Jeni Britton Bauer: Renegade Ice Cream Rock Star

Drink Features Ice Cream

As a child growing up between Peoria, Ill., and Columbus, Ohio, ice cream artisan Jeni Britton Bauer was often told by her grandfather to go her own way. He would say it when she fought with her sister or when she tore off on her three-wheeler blaring Judas Priest. Don’t worry about other people—just go your own way, he would say.

Those four words evolved into a perpetual mantra for the lauded dessert creator. Jeni used them as a foundation for making art that’s been called the best ice cream in America, distributed as Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. “Connecting food and flavor experiences with art is the same to me,” Bauer says. “Layering ice cream is no different to layering in music or painting or writing poetry. It’s a multi-layered sensory experience with emotion.”

Music specifically plays a key role in production, with styles and artists setting the rhythm for kitchen duties. Schubert’s cozy symphonies are perfect for roasting almonds and marshmallows whereas Madonna keeps the summer garden flavors bumping. But Jeni prefers the company of a certain red headed stranger the most. “I like Willy Nelson when I’m working—he’s like a friend. I like to be alone when I’m working, so having Willy Nelson on helps me feel like I’m alone but not alone. It’s inspiring.”

Unsurprisingly, this unique approach has positioned the thirtysomething entrepreneur as an oddity in the culinary world. She exclusively works with small batch producers to make a local product that includes the best ingredients from the world over, refuting the plastic, chemical logistics that her competitors use to cut corners. Media outlets ranging from USA Today, The New York Times and The Food Network have even taken notice of her upstart operation, calling her ice cream the best in the nation. And to solidify her spot in the foodie hall of fame, she also took home a James Beard Award last month for her book of home recipes. She’s passionate, driven, and—unsurprising for an ex-art student who used to sport pink hair—more than a little rock ’n’ roll. And as her grandfather advised, she did it all by going her own way.

In person, Bauer is warm and approachable, belying 16 years of cozy kitchen hospitality. Her eyes smile behind oversized Gregory Peck glasses perched on soft features. She talks about ice cream and Jesus Christ Superstar in excited spasms that trail together into a verbal train speeding past subjects. She emits a passionate Midwestern charm that once persuaded current CEO John Lowe to register the company LLC for a pint of Sweet Corn and Blackberries ice cream. Beside her desk lie a stack of promotional poster boards adorned with watercolor hot fudge Sundaes, each punctuated with blood-red maraschino cherries. These are also a direct product of Bauer’s hands, echoing her time as a Fine Arts Major before dropping out to start boutique ice cream shop when she was 22. “All my stuff is very messy and fast. That’s where I ended my education, in quick drawings. I just have a messy quality to it.” The prints swim in veins of black ink and translucent color, not unlike Shel Silverstein’s winding line work.

Bauer’s messy approach also applies to concocting her infamous ice cream delicacies—though “inventive,” “explorative” and “adventurous” might be better descriptors. Instead of sticking to legacy flavors like chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, Bauer uses her Columbus test kitchen as an R&D lab to create gastronomic delights culled from the entire food pyramid. Some current flavors include Wildberry Lavender; Whiskey & Pecans; Goat Cheese with Red Cherries; and Wheatgrass, Pear & Vinho Verdo Sorbet. The tastes tumble from sweet to savory to earthy to ornate, and, in the case of the magnificent Cayenne pepper-laced Bangkok peanut, insidiously spicy. New collections are released every season and occasionally between, reflecting the crops of local farmers and new bakery creations. Out of every five ideas for a flavor, approximately one survives and takes 16 weeks to produce from inception to digestion. There is one common denominator among all of these products, which also include retro yogurt pushups and various pastries: They’re all euphorically delicious.

Even during her first venture, the aptly titled Scream, Bauer employed a Willy Wonka sense of innovation to her craft, merging dairy with deviant components like fish and bacon. “My first salmon sorbet was actually served in a summer cold soup. You think of keeping a smoked salmon on ice and keeping it cold, and it was really good. Even though I’m so sick of it, the bacon ice cream, which we made in 2002, caught on, and people loved it. I decided not to put it in our shop, because I felt having meat with the ice cream would turn people away. But for a long time it was one of the most popular things we did.”

Exotic gourmet flavors only hint at what makes the Jeni brand so exceptional, though. At its core, the company embraces a global family of organic growers and natural ingredients that create both superior taste and an inspired community. The ice cream starts with cream taken from grass-fed cows raised in the verdant hills of South Eastern Ohio.

“Starting with raw milk is important, specifically boutique, high-quality milk that tastes like cream. This is what separates us from everyone else that I know of in the ice cream world. And from there it’s the way we pasteurize it: low temperature over two hours. It’s a complicated process, but we make ice cream the way cheese makers make cheese. We work with the proteins to create body and smoothness in the ice creams.”

The striking flavors come from ingredients culled from distinguished mom-and-pop producers continents away. Vanilla beans are imported from the Nidali Estates in Uganda, chocolate comes from small-batch manufacturer Shawn Askinosie with beans in Philippines, Honduras, Tanzania and Ecuador, and the retired Rockmill Ale and Apricots used its tasty namesake beer produced one town over in Lancaster, Ohio, in its heady mix of sweet citrus and thick brew. True to their names, when a seasonal crop runs out, so does its namesake ice cream, creating a rolling calendar of migrating treats mirroring the agriculture outside. Bauer is currently exploring wine from South France, olive oil from Sicily and European sea salt companies for future flavors.

Creating a refined “glocal” network and securing its goods results in steeper costs that reflect a higher price tag (pints can be purchased at $12), but the alternative of manufactured milk powder, gums and stabilizers makes Jeni cringe. “People don’t understand the true cost of food right now. They don’t understand what it takes for a dairy farmer to make a living, because it’s all subsidized. People don’t know what it costs to feed a cow, get the milk from it, and care for it. We’re making ice cream out of ingredients that you can trace back to a field, and not just flavorings.”

And as Bauer will tell you repeatedly, emotion is as much an ingredient as the Ugandan vanilla beans. Most of this is expressed through the pure nostalgia she pumps into each seasonal collection. Having grown up in a rural patch of country with three gardens and an orchard, Bauer’s childhood backyard was a virtual pantry. “We had orchards, and all the blueberries, strawberries and berries we needed for the entire year, so we would eat them frozen all year long, but we would also make jam. We also grew a load of vegetables, too.” These ingredients would make their way into bowls of ice cream consumed nightly before bedtime, serving as the inspiration for Jeni’s fresh rotation of flavors plucked right from the garden.

Unsurprisingly, Jeni is far from alone in the competitive landscape, with loads of imitators coming out of the woodwork to try to replicate her signature magic. Although some flavor cloning might be expected, corporations have gone so far as to copy the stools, labels and light fixtures of her stores verbatim. Increased media exposure has only fanned the flames.

“They’re getting more numerous. People think we’re making hand over fist here, and the truth is it’s incredibly difficult. If we didn’t have this punk rock drive to it, this isn’t the right business to be in. It’s not about the money. For people who imitate, it is about the money. They’re going to learn pretty quickly that if you want to be in this business because you think it’s a cash cow, you’re going to have a huge let down. It’s incredibly difficult. We’re all in, even if it hurts.”

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