Jeni Britton Bauer’s Quest for Better Ice Cream
Los Angeles, California

Jeni Britton Bauer’s Quest for Better Ice Cream

You know it’s going to be a good day when it starts off with ice cream.

As I stand inside the Los Feliz location of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams before opening hours—the white plastered walls reflecting the morning light yet to be disturbed by customers waiting for a cup or cone—I feel the kid in me begin to beam. Ice cream does that to me.

Shop workers are busy readying supplies and organizing spoons, cups and napkins. Glass displays are wiped down, removing fingerprints varying in size. Flavor cards are centered inside their wooden holders. Picture frames are straightened. Streams of batter—expertly squeezed onto waffle makers and pressed into honeycomb patterns—are cooked to perfection, their sugar-scented steam permeating the space around us. Hands carefully mold the fresh waffle wafers into cones; they will sit patiently on the shelf, waiting for their scoops. The busy worker bees are in motion, preparing the ice cream hive for their queen’s arrival. And within a few minutes, with her infectious smile and vibrant personality, Jeni Britton Bauer makes her appearance.

For the past 20 years, Bauer has immersed herself in this frozen wonderland, weaving her love of scent—and passion for flavor—into delicious emulsions. She paved the way for today’s artisan ice cream scene, her creative vision the blueprint for many newcomers on the block. As a New York Times best-selling and James Beard Award winning author, Bauer has become the authority on homemade ice cream. With 23 Jeni’s locations in the U.S., her business prowess goes deeper than just a pint.

As we settle into our spots atop bright orange stools, Bauer delves into her history. “I’m very into my sense of smell,” she explains. “I wanted to become a nose—somebody who understands how to build scent and understands the emotional part of it.” With her background as an art history major and a hobbyist perfumer, it’s no surprise Bauer views creating ice creams as creative expression. Her experimentation with blending scents and oils to recreate childhood memories sparked the idea to bring that chemistry into ice cream. Bauer’s first concoction came to fruition in 1995 when she mixed the oil of cayenne into her ice cream base, giving the frozen emulsion a unique mixture of cold and hot. “People were not eating spicy ice cream back then. Nobody was doing it,” she says. “That was my first flavor.”

Her keen sense of smell has guided her to create a multitude of distinctive flavor pairings. Goat cheese with red cherries, sweet corn and black raspberries, ylang ylang and fennel, and sweet cream biscuits and peach jam are just some of the flavors you can sink your spoon into. Bauer’s years of success at combining scents and flavors caught the attention of Estée Lauder this past summer, when the beauty house approached her to make an edible version of their iconic perfume, Bronze Goddess. Dark sweet cherries—cold-poached in a brew of sugar, peach liqueur, lemon juice and orange blossom water—are drizzled over Jeni’s Salty Caramel ice cream, then topped with toasted coconut flakes and a generous dollop of honey-whipped cream, each layered flavor representing notes in the corresponding fragrance.

Bauer’s business sense and tenacity for work stems from her childhood. “My grandmother used to say ‘If you can’t find a job, make a job.’ So growing up, I had a lot of businesses because I always wanted to work. I’d just find things to do and get paid for it,” Bauer says with a laugh. Ice cream was no different; her first shop, Scream, opened in 1996. “It was just me in a 400-square-foot spot,” says Bauer. “That’s where I made the ice cream, where I sourced ingredients from the market, and served them over the counter.” She closed her business in 2000, taking a break to refocus and also attend Penn State’s Ice Cream Short Course. Staying true to her entrepreneur spirit, Bauer forged a new business plan and opened the first Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams shop in 2002, in Columbus, Ohio’s North Market.

Money wasn’t exactly pouring in at the start of her business. “I had no money. My family didn’t have any money. I wasn’t getting any money from anyone. So I’ve always had to rely on other people,” says Bauer. “What I didn’t know was how many expert people—who are experts in what they do, whether it’s finance or farming—I would need to help us tell our stories.”

She learned a considerable amount during those early days, knowledge that has stuck with her over the years. “Your brain, your brawn, and your friends—those are things that you have. Money is only one of those resources. Then you’ve got your network of friends, your own ideas, and then just muscle.” With 650 employees and a host of vendors, Jeni’s relies on an army of ice cream allies every day. “Our strawberry growers, our popcorn makers, our peach farmers—we’re this community of people,” says Bauer.

Her vision of building better ice cream and bringing people together is the foundation of Bauer’s business. She’s tackled this head-on by using super-fresh dairy from grass-pastured, Ohio cows—sourced by Smith’s, a 110-year-old dairy in Orrville—and by sourcing whole ingredients that are often grown specifically for Jeni’s. It’s also through the relationships she’s fostered along the way in order to keep her quality standards at optimum levels. “I didn’t realize it would take 20 years to get to this place,” Bauer says with a laugh. “I thought how hard could this be? It’s ice cream.” Building a superior ice cream is no easy feat. Change is constant, especially if you’re in the search of better, which is Bauer’s moto. Better recipes, better kitchens, better branding—better everything. “When I started, I thought this is what ice cream is going to be in the future—it’s going to be better dairy and all these things,” says Bauer. “That whole idea we’re only now being able to recognize, and that was 20 years ago. And that’s because of all these interesting challenges.”

Bauer doesn’t just talk the talk; she walks it. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is a Certified B Corporation—a for-profit company that is certified by the international nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency—a badge Bauer wears with pride. Utilizing Direct Trade ingredients, embracing diversity in the workplace, and partnering with women- and minority-owned businesses are all integral components to both the company and its culture. “Business is the fastest way to social change. Building a good business with a good group of people and giving back to our communities, brings change,” explains Bauer. “From the very beginning, we put people in place to grow our business this way. That wasn’t how it was done back in the day. Reversing that shift is very difficult for big companies right now; they can’t become a company that just changes on a dime. But we’ve done this from the beginning.”

When you’re considered a trailblazer in your industry, the responsibility to keep pushing the bar higher is thrust upon you. Not just for competition’s sake, but to continually inspire—and ultimately shift—the industry in a more advanced direction. “What we have right now is a whole different world, and it’s amazing. I think food is moving in a new direction,” says Bauer. “Take the values of the artisanal food world—community, communication, quality, craftsmanship—and combine them with collaboration, logistics and technology. And we’re contributing to that, not only in what ice cream looks like, but we’re showing people how to grow a company with safety standards, quality standards and community standards that are absolutely in line with 21st century thinking.”


Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
1954 Hillhurst Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027

Comments are for members only.

Our comments section is for members only.
Join today to gain exclusive access.

This story is on the house.

Life & Thyme is a different kind of food publication: we're reader-first and member-funded. That means we can focus on quality food journalism that matters instead of content that serves better ads. By becoming a member, you'll gain full uninterrupted access to our food journalism and be a part of a growing community that celebrates thought-provoking food stories.

The Editor's Note

Sign up for The Editor's Note to receive the latest updates from Life & Thyme and exclusive letters from our editors. Delivered every weekend.