When Jeni Britton Bauer first founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002, the landscape of ice cream looked a bit different. Artisanal ice cream shops, where ingredients were lovingly and specially sourced from high-quality vendors and flavors went beyond the scope of mint chocolate chip and rocky road, were few and far between.
Instead, Bauer tells Yahoo Life, customers had a choice between “these nostalgic ice cream shops, or Ben & Jerry’s and Cold Stone Creamery,” where fishing for chunks of cookie dough and other mix-ins was the focal point in lieu of the taste of the ice cream surrounding them.
Bauer, a longtime ice cream maker whose first shop Scream opened in 1996, swears she is a fan of these shops, too. Yet when it came to creating a new ice cream brand, she saw something lacking in the space that she wanted to fill. If the ice cream experience was to continue to be a symbol of classic Americana, maybe it was time to shake things up and to have a new crowd find a way to really appreciate ice cream.
“We really started with this idea of like, well, what about people on dates, who want to have a little bit more fun?” Bauer continues, “What about my generation, who wants to go hang out and have a conversation, have something to do? I don’t want to go to an old-fashioned place that seems to have old-fashioned values.”
There is nothing old-fashioned about Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Bauer’s shops — of which there are more than 50 nationally — are always Instagrammable, with a stark white aesthetic offset by green plants and bright orange text. Those picking up a pint can also bring home a bit of that sunshine. Each is brightly colored, with a hand-painted quality — pretty enough to display, if only the ice cream wouldn’t melt in the process. Naturally, the loopy “Jeni’s” signature is printed on each one.
These artistic details — created by Bauer alongside her team, who works on the flavors as well as the design of the brand — have made Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams stand out, even as the artisanal ice cream market has gotten more and more crowded over the years. To go to Jeni’s is an experience in itself, one that transcends grabbing a cone at a chain.
Bauer describes that experience with the reverence one might expect from a woman who has put her heart and soul into making ice cream for more than two decades.
“You stand in line, you talk about the flavor, you get your taste,” she says. “You go on a walk after you get your cone. You can really learn a lot about a person doing that, whether it’s your child, or your buddy, or your potential lover. I’ve been making ice cream forever and I really think it’s the perfect date because you really share a little bit about yourself with someone. You share your likes, your preferences with somebody with what you order. ”
Of course, a cute store front and designed pints mean nothing without cravable, intriguing flavors. There’s no gimmick at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams — the ice cream, which customers can smell in the air halfway down the block from a scoop shop, is really that good.
The flavors, crafted by finding the best of the best ingredients (the company making the smoothest peanut butters, the grass-fed cows providing the highest-quality milk) are elevated versions of familiar staples. For java lovers, there’s the Cold Brew with Coconut Cream — and it’s dairy-free. There’s Raspberry Rose Jelly Donut for those seeking a fruity kick, and Blackout Chocolate Cake for a rich treat perfect for chocoholics.
This summer, Jeni’s is trying something new — or, rather, a blend of the new and the nostalgic. Its Ice Cream Truck collection boasts five new pints: Orange Freeze, Rocket Pop, Mango Cheesecake Swirl, High Five Bar and Golden Nectar. The flavors were inspired by a simple question: What would an ice cream truck from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams feature?
“It wouldn’t be the same as when you were a kid,” Bauer explains. “But we wanted those moments of discovery, like you were a kid at an ice cream truck. One of the new flavors is Golden Nectar, which we describe but we don’t say what’s actually in it. I sort of like that. When you’re a kid, you may get a novelty treat from an ice cream truck. It has all this branding but you don’t know what it is. No one knows what the Spongebob Squarepants popsicle tastes like.”
Other flavors in the collection are easier to put one’s finger on — but with a classic Jeni’s twist.
“It’s like, ‘What are we nostalgic for? How can we do it a little differently?’” Bauer muses. “We have the Orange Freeze, which is like an Orange Julius. It’s a non-dairy dessert. It’s coconut cream and delicious. It’s the best sherbet combination you can have."
The High Five Candy Bar flavor was inspired by the Take 5 bar, with pretzels, chocolate and plenty of caramelized sugar.
“I knew that I wanted to make an ice cream that was kind of like that,” she says of the new flavor. “It was a playful, indulgent thing to do.”
Whether these flavors go viral remains to be seen, but Bauer is no stranger to innovative ice cream creations. She is, after all, the woman behind surprising hits like Everything Bagel Ice Cream. Bauer swears the schmear-inspired flavor was not about the novelty, despite featuring not so classic ice cream ingredients.
“We were a little nervous because it does have onion and garlic in it, pretty heavily,” she explains. “But when we reduced it, we didn’t love it anymore. We just didn’t know if people would know what to do with it.”
The answer was, they would dig in with a spoon.
“People freaked out,” she says. “Some ate the entire pint.”
Bauer has leaned into the unexpected before, working with Tyler, the Creator on different ice cream collaborations. The passion of the Igor rapper, now 30, is only more evidence that Bauer’s decision to appeal to a more millennial audience had worked.
“When I talked to him for the first time he had recited stuff I had wrote about our ice cream, and he was like, ‘It’s like poetry.’ I was like, ‘Tyler, I wrote that, that’s what I do,’” she shares. “I flew out there the next week with ice cream samples so I could find something he loved.”
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams doesn’t pay for collaborations — they just work with people who love their ice cream. A collaboration with Dolly Parton with the flavor Strawberry Pretzel Pie — inspired by the so-called “salad” popular in the South and Midwest — nearly broke the internet, or at least, Jeni's website. The company sold more than 5,000 pints in three minutes. After they were fresh out, pints appeared on eBay for up to $1,000.
“I think it was working with Dolly that made the flavor such a success, but I also think it was the flavor itself,” says Bauer. “People really want that salty, sweet, American thing.”
As for what’s next? Expect the familiar mixed with the new.
“Everything we do is pulling a little bit of nostalgia,” the ice cream maker explains. “We don’t want to do something you’ve never heard of now, though in my earlier days, I would have done a little more of that. We all come to the ice cream shop because we want to feel something — and most of the time it’s because of something we have in our memory.”
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