The Conversation Starter: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream

Jeni Britton Bauer on perfume, Matisse, the ghosts of LA—and why ice cream is the ideal way to kick-off a first date.

 

photography: Trisha Angeles

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It’s funny, how we discover our passions in life. For some, careers are built on a single-minded obsession, nurtured since childhood. But for others, like Jeni Britton Bauer, raison d’etre can simply appear out of the blue. In Bauer’s case, it all came down to a dinner party—and a bottle of cayenne essential oil gathering dust in a drawer.

“I was going to do a dessert,” she recalls. “I thought I should mix essential oils into ice cream to make an edible perfume.” This was back in 1995, when Jeni, then an art student and aspiring perfumer living in Columbus, Ohio and working at a bakery. She began experimenting with different essential oils; and then, she found the cayenne. “I put [the cayenne] in chocolate ice cream. It was cold, sweet, chocolate…and then all of a sudden really hot, in the back of my throat, like six or seven seconds later. I took that to the party and everyone went crazy.”

From there, Jeni says, she became “the person who makes ice cream,” using her perfume knowledge to layer top, middle, and base notes into her flavors. As she dove headfirst into this new venture, she realized that everything she had been doing up until that point—“art, pastry, and perfume”—had collided in perfect harmony. Within two weeks, she dropped out of art school; and within six months, she opened her first ice cream shop at Columbus’ North Market.

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That shop, as it turns out, had quite a destiny. Today, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is one of less than 2,000 Certified B Corporations worldwide, with scoop shops in seven states, customers from coast to coast, and suppliers ranging from Ohio’s own dairy farmers to vintners in the South of France and vanilla bean growers in Uganda. “I knew it was the thing I was supposed to do,” she says. “When I was a kid, I had a lot of businesses. I was really into the idea that you could make your own job, that you could make your own stuff and sell it. I knew I would do that when I was grown up…and that art would help me do it.”

Art has helped—in everything from Jeni’s understanding of color theory and early love of Matisse (united in her newly minted Colors Collection of ice creams) to her appreciation of craftsmanship and artisanal production, and even the “editorial calendar” approach she takes to crafting each new collection of flavors (“just like a fashion house,” she chuckles). But perhaps the best evidence of Jeni’s artistic roots lies right here in Los Angeles, with the company’s latest location—a pristine, whitewashed scoop shop on Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz.

We paid Jeni’s a visit on a windy, sun-drenched afternoon, following the light to a crisp interior elegantly decorated with hanging pendant lamps and a handful of framed photographs showcasing the company’s partners and commitment to green, ethical, and socially responsible production. Once at the counter, though, our full attention was on the flavors. Thanks to Jeni’s no-limit-sample-policy, we tried upwards of a dozen options: from the flagship Salty Caramel and textural marvel of Toasted Brioche with Butter and Apricot Jam to Color Collection creations like Ultramarine Blue Buttermilk (made with pulverized wild Maine blueberries) and our personal favorite, Garance Vert Clair (a mossy green blend of lemongrass, coriander leaf, spirulina, and cream). Afterwards, we enjoyed our scoops while perusing The Colors Collection chapbook—a vibrant, enchanting companion to the flavors on display that read like equal parts children’s book and art gallery brochure.

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“I wrote it for parents to read to children,” Jeni explains of the chapbook. Then again, “grown ups can take something from it, too.” The way she sees it, everyone who comes in to an ice cream shop—be they grandparent and grandchild, or two lovers—are there on a date. “We use it [ice cream] to get to know somebody better,” she says. “I’ve been in ice cream for a long time, worked the counter…for eight straight years. Every day. And I have a really good sense of how people use it, how it effects the moment. So I know when you come into our stores, you’re looking for—obviously an indulgence, but also to get to know somebody…to help somebody know you.” Ice cream—especially when it exhibits unique flavors, colors, and textures—is “a conversation starter.” And so, too, is everything about Jeni’s aesthetic: “these books and design pieces in the shop…they’re meant to help you have a conversation.”

Our own conversation turns from the new LA shop to the city itself—one that Jeni finds “so different from so many things that I’m used to,” and loves for its sense of history (“It’s a relatively new history,” she says, “but I feel like the ghosts are just really old.”) “The people in LA were—and are—characters. Big personalities. And you feel that everywhere you go. It’s a strange and wonderful thing. It’s almost magical…it’s in the architecture, the hills, the driving, the air.”

Still, for all her enthusiasm, Jeni is a Midwest girl at heart. Starting out in Columbus, she explains, gave her a chance to build Jeni’s Ice Creams on her own terms—and work out kinks while flying “under the radar.” “We were making salty caramel when all the other artisanal ice cream makers were in short pants,” she says, laughing. And like everything else about Jeni’s, the signature flavor made a name for itself through quality, authenticity, and loyalty, it’s fame spreading from Columbus to Nashville to Atlanta to Los Angeles through a network of dedicated partners and loyal customers, of feedback and praise, of community and conversation. For Jeni, this is the key—to great ice cream, and to entrepreneurial success.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the company’s handling of a recent listeria scare that prompted them to shutter their shops and cease production. “Everyone at Jeni’s—from our front-line team at our shops to our kitchen team, and all other departments—would have made the same decision to withdraw our products immediately.  Same for every single producer, supplier or grocer we work with,” Jeni explains. Now that the scoop shops have reopened, she adds, “It’s going to take a few weeks for us to get back to 100%, but we know we made the right decision—and are a stronger company as a result.”

Ultimately, it’s that strength and dedication that sets Jeni’s apart. “We want to build a great company,” she says. “And I think of a company like a community and all the communities we’re part of are part of that, too. It’s this big circle of life.”

A circle that begins, and ends, with ice cream: the ultimate conversation piece.