As lovers of creamy treats and frozen delights, we forget that if ice cream is a scientific art form, then Jeni Britton Bauer is both Nikola Tesla and Vincent Van Gogh — reinventor of the wheel ice cream is churned on.
Meet the personification of the phrase, “you scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream.” Jeni is owner, creator and chief ice cream wizard of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream.
How did you get into the ice cream world?
When I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to be an ice cream maker when I grew up. And that formed in many ways who I became and what I did. I went to OSU for art history school but I quit because I had this idea of ice cream is all about scent. Even inexpensive vanilla is a scent and butterfat — I had studied pastry and learned that butterfats carried scents and acarried flavors. I started working with that and seeking ingredients from the farmer’s markets right into our cream and then I started my first business here in the North Market in 1996, and the North Market really inspired how we do things and how we build our company as a community. We make every flavor from scratch.
I started working at a dairy and over time realized that we can build body and texture in ice cream without stabilizers by using milk proteins. We didn’t even use egg yolks which other companies use too which is great, but I felt like it still gave the cream too much flavor and I wanted it to really be just that flavor of cream.
This is the hard way to do ice cream, it’s really complicated and really expensive. I think it makes it taste better though!
Doing it the way I did, which was just starting and jumping into it, not knowing much about it — thinking i knew more than I did, and then learning slowly as I went.
Did anyone in the Ohio ice cream industry inspire you or your current work?
I love the ice cream history of Ohio, but if anything I looked around at the other ice cream companies and thought, ‘I want to be the exact opposite.’ A lot of the older companies in Ohio, especially the ones I grew up with, were doing a great job of catering to grandparents and their grandchildren, but they weren’t getting a lot of the adventurous eaters. And that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to build a company that was for people going on dates — for the people in the middle that wanted something to do that wasn’t going to a bar. I was trying to capture the younger adults who really weren’t eating ice cream.
What inspires your unique ice cream flavors?
From what’s available or what a farmer is growing in season — but also from art history and pop culture. There’s always some nod to the classics, it’s never way out there form a flavor point of view. I always know the history and the story of the flavors I try to create, like the Sweet Corn and Black Raspberries. That’s a flavor that’s so Ohio in August — it’s the farmer’s market flavor and we have it every year. It’s whatever is going on around me.
What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to creativity in making your ice cream?
The biggest challenge is just getting access to really really good milk and cream. The dairy system is a pretty closed system, and we are reliant on whatever they provide. That always is kind of a challenge that we’re constantly working on to get the best milk and cream for our ice cream. People don’t realize how difficult it is, down to the last detail — because it’s a no waste system and you have make sure you get your cut of it.
We also try to make sure we get fair trade ingredients — we always make sure that whoever’s giving us ingredients is being paid fairly so we work either directly with the provider or within a degree or two of separation. We really want to make sure we’re not just buying flavors off a truck because things like vanilla and chocolate and coffee can be really hurtful to a community. There are places in the world where buying those ingredients can contribute to slave labor and unfair conditions, and we want to make sure we’re not contributing to that in any way.
What’s your favorite stop on the Ohio Ice Cream Trail besides your own?
I love Velvet — Velvet is super fun because it’s a whole experience with a rich history. You get to take the tour and you get to go to Utica which is a great small town. I love it! If you haven’t been out there it’s definitely worth the trip. And then of course Hartzler’s is great — I believe that they are using their own milk to make the ice cream and that for me is a great stop, because I really do value when people build their ice cream from the ground up. They also have incredibly high standards for their dairy — and its rare to find that, I don’t think you can get their ice cream outside of their shop!
Can you talk a little about the Ohio’s rich ice cream history and its significance to state identity?
I talk about being from Ohio a lot, because it’s the perfect place to be if you’re an ice cream maker. It’s a huge dairy state, and especially if you want to make ice cream like we do, with farm fresh ingredients. There are also really specific innovations that come from Ohio that impacted how the country consumes ice cream.
For example, the ice cream scoop was made here. It’s now in permanent display at MOMA and it’s what we use at Jeni’s. Also, the ice cream cone was invented by a young man from OSU and and a syrian man at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. The Syrian guy was making something like pizzelles and right next to him, the OSU student working at another booth became friends and realized they could roll the pizzelles into cones and it became massively popular. The OSU guy comes back to Ohio and starts and ice cream cone company after that, and it changed everything for ice cream!
The nestle cone was also invented here, the technology of coating the inside of the cone with chocolate so the cone stays crisp. That was here at OSU too.
I still think to this day that eating an ice cream on a cone is the way to do it. It centers you and pulls you into the moment.
What ice cream flavors do you recommend on each stop of the trail?
I haven’t been to all of them! Greater’s of course — their Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip. You know, I eat a lot of ice cream I don’t need to eat any more ice cream. I need to eat more cauliflower, you know what I mean? I generally at this part of my life, don’t usually seek out other ice creams. I would love to go to Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl, that looks really cool!
What’s your favorite Ohio getaway or travel destination?
I love Hocking Hills because we can go down there with my family, and there’s some really good food at the Inn at Cedar Falls. But Ohio’s really cool because you get the mountains in the south and the beaches in the North. Now my husband and I might say that our favorite getaway is 21C Museum and Hotel in Cincinnati or we love to go to the Cleveland Art Museum, or the Akron Art Museum.
Ohio’s just an amazing place to live because you get different cultures and and great cities and great countrysides. It takes two hours to get anywhere from Columbus, it’s fun to take weekend trips and even day trips.
Ice cream exists all over the world in different iterations and cultures. Why does ice cream in Ohio matter, and what makes it different?
It’s the culture here. We have a big culture of eating ice cream that other states don’t really have. Illinois for instance, where I’m originally from, doesn’t have a big ice-cream eating culture, Missouri doesn’t — and if you grow up here then you know that going out to get ice cream is the equivalent of going to the movies. You go out to get ice cream on a Friday night with your family, you stand in line, you wait your turn and get up to the counter and order, and then you walk around and eat it and that’s like — a night! These things live on through generations of passing it down, and that’s really important here and equally important for young companies like mine. If you think of Graeter’s being over a 100 years old, the traditions are passed down with companies like mine carrying the torch.
I mean the first ice cream company opened in 1709, so ice cream really has been a part of the American story since those early days.
And I think Ohio connects with that history, and then of course we have lots of cows, and dairy, and rain, and grass — so ice cream was inevitable for us.
What’s next for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams?
At the end of summer we go into planning for next year to get ready for next summer, and that’s super fun because we develop all our flavors for next year and what we’re going to do that’s better and different.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
For more ice cream adventures, visit the Ohio Ice Cream Trail at Ohio.org/IceCream and tell us your #MyOhioScoop on social media!