through this?” So whether we will do this at Jeni’s or not, I don’t know. But it is an interesting model. Just like right now, you see companies that grow and this word “chain” has a bad reputation. Well, for good reason because of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and what happened then. But to actually make a food business work today, you have to have multiple locations to make it work in America.

Chris: To have the margins you need.

Jeni: And you can do it really, really well. You can actually build a company like that and get better as you get bigger. Similarly, I think we can be thinking about franchising in a new way in terms of opportunity, but also in terms of quality and team happiness and all of that. So I don’t know if Jeni’s will do it, but I definitely have put enough thought into it to think that you can create a new model or a new way to think about it that might be very interesting.

Honoring loyalty and community

Chris: Well, you seem to have these employees who want to stick around. So who has been with the company forever and is doing more with the business today?

Jeni: I mean, somebody was just on my Instagram account this morning as I was coming here. She runs a food tour company in Columbus. And every Memorial Day weekend we throw something called Strawberry Jam. It’s basically the beginning of summer when the strawberries are in, and we’ve made strawberry ice cream, and we feature our first batches of strawberry ice cream. So we put it out, we have bakers who show up with strawberry shortcake. We have our local strawberry supplier that grows our strawberries for us. We have a really cool lipstick company that makes Strawberry Jam lipstick. I mean it’s just a really fun little county fair kind of thing.

And this guy, Jacob, came into town for that event. This woman who runs this food tour company direct-messaged me on Instagram. She was like, “I saw Jacob.” And she said, “I remember when he was at the Short North Store”, which was one of our first stores in 2010. Last I heard he was the director of all of our southern locations. I mean, he’s amazing and just a wonderful human being. And he actually started as a customer, as a kid, which was really cool.

Chris: Wow, so this has been a big part of his life.

Jeni: Yeah. And he’s a wonderful human being. I feel like I always say people in our company are great people. We have this very Midwestern spirit. But I also love to tell people that just on the topic of good people, I feel like that’s such an important topic these days. And actually most people are very good at heart, of course, but I always say, get in one of our lines and meet anyone in the line. I do this all the time. Everybody has an amazing story. Just go get in a Jeni’s line and listen to somebody until you find something in common and strike up a conversation with them. You’ll find somebody who’s interesting. But anyway, yeah, I just feel like we are a little world of good people, or let’s say our goodness comes out of us when we’re in Jeni’s.

Chris: Yeah, that’s good.

Jeni: Whoever you are.

Chris: So it’s not that your greatness comes out. It’s your goodness. So the reason I say that is I have to know your opinion of Graeter’s Ice Cream.

Jeni: I am an ice cream lover through and through, and we have so many amazing ice cream companies in Ohio. My first job was at Graeter’s, so I was very, very shy when I was growing up. I moved every year growing up. I was very sick when I was very little. I was just really, really shy. I was so shy that I would throw up on teachers. I did that once, but I was always sick, always nauseous. Yet I knew my first job was going to be at an ice shop. I just sensed it. And Graeter’s was opening in my neighborhood when I moved in with my mother when I was 15. I mean, it was like the stars aligned. So I got the job. I mean, I was bold enough to go get a resume or get an application and apply for it, which I did.

I went to the interview in my vintage, thrifted Lilly Pulitzer dress, I remember. It was very cute. I got the job and I was really nervous the first day of work. And my mother saw me pacing and she said, “You know, Meryl Streep is shy. She’s really shy, and she can put that aside when she’s acting.” So I walked to work that day and thought, “Well, OK, I’ll put on a character. Who’s the best ice cream scooper in the world? What’s that character?” And I started doing that every time I went to work. And I would get there and I would just hone this character.

Through that I found myself, I found where I felt comfortable in the world, and it really wasn’t a character. It was somebody living inside of me who wanted to come out. But because I thought of it as a character, as I went into work, I could put my ego aside, the ego that tries to protect you and keep you back. So it was just this wonderful experience. And I worked with great managers and great people there who taught me a lot. Not about ice cream, unfortunately. Well, no, I mean of course how to scoop ice cream and all that stuff. But they also made it onsite there, and I never got to make it there, so I didn’t steal anything from there or whatever.

Chris: You didn’t get to learn about how to make ice cream there, just the service side.

Jeni: No. But I definitely ate a lot of it. And then this French family opened this French bakery across the parking lot and that was where I wanted to go work after that. When they first opened, they had fresh baguettes twice a day, and they were beautiful. They’re still there. I would go get a hot baguette just out of the wood burning oven, and I would put ice cream on it, and I would eat that sandwich. This is before I even knew they already did this. You do this in Italy on brioche or whatever. But I was like, “Yeah, I’m living large.”

This is why I didn’t like high school, by the way. I didn’t like school at all. I loved the characters I worked with and who I was becoming through work, which is why I love working with our people at Jeni’s.

Chris: OK. So you said earlier, “I don’t ever want to work for somebody again.” So you worked at Graeter’s and you worked at the French bakery. Were those the only jobs you had before becoming an entrepreneur? Did you start Scream right after college?

Jeni: More or less. I mean, I did a lot of babysitting. I was a nanny for a wonderful family who I’m still in touch with. I worked at the library. So after I closed Scream, I went and worked at the library. Actually, my goal was to find the furthest place I could find where no one who knew me from Scream would find me, because it was painful. I mean, I loved it, but I was also burned out and I didn’t want to talk about it.

So I got a job in a youth services department in the library, like a juvenile part of the library, or young adult. I was in the young adult section. Oh my gosh, I loved it so much. I read all the young adult books. I was making recommendations. It was awesome. And people still found me there, which was also funny. But I worked there and actually that was the first place I’d ever had a professional meeting. So all the librarians would gather together at the beginning of the week or whatever. That was the first place I learned how to show up to a meeting. But those are the only jobs I’ve had to this day besides my companies.

Being open to new opportunities

Chris: Well, you’ve spent a lot of time building a company brand, but you also have quite a personal brand as well, for somebody who was so shy and found a persona. Tell us about the cookbooks and your James Beard Award. How did those things happen?

Jeni: Well, for one thing, I had just had a baby —my daughter, Greta, who’ll be 16 this year or this summer. And I was bored because I was at home with her and babies are boring. They don’t do anything. You’re just by yourself. So I needed a project and I’m a doer. I was like, “What if I write a book? What if I try to translate all the things I had learned at the dairy and working in ice cream to a home machine and see if we can make a better recipe for home machines so people can have the same fun I’m having?” And the first thing I did was try to cheat, actually.

I called my friends at The Ohio State University in the Dairy Science department. I had spent a lot of time over there and I was like, “OK, so professor so-and-so, all right, here’s the challenge. Can we make a better home ice cream machine?” Or not a machine, but a recipe for the crappy home ice cream machines than what exists now? Better than the traditional sort of French custard recipe? And he was like, “Hmm, no, you can’t. It’s impossible.” And I was like, “Oh, come on, come on.”

Chris: There was no “Challenge accepted”. He was like, “No.”

Jeni: He was straight up, no. So I said, “OK.” I put Greta on my back and went into my kitchen and had ice cream machines going all day long. I was using the same science or the same techniques I had discovered in the dairy, such as to cook the milk and cream together, then you sort of denature the proteins and they almost act like egg yolks in the way they come together with water. Water’s your enemy in ice cream.

It’s a chemistry equation. But I was thinking like a molecule, “So how do I tie up the water so that in this home machine and in the limitations of a home kitchen, we can get a scoopable American hard-body ice cream that’s harder, that can scoop pretty much right out of your freezer, but also that’s stable enough that you can make different kinds of flavors and not have to worry about the recipe breaking. And over time, over a few months with Greta there with me, I made it. I figured it out and I was really excited. I still gave Ohio State credit though, because I went back and said, “Well then, OK, here’s my thesis on milk proteins that I figured out at the dairy and also from working at my stove. Will you please just tell me if this is true or not?”

They don’t like to give you information, they want you to work for it, which is actually great. And I did. And he was like, “Yes, you are correct about your milk proteins.” So I said, “OK, cool.” That was awesome.

That was in Food & Wine magazine. That was a three-page spread. And then it led to the book. The funny thing about the book was I ended up with this incredible publisher, Artisan, and they published Thomas Keller and some of the top chefs — they only do 12 cookbooks a year. They keep their books for years and years. It’s not just like they put out books and then whatever doesn’t sell, they stop publishing them. So they’re an amazing company, but the book had gone to auction and they were one of the lowest bidders, but I wanted to be with them. So I did something unheard of in this process. It’s that I chose them even though they were the lowest bidder because I loved them. And I thought for an Ohio girl who wants to do a book, we want to be with Thomas Keller’s publisher.

So they were like, “Oh my God, that’s so cute. That’s so sweet. That’s so wonderful.” And I think they were like, “Whatever, we got a good deal in this book. Go do whatever you want, honey.” So I went and I wrote the book, and I did the book, and we designed the book. We did the art and illustration with two young women who I’d actually worked with at the library. We photographed it, did everything. And when it came time to apply for the James Beard Foundation Award, I was like, “You guys are going to turn it in, right?” She said, “Yeah, don’t worry about it.” Well actually first we were published and it was on The New York Times bestseller list twice, and she was like, “Oh, Jeni, what the heck?” And I said, “Well, we wrote a book for people, to make it easier for people to make ice cream, of course they want it. This isn’t just an ego book. This actually worked.” Then she laughed when I said, “You’re going to put it on the James Beard nominee list. Yeah, here, fill out a form or whatever.” And she said, “Don’t worry. We’ll do it.” But kind of like, “You know, whatever.”

Chris: Don’t get your hopes up.

Jeni: Yeah. Well, then we were nominated. The book was nominated. And the two other books in the category were these massive, gorgeous baking books and a massive, gorgeous chocolate book. These life books, massive books. And then there was my little book. She said, “Jeni, you don’t have to come. You’re nominated, but you don’t have to come. We’ll be there. Don’t worry. If you get it, we’ll accept it for you.” And I said, “I will be there.”

Chris: Yeah. You’re like, “Hell no.”

Jeni: Why would I not be there? Why do people talk down to Ohioans, right? I mean, anyone in the middle of the country, people just talk down to, and it’s just so infuriating. They don’t realize they’re doing it.

So I said, “No, I’m coming.” So I came, and they made room for me at the table and we won. And in a weird way, I kind of knew it. I kind of knew it because it was such a book that was such a... I think if you think in terms of gifts, if you give service and art, those are gifts that you give to the world. And as gifts, they’re not transactional. They come back to you. When you really give something to the world, it comes back. And if you really think about just taking all your ego out and just putting something beautiful out, whether it’s ice cream or whatever it is, it just keeps going. Yeah, it was a cool experience.

Creating the change you want to see in the world

Chris: That is a cool experience. It’s a remarkable story. And as for the whole giving thing, you’ve spent a lot of time giving back. I think it’d be really good to know how you think about ingredients, and why you do fair trade. And what are some of the things you’ve done to impact society? Just help everybody see a little bit of the picture of how you give back.

Jeni: Well, and I also have a thought about it in the way that it feels good to do that. So for me, and for us at Jeni’s, and me as a human being, it doesn’t feel good to be the person who lets everybody else do stuff. If I want to live in a community I want to be a certain way, I have to work for that. To earn it, I have to earn it. I have to go and do that. Otherwise, somebody else is going to build the community for me and it’s going to be their work. And maybe I like it or maybe I don’t. But you have to get off your chair and help, and have a vision. And also be able to compromise and help, but not demand too much.

But I feel like in raising a business, it’s funny because you really just raise the business you want to work at. And in a way, it becomes this selfish thing, in a way, this pleasure thing. You’re like, “I want to work at a business where we work directly with growers and where they get paid fairly, the same way we would pay a fair trade grower in Uganda to grow vanilla beans for us, because local fair trade is also complicated. And I want to work at a business where we pay people a living wage. I don’t actually want to work at a business where we question whether we pay people a working wage or a living wage. I want to work at a place where we challenge ourselves to be zero waste if we can.” Those are the places where I want to work. And that’s what everybody else feels at Jeni’s. And really, so sort of selfishly, it means we attract the best people to work for us.

So, can we make an ecosystem or a world where we all just feel good, where we all feel like we belong, everyone in it? And those go back to values. In a way, when you say giving back or whatever, you’re like, “I don’t know. We build the world that we want to see. We’re just doing it.”

Chris: Be the change.

Jeni: Be the change. Exactly. It feels really good to do that. So there’s this weird selfish thing about it too. It feels much better to be connected. And then you read these longevity studies and they’re like, “Well, the people who live the longest are the ones who are the most involved in their community.” And you’re like, “Well, yeah, because it feels really good to do that, to not be isolated.” And I moved every year growing up, so I never had a community. So I think that’s one of the reasons it was always very important to me.

Chris: It’s something you were on the outside of and then you could be on the inside of it and be a part of it now. That’s awesome. Well, what’s next for Jeni Britton?

Jeni: Well, I’m writing a book and I am still trying to figure it out, but I’m having so much fun with it and being very creative with it and letting it go because I have had this very long life. I don’t know, I feel like I hope that story will inspire young people that no matter where you are in America, you can be anything or do anything you want to do.

So I’m trying to put my mind on that a little bit. Jeni’s is going to continue making amazing flavors and learning about people and growing and seeing people and making people feel loved, activated, and inspired and doing art and all the things we do. Obviously, I’m there as a support. We have a new CEO. She’s incredible. Our team is incredible. So I just applaud them and let them call me when they need me. And I’m always like, “Do you guys need me today?”

Chris: Not yet.

Jeni: Yes, exactly. They’re like, “Jeni.” Because I can be a little bit disruptive. I totally admit that at this point. I like change. I like tweaking things better.

Chris: I like change.

Jeni: I will say that one place I work a lot in is encouraging people. I help emerging entrepreneurs grow and start. I feel like that’s a place where I will probably spend the rest of my life — as a champion of small business, especially for women and people of color, because I see that as the way to really build a country of equality over time.

Rapid-fire questions

Chris: That’s powerful. Well, we’re glad you came here to help our listeners. And you’ve answered a lot of my big questions, my long questions, but I have some rapid-fire questions for you now.

All right, if your personality was a flavor, which one would it be?

Jeni: Salty caramel. I don’t know. It’s like caramel is a Midwestern and American thing. It’s really buttery and smooth and lush and yummy and voluptuous and all that. But it’s also salty, so I think that’s fair.

Chris: A little salty.

Jeni: There’s a little salt in that.

Chris: Well, speaking of salty, are you a morning person or a night owl?

Jeni: Both. Can you be both?

Chris: Always.

Jeni: Probably I’m more of a night owl, but I do go to bed very early. I’m a sleep farmer. I feel like I’m all about sleep. I like sleeping a lot.

Chris: OK. Cup or cone?

Jeni: Definitely a cone. And I make ice creams to be eaten off of a cone. A cone pulls you into the moment, it makes you a little bit vulnerable. And it has this weird magic of extending time. So you can actually slow time. This is for a different podcast. But you can slow time when you’re eating ice cream on a cone because you are present with it. And when you’re present with that, you’re eating it, you’re tasting it, you’re more into it and you’re more into the person you’re with. But also, you might get ice cream on you, so you have to be a little vulnerable, which makes you a little—

Chris: It’s immersive.

Jeni: Yeah. You can just put a cup down. What’s fun about that? Just my opinion. You can do whatever you want.

Chris: I’ve been a cup person. I think I’m making a switch.

Jeni: If I convince one person a day, that’ll be good.

Chris: You did. I’m going to give it a shot. All my kids do cones and I’m like, “What are you doing, guys?”

Jeni: Ice cream is made to be licked.

Chris: All right, I’m going to make that happen. What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Jeni: Best advice I’ve ever received.

Chris: You can also say, what is the most memorable advice you can remember right now?

Jeni: Oh my God. I know, exactly. Well, I don’t know. Gosh, I think the best advice... there’s been so much, but also I’m not one to take advice usually because people just do give it to you a lot.

Chris: We’re learning so many things about you.

Jeni: I know. But this one guy, he was like, “Never burn bridges. You just never burn bridges.” And he was kind of a jerk. He kind of screwed us after we worked with him for a while, and he was kind of one of those guys who loved to say things like that, but to make him look good when he was not doing very nice things. So I was like, “OK, well sometimes you have to burn bridges.” And that was my advice. OK, his advice is don’t burn bridges ever. But actually, I’ve learned sometimes it’s fully OK to burn it down and walk away.

Chris: There is a kind way to do that too. You don’t have to annihilate it or send a nuclear device on it. You can always just go, you know what my boundary is? I’m not going back on the bridge and I’m going to burn it.

Jeni: Yes. You can just ghost the bridge or whatever. But I do think it’s important as nice Midwesterners, nice, middle-of-the-country people, sometimes we feel we have to be everything to everybody and make everybody happy. And actually, one of the best things I’ve learned is, no, you don’t. And if you don’t protect your community, you lose it. So you have to protect it.

Chris: That’s good. What’s one of your biggest passions outside of work?

Jeni: Oh, my biggest passion by far is just atomizing in the forest. Just being in the forest and just disappearing totally. I did this when I was a kid. I do it now. As much time as I can possibly spend in the forest everyday.

Chris: I can just imagine you under a bunch of leaves.

Jeni: That is definitely me.

Chris: Disappearing in the camouflage.

Jeni: All season. Doesn’t matter if it’s icy or what is out there. Yesterday, I was running down a mountain in Utah because I was imagining there was this massive storm coming in. And there was, but also I was imagining it was much bigger than it was. It took me 45 minutes to get up the mountain. I was like, “I’ve got to get down the mountain as fast as I can.” So I charged down. But I felt like the whole mountain rose up inside of me. I went down the mountain in nine minutes and over creeks and it was just the best fun.

Chris: Exhilarating.

Jeni: Yeah.

Chris: What’s the most hilarious or memorable mistake you’ve made in your business, and what’d you learn?

Jeni: Oh my God, this is actually really funny. Chagrin Falls is a wonderful little town in north Ohio, outside of Cleveland. It’s an idyllic little town. They have a hardware store that’s been there for 150 years or something and it’s just the perfect hardware store. Everything’s perfect about this town. And one year, me being artsy, but still, this is at Jeni’s, and this was not that long ago. It was 10 years ago-ish. We had the holidays and I guess I was depressed or something that holiday season. I was just not having a great holiday. And I said, "Not everybody wants to be elves and have the joy of the holidays. Some people are not there. So let’s make ice creams that are for a dark holiday, ice creams that are amazing and that evoke the weight of time.” So cumin, honey, butterscotch and cedarwood.

It was beautiful. The flavors were great. Black forest cake. But then the store decor was paper chains, you know what you would make with multiple sheets of colored paper?

But black and craft, you know?

It looked like a dungeon. And the women of Chagrin Falls came in. I got a call and they were like, “Yeah, no. No, we’re putting Christmas trees in your shop. Whatever you’re doing here is a no.” And I got the call and they’re like, “Is it OK if they put the Christmas trees in here?” And I realized how stupid I had been. The holidays are something we all need. We need it even if it’s not perfect because it’s a marker of time, it’s a marker of community. I just thought it was hilarious that we even did that.

Chris: Went in that direction. That was the true artist coming out.

Jeni: It was just goofy and embarrassing and funny. The best.

Chris: Those are the best. Well, what’s a guilty pleasure people would be surprised to know about you?

Jeni: I drive fast. I mean, too fast. I love to race. I love to race on the regular street. And in fact, I had to get a driving coach and start going to the track because I was just like, I can’t do that on the street anymore. It’s not good. It’s not good for anybody. I have a modded out car and I have done racing. I flew in a tiny plane to Indiana last summer. We raced Camaros in Autocross, but always came in last. I’m terrible at it.

I’m a very calm person. But when you build a company, you’re just flooded with adrenaline. And it takes a long time for that adrenaline to get out of your body. You have to figure out how to soak it up somehow. So I work with veterans because they have the same problem. And we get out on the track and go fast and it just redirects the adrenaline so you’re not in fight-or-flight anymore. But yeah, it’s a thing.

Chris: Well, I have to say, Jeni, the belief system you have, the belief in yourself, the belief in people, it really is that effervescence I was talking about earlier in the conversation. It’s really powerful. It’s palpable. And it’s something that is really inspiring. I hope everybody who watches and listens to this reinvests into the things they are doing and reevaluates them based on really just the way you just challenged us. So I just want to say thank you for coming and thank you for being a part of The Entrepreneur’s Studio.

Jeni: Well, thank you so much and thanks for just inviting me to Oklahoma City. I love it so much here. And it’s just been so much fun to have this conversation.

Chris: So good. Until next time.

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