Did you know that ice cream wasn’t what Ben and Jerry planned to sell when they first got their start? And that the chunks are there for a really interesting reason?
Being from New York, Cohen and Greenfield’s first impulse was to open a bagel shop. The necessary equipment was too expensive, however, so they settled on less-expensive ice cream instead.
The duo got all the training they needed from a $5 correspondence course from Penn State.
In order to figure out where to open their ice cream shop, they had two criteria. One, it had to be a college town, and two, there had to be no pre-existing ice cream shop there. After doing some research they settled on Burlington, VT, which had no ice cream shop and was the home of University of Vermont. The only thing going against it? The winters were brutal. They took a risk, though, and it paid off.
With a $12,000 investment ($4,000 of it borrowed), they opened their first shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington. The first winter was so brutal that once spring rolled around they celebrated their anniversary by giving everyone who visited a free scoop, a tradition that’s still in practice today.
Cohen has what’s called anosmia, meaning that his sense of smell is nearly non-existent. This also seriously affected his sense of taste, so for him it was all about the texture. That super-creamy mouthfeel, and the addition of all those satisfying chunks? Those were indicators that told Ben that they were on the right track.
During the company’s big expansion in the 1980s, competing Häagen-Dazs (owned by Pillsbury) wanted to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s in the Boston area. Not only did Ben & Jerry’s sue, they also launched a major national marketing campaign, asking “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”, resulting in great publicity for Ben & Jerry’s and a PR nightmare for Häagen-Dazs, who lost the case.
Since 1982, the brownies used in their Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Half Baked flavors have come from Yonkers-based Greyston Bakery, a social enterprise that employs everyone who applies for a job, no questions asked. It’s helped hundreds of people who face barriers to unemployment get back on their feet, providing employment and training to 181 people in 2012 alone.
In 2000, the company was sold to the multinational food giant Unilever, who have taken more or less a hands-off approach. Greenfield and Cohen were able to retire and no longer are involved with the company in an official capacity, but they’re still familiar fixtures around the Burlington headquarters.
If you visit the factory in Vermont, be sure you visit the Flavor Graveyard, where dozens of flavors have been “laid to rest” over the years, complete with headstones and witty epitaphs.
Cohen and Greenfield have always been open about their left-leaning politics, which has gotten them in hot water with conservative groups from time to time. They’ve aligned themselves with a pro-reef campaign in Australia, and offended some folks when they released a “Black and Tan” flavor, included fortune cookie pieces in its “Taste the Lin-Sanity” flavor, and released a “Schweddy Balls” flavor, a play on Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live character that offended some family values groups.
Ben & Jerry’s may have a great sense of humor, but they take their product extremely seriously. Aside from Greyston, they support mandatory GMO labeling, they responsibly source their ingredients and follow fair trade practices, use green production and packaging, and all in all are one of the most responsible companies on the planet.