The innovative and often unusual flavors offered at 10-unit Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams can inspire a variety of reactions.
Customers are often surprised, curious or even skeptical when they see exotic ice cream flavors like Bangkok Peanut or Lime Cardamom; savory touches like cayenne pepper, rosemary or goat cheese; or seasonal combinations like sweet corn and blackberries.
Robin Davis, food editor of The Columbus Dispatch, who has followed the chain for years, said she first thought Jeni’s unique flavors were “very odd,” but quickly found two other words to describe the product: “very delicious.”
That’s been the consensus of the brand’s passionate fans in Ohio since the chain’s founder, Jeni Britton Bauer, began selling her artisan ice creams in 1996 from a stall at an indoor food market in Columbus, where she incorporated neighboring merchants’ artisan products.
Since then, the operation — rebranded as Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 — has grown to include 10 stores in Columbus and Nashville, Tenn., a fleet of five trucks, a presence in 700 grocery stores and an online retail shop.
The secret to the brand’s success is Britton Bauer’s near obsession with creating the best-tasting ice cream possible, said chief executive John Lowe. That kind of quality comes from sourcing the best ingredients and cultivating relationships with the farmers and producers, he added. The brand uses cream exclusively from grass-fed cows from an Ohio dairy, and many of the ingredients — including strawberries and corn — come from within Ohio.
“[We’re] doing it in a way that is unparalleled,” Lowe said. “No one else is using grass-fed cream from a dairy two hours away. We’ve got people standing over large pots of sugar making caramel. We’re taking corn from Ohio farmers and [shucking it] ourselves. We’re taking the green off of strawberries and roasting them. We’re doing it the right way, and you can taste it.”
That premium product carries with it premium prices. In the shops, customers can order a scoop of one flavor or a half scoop of two flavors for $4.50; a “trio” of three flavors for $5.50; or a “study,” which is two scoops or four half scoops, for $6.50. Even grocery and online prices upward of $12 a pint haven’t deterred customers.
Lowe was brought on as chief executive 3 1/2 years ago to complement Jeni’s artistic vision with the infrastructure know-how needed to grow. The chain plans to open between one and four locations in 2013, he said. Each of the stores has a distinct decor and is designed to be a stylish addition to the neighborhood.
“When we open a new [store], we ask, ‘What benefit can we give to the neighborhood?’” Britton Bauer said. “If we find a floor beneath a floor, we’ll restore it. We may redo the storefront to make it more inviting or install old church pews [from the area]. We find that piece that connects us to
Because the Jeni’s brand is so closely associated with not only Jeni but also the Midwest, observers noted that the brand could face challenges as it grows.
“She’s been very good at keeping the quality [as the brand grows], but there’s an artisan side to what she does. At what point does that change?” Davis said. “Anyone watching the company would have to wonder that.”
But Lowe said he sees no limits on where the brand can have a presence, both through scoop shops and wholesale business, largely because delicious ice cream is almost universally loved.
“That’s why it sells in L.A. or Dubai, [United Arab Emirates], or Kuwait,” Lowe said. “It’s what’s in the pint — the texture and theamazing flavors.
Contact Christi Ravneberg at email@example.com.