Meetings that made ice cream history… When Ben met Jerry

Ben and Jerry’s is a famous American ice cream brand, founded in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978. The company started out as an ice cream shop operating from a former petrol station.

Today, it has become a leading global brand, renowned not only for its huge selection of rich flavours, but also for its social conscience.

© Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

When Ben met Jerry in 1963, both were seniors at Merrick Avenue Junior High School, Long Island. Both Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were born in Brooklyn in 1951 and weren’t particularly high flyers at school, either physically or academically. In interviews, they have both described themselves as being overweight as kids. When they met in seventh grade, it was their mutual dislike of athletics that brought them together, as they were supposed to be running around the track, but were struggling.

Jerry recalled everyone else was running, but they weren’t joining in with any enthusiasm. He said the coach was yelling at them and Ben was shouting back. Jerry found this amusing and they became friends. Both of them had similar backgrounds, as Jerry’s father was a stockbroker and Ben’s was an accountant.

After leaving school, Ben attended Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, while Jerry chose the pre-med curriculum at Oberlin College in Ohio. Jerry worked part-time serving ice cream in the college’s cafeteria while he was a student. Ben had an ice cream van as his summer job after his freshman year.

First jobs
Jerry moved to New York after graduating from college and intended being a doctor, but failed to get into medical school. Ben was a keen potter and planned on pursuing pottery as a career, but didn’t succeed in selling any of his wares and realised it wasn’t going to work out.

In their youth, Ben and Jerry had discussed opening a restaurant. When their chosen careers didn’t pan out, they discussed the idea seriously. They studied the local market and realised restaurants were going out of business, so they decided to specialise in either bagels or ice cream.

It was a lack of money which made them choose ice cream, as it would have cost them $40,000 to open a bagel business. They took a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream technology from Penn State and began making ice-cream at home, as they shared an apartment in Saratoga Springs at the time.

Ben and Jerry’s launch
They used a $12,000 investment, including a $4,000 loan, to launch their first ice cream shop in Burlington, in a renovated petrol station. The industrious friends renovated the dilapidated building themselves, including fixing the roof with cheap sheets of aluminium and roofing tar.

Initially, Jerry made ice cream and Ben made crepes and soup, but only the ice cream sold well, so they soon concentrated on that. They decided to have very big chunks of candy and cookies in their ice cream, which went down very well with the customers.

In an interview, Ben described it as “just a lark” when they first started out. He admitted they never expected to have anything beyond one home-made ice cream parlour.

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was always well-known for its new and exciting flavours. However, they started off simple, with their first-ever flavour being vanilla.

Over the years, they have introduced hundreds of flavours. In fact, there are more than 300 flavours that they have discontinued. Ben and Jerry call it the “flavour graveyard”.

There are currently more than 50 flavours available. The brand is continually on the lookout for new trends and even hires “flavour gurus” to create new ice creams for them. They created their legendary best-seller, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, after a fan suggested it anonymously – they always listen to customers’ ideas and requests for new flavours and adapt their products and business to meet the demand.

Among the most popular flavours today are Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake, Pecan Sticky Buns, Banana Split, Cheesecake Brownie, Chunky Monkey, Mint Chocolate Cookie, Peanut Butter Fudge Core, Salted Caramel Almond, Strawberry Cheesecake and many more.

Company growth
Over the years, Ben and Jerry’s grew from one ice cream shop to an international company. Their expansion began in the 1980s when they rented space in an old mill in Burlington and began producing their ice cream in pints. They then began to distribute to grocery stores, as well as to restaurants, with Ben delivering in his VW Squareback wagon.

The first Ben and Jerry’s franchise ice cream shop opened in 1981 in Shelburne, Vermont. Ben and Jerry knew how to generate great publicity and in 1982, their ice cream built the world’s largest ice cream sundae, weighing in at 27,102 lbs.

Their philanthropy began in 1985, when they established the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, awarding 7.5% of the company’s profits to worthwhile community projects. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan awarded Ben and Jerry the title of the United States’ Small Business Persons of the Year. They received their award at a ceremony at the White House.

Over the years, Ben and Jerry have announced their support for Farm Aid – a non-profit organisation to help keep family farms up and running. They have also actively supported using all-natural ingredients and banned the use of the artificial hormone, Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, in their dairy products. They emphasise the importance of using Fair Trade ingredients.

In 1994, pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream went on sale in the UK for the first time. In 1995, was set up, attracting hundreds of thousands of people to visit their early World Wide Web site.

Modern times
In 1996, Ben and Jerry’s led the trend for healthy eating by launching their healthy sorbets, made with pure spring water and fruits, with no fat, lactose or cholesterol. They have also introduced a range of frozen yogurt.

In 2000, Ben and Jerry’s underwent a major change, becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever on 3rd August, using a unique acquisition agreement. An independent Board of Directors was set up to ensure Ben and Jerry’s social beliefs, brand and product quality continued.

Today, Ben and Jerry’s continues to actively support environmental causes, protesting against proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by making a giant 900 lb Baked Alaska using their “Fossil Fuel” ice cream. They took it to the United States Capitol building with the help of the Alaska Wilderness League and Greenpeace, staging a protest on the lawn.

In response to public demand, they have released non-dairy versions of their ice creams in recent years. To celebrate their 40th anniversary, they created a Birthday Cake Ice Cream in 2018, containing sponge cake and swirling strawberry frosting flavour. The founders described it as celebrating four decades of “peace, love and ice cream”.

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