Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have ice cream in their veins. These two unlikely entrepreneurial heroes rose to pop culture status by following different paths. Jerry is more of the joker, always ready with a quick quip, who landed his first job in the industry as an ice cream scooper in college. He tried moving through medical school without any success and reverted to work as a lab technician, whilst Ben drove an ice cream truck in his senior school year, but also dropped out of college.
The pair first met each other when they shared a Manhattan apartment following graduation, but they did not explore their entrepreneurial possibilities until they became reunited in upstate New York and decided to go into the food business.
Ben and Jerry’s could just as easily have been a bagel bakery, but they deemed that option too expensive and decided to make ice cream instead. In the equally-as-funky Burlington, VT., they opened their first scoop shop and started churning out their off-the-wall ice cream creations.
Ben and Jerry realized the power of social networking in 1978 and started off by hosting a free film festival and by establishing several traditions, including a give away of free ice cream on the anniversary of the founding of the first store. "We measured our success not just by how much money we made, but by how much we contributed to the community. It was a two-part bottom line."
Through the 1980s, business was great and they expanded out of state within New England. By 1987, annual sales totalled $32 million and even President Reagan became a Ben & Jerry’s fan in 1988, when he awarded them the prestigious US Small Business Persons of the Year award.
Ben & Jerry’s was, and still is, known for its creativity. Flavors such as "Chunky Monkey" and "Rainforest Crunch" featured unique flavor combinations, unusual packaging and colorful marketing methods. By the end of the 1980s, the company was operating in 18 states within the USA.
Their rapid growth was not without growing pains and they had to further innovate and sometimes capitulate as they grew. They were forced to relinquish some of the firm’s informal hierarchy and more established players, such as Dreyers and Haagen-Dazs, were putting up stiff competition.
Through the 90s, however, the firm continued its growth, with sales approaching $175 million towards the end of the decade. Perhaps inevitably, the brand was purchased by the food giant Unilever in 2000, although a unique arrangement allowed Ben and Jerry’s to continue to feature its unique operating style.
Since the outset, the duo had always been on somewhat of a social mission and this trend continues to this day. They have a solid commitment to recycling and conservation at all facilities and they use hormone-free milk in all products. "Now, when we face a problem like global warming, and you understand that the biggest impacts on global warming come from business and industry, I think business needs to take a leading role," observes Jerry.
Ben & Jerry’s is very much the quintessential American success story, but they have always maintained their strong social and community values. "Neither of us could have anticipated twenty years ago that a major multi-international would some day sign on, enthusiastically, to pursue and expand the social mission that continues to be an essential part of Ben & Jerry’s and a driving force behind many of our successes." I’ll lick an ice cream to that.