Since we opened 13 years ago, we’ve had three different production kitchens, four different logos, two different company names, six different kinds of ice cream machines, two different domain names, and I’ve had at least four pairs of Warby Parkers.
But here is something that hasn’t changed since day one: what we do and why we do it. It’s not really the business school-y kind of mission. It’s very simple, and it’s what gets us out of bed each day and keeps us excited for the long haul so that this place will always be challenging and exciting. I wrote it down in 2003, and it remains the same to this day.
Officially we think of our mission as: We make better ice creams. We bring people together.
Less succinctly, it plays out more like this: We want to get a little bit better every single day, because we think it’s fun, and when we make great ice cream, we bring growers together with ice cream makers, grandparents together with grandchildren, and we help create lasting, loving relationships over ice cream cones.
I have this vision of what the world’s greatest ice cream ought to be, and no one’s done it yet. I’ve had the same vision for as long as I can remember. While I think we often achieve it, it’s also an extraordinarily elusive quality target. The only way we will ever get there is by working and reworking our ice creams constantly.
It might come as a surprise to you to learn that over the years we’ve worked with six different dairy companies, eight chocolate makers, vanilla beans from five countries; we’ve used white sugar, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, and beet and cane sugars, finally settling on a blend of light and dark cane sugar to make our Salty Caramel ice cream (and now we’re considering muscovado); we’ve used seven varieties of pumpkins, five brands of yogurts, six varieties of fresh mint, at least four varieties of cinnamon; changed our marshmallow recipe more times than I can count, our base recipe at least 20 times, our milk chocolate recipe six times, reworked and renamed our vanilla bean ice cream three times, and many, many other other changes—all in the search of better.
Not to be better than the next best brand, to be better than our own best.
To say we do things differently is an understatement, and we are only realizing how much so now as we strive to hold true to the quality standards that define us. For instance, our Darkest Chocolate has over three times more chocolate in it than most other chocolate ice creams (hence the name), which is why it took five years for me to develop it. It has layers of darkness that Dante himself would be in awe of, and yet it is completely smooth and creamy. A feat. If we’d started with the written rules of ice cream we never would have questioned standards and we’d be making standard quality chocolate with pastes and pre-written formulas. But that’s not how we do things.
Our production kitchen was built, tweaked, ratcheted, plumbed, and piped to make our ice cream. It’s as if Montgomery Scott had a baby with Luc Besson and that wonderful person designed it. Our production kitchen has worked really well for us, helped us make really awesome ice cream, and we’ve always been very proud of it—which is why I’m excited to announce that we are reopening it today.
But, first, let’s talk about Listeria.
We have always been good at sanitation and food safety. Our production kitchen has been licensed as a milk processor for 10 years, with monthly inspections from the Ohio Department of Agriculture. When the FDA did a lengthy and thorough inspection of our kitchen late last year, they found zero issues.
In March of this year, we elected to undergo a third-party audit of our safety procedures, which we passed without incident. We have always had rigorous sanitation and tracking protocols in place, including a detailed HACCP plan. We had in-house testing and a regulatory manager to make sure we followed all standards. We had no reason to think we weren’t absolutely solid in the safety department. Still, we had a blind spot: we had an insufficient Listeria control program. For that, we take full responsibility and make no excuses.
At this point, it’s worth noting that we voluntarily recalled all of our frozen products on the market after a single pint of our ice cream tested positive for the presence of Listeria. We acted immediately, out of an abundance of caution. And after testing dozens of batches of flavors, we found Listeria in just one other pint of ice cream.
No outbreak of Listeria has ever been tied to our ice cream. What’s more, we did not have a second recall, which has been misreported by some in the media. We temporarily closed our shops, because we didn’t have enough ice cream to keep them stocked. After resuming production in mid-May, we found Listeria in our kitchen again (in June) on the floor, far away from any food contact surfaces. We discovered it through routine swabbing, which was (and is) part of our monitoring program. We immediately shut down our kitchen again. No Listeria got into any ice cream we served. There was no Listeria contamination or outbreak because our protocols and testing prevented it. And, because we had been testing every batch of ice cream and holding it until tests proved there was no Listeria, we have been able to guarantee the safety of all of the ice cream we had served in our shops since re-opening.
Listeria can be found just about everywhere—it’s likely that everyone has been exposed to it. It’s in water, soil, the garden, your house, your kitchen, your car. The fact that we had Listeria in our kitchen is an indication of how widespread it is in the environment and its ability to survive and multiply under adverse conditions—and the inevitability that, if you’re in the food business, at some point Listeria will find its way into your kitchen, production plant, or processing facility. Period. As a matter of fact, if you look hard enough it may already be there. The only question then is: What are you going to do about it?
We created an aggressive Listeria control program with an ongoing seek-and-destroy mission: find, eliminate, and prevent the growth and establishment of Listeria. The program was developed by our new Quality Leader, who came to us with 23 years worth of experience in Quality Assurance leadership roles. He has a BS in Microbiology from The Ohio State University and he is a Food Safety Jedi.
A major part of a Listeria control program is environmental monitoring in order to detect the presence of Listeria (which is how we prevented the contamination of ice cream when we found Listeria in our kitchen in June). The industry recommendation for monitoring is 1 swab per 1,000 square feet (how frequently is still a hot topic; some guidance says weekly, some says monthly). I mentioned that our program was aggressive: we did almost 200 swabs every day for two months in our 2,000-square-foot production kitchen—almost 1,000 times beyond the industry recommendation—in order to understand where the Listeria was coming from and eliminate it.
I’m happy to report that all tests for Listeria in our kitchen have been negative now for two months.
We know that fighting Listeria is a never-ending war, not one winnable battle. We have always put safety before anything else. And we will continue to do so with the same passion for making better ice creams and bringing people together that we had before. In fact, we have a new model for operating that will enable us to make better ice creams right now than we did three months ago—in the safest possible way, too.
We’ve always said it takes a community of people to make our ice creams. We’ve built our company as a community, and that community includes our team, our customers, our growers, and our producers. And for the past couple months, we’ve spent a lot of time soul searching and asking a lot of hard questions. In particular: what are the opportunities for us to use the events of this year as a means to move forward?
But first we had to ask ourselves, what makes Jeni’s Jeni’s? What is it that we do that only we can do?
There are a few things that make our ice creams different from any others. I don’t think we spent a lot of time talking about it before, because spelling it out always felt like marketing to me. I’m a proof-is-in-the-pudding type person. But I’m going to lay it out for you now.
Sourcing is one of the most arduous tasks at Jeni’s. When I was 22 years old and just starting out, I thought all ice cream makers used great milk and cream and all fresh ingredients. But I learned very quickly how the “homemade” ice cream business works: buy commodity ice cream mix, blend in flavoring, coloring, and bits of candy and VOILA! Put your name on it! I wasn’t into that at all. I wanted to make fresh strawberry ice cream with the tiny basil leaves from the farmers in the market and use grass-pastured milk. That wasn’t normal then and still isn’t now. It is rare for an ice cream or food maker to actually use fresh ingredients over processed ingredients and short-cut flavorings. Why? Because it’s almost impossible to run an ice cream business this way.
Our ingredients are often directly traded and grown specifically for us, whether they’re coming from Ohio, somewhere in the U.S., or somewhere around the world. From strawberries, black raspberries, sweet corn, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes at Hirsch Fruit Farm in Chillicothe, Ohio, and the Peach Truck’s Nashville-via-Georgia peaches, to Ndali Estate vanilla beans in Uganda and Intelligentsia coffee in Chicago. And, of course, super-fresh dairy, with as much grass-pastured Ohio milk and cream as we can get our hands on.
I have spent 20 years learning about and tweaking our ice cream recipe. Our recipe is different. It’s more buttercream-y. We don’t use carrageenan or gums—not because I’m against them, but rather because I don’t like the sticky texture they impart, and I also detect a cotton candy-like flavor when we have tried them (but, yes, they do increase the shelf-life of the ice cream). Generally no egg yolks because of a slight chalkiness that I don’t like. I prefer to use the power of milk proteins and a small amount of tapioca to give it texture and body. From there, it’s about the right mix of milk, cream, and sugar, and it’s also about how much air we add to the ice cream.
Our ice creams are made to be dense and creamy, they are higher in butterfat and extruded at a higher viscosity. This means we can’t make our ice creams in many other places outside our own kitchen. In addition to being made with great dairy, our recipe is unique in the world of ice cream. It can’t be made just anywhere.
For the past year and a half or so, Smith’s—the 110-year-old-dairy, in Orrville, Ohio—has sourced all of our cream and grass-grazed milk from 77 small family farms in 11 Northeast Ohio counties. Smith’s works with many farmers who have been at it for generations, grazing small herds of 25 to 100 cows or so. When the cows’ raw milk and cream arrives at Smith’s, it’s pasteurized using our specific ingredients and the recipe that I’ve been developing for years—not an off-the-shelf mix or formulation you’ll find in any of their other products. In addition to their own line, Smith’s sources and bottles milk and other dairy products for some top tier dairy brands that are probably in your refrigerator right now, from conventional to organic to grass-pastured. Their abundant access to family-owned, grass-pastured dairy farms, as well as their integrity as a fourth generation family-owned and operated business, and the level of quality and safety at which they operate are all reasons we chose Smith over any other dairy company in Ohio.
Ice cream is a delicate balance of ingredients. The physical components of the recipe impact the sensory facets immensely. When things are out of balance it doesn’t work. Which is an argument for using all of the pre-made mixes, pastes, and flavorings because these ingredients are meant to work together without disrupting the balance. We are about flavor and texture first, so that means roasting strawberries, sweet potatoes or pumpkins to get some of the moisture out and concentrate the sugars and flavors. Simmering the blackberries for sauce or pasteurizing the coffee directly in the cream to extract as much scent as possible. While these techniques are used in the top restaurants around the globe, there is nothing easy about how we do what we do, or typical in the ice cream world. We have a bustling R+D kitchen where we make and tinker with ice cream all day long. This is where we make discoveries about how to incorporate new ingredients into our ice creams (and where we eat a lot of ice cream with serious faces).
Ingredients, recipe, process.
These are the things that make our ice creams our ice creams. The sourcing of ingredients matters, the base recipe and dairy matters, and the process (including R+D) matters. You may notice something missing from this list: the actual freezing of the ice cream. For us, that didn’t make the list of top ten of what we do and why. Because the truth is that most challenging stuff happens before it gets frozen.
With that in mind, we’re entering a new era at Jeni’s. We are re-opening our kitchen, but not to freeze our ice cream there. Instead, our kitchen team will focus solely on the parts of making our ice cream that only we can do. In turn, we’ll rely on a network of growers, producers, and makers to do the things they do well—if not better than us—and together, as a community, we’ll make ice creams that are better, safer, and more consistent than before.
We’ll continue to source all of the ingredients for our ice creams. But we’ll use our kitchen only to prepare the highest priority ingredients for our most difficult ice creams—process work that, without the specialized equipment of our kitchen or the expertise of our kitchen team, is nearly impossible for others to do—and then we’ll freeze everything into ice cream at Smith’s, rather than in our own kitchen.
Take Salty Caramel, for example. True caramel has to be caramelized. You can’t synthesize true caramel in a flavoring. So we’ve always made our caramel from scratch by toasting sugar over fire to the exact point when it has the most flavor. Making caramel is not an easy thing to teach, and even if you could train someone to make it, most contemporary ice cream plants aren’t equipped to do it.
We’ll continue to make caramel from scratch in our kitchen the same way we always have, and then we’ll blend in sea salt, vanilla, and cream, but rather than mixing those ingredients in with the dairy we get from Smith’s and freezing it in our own kitchen, we’re going to transport the ingredients to Smith’s and mix it with the dairy and freeze it into ice cream there.
One of many benefits of this model is that by freezing our ice cream at the dairy, we’ll be making ice cream out of the freshest dairy possible. It will be frozen into ice cream within 24 to 48 hours of milking. In our old system, it took at least a week and then some for us to receive the cream and milk and then make it into ice cream. Short of actually becoming a dairy plant ourselves, there is no way to avoid that farm-to-kitchen lag time. The flavor of milk changes over time, so freezing it as soon as possible is key.
Another positive is that Smith’s has far better equipment than we ever did. Their ice cream machines are more modern, and we can tweak the ice creams down to much more precise quality markers using their equipment than we ever could on our own. Our ice creams will be more consistent as a result.
From now on, all fresh bounty from farms first will be processed in a kitchen separate from ours. Though we have always had a separate processing area for produce, we now realize that the safest way to do that is to take it off-site. We’ll bring produce into our kitchen after it has been cleaned, peeled, shucked or hulled. Last year, we worked with an off-site kitchen for the first time to shuck Ohio sweet corn for us. Now that kitchen will receive corn plus every other fresh ingredient that comes from a farm and pack it for us—everything from strawberries to peppermint. These fresh ingredients then will be delivered to our kitchen for roasting, steaming, boiling, etc. We’re proud of this partnership.
Likewise, we’re working with our friends at American Spoon (in Michigan) and Robert Rothschild Farm (Urbana, Ohio) to make some of our fresh fruit jams and sauces. Both companies have access to impeccable fruits, honey, and other ingredients, but we’re also working towards sourcing fresh ingredients—like strawberries—for them ourselves. The sauces they are making for us are indistinguishable from the sauces we were making in our own kitchen. We are proud of our partnerships with them and excited about the opportunities ahead.
All of these ingredients, whether from our kitchen or others’, will converge at Smith’s and be turned into our ice cream.
For years it has been my goal to eventually open a massive, open-air, sun-lit ice cream plant. One surrounded by fields of produce and cows grazing out front, a rooftop garden and play area for kiddos. Inside it would be the perfect place to take the bounty of the world and transform it into ice cream. Aside from its $50+ million price tag, I have recently been asking myself, does the world really need another 100,000-square-foot, 50 million dollar ice cream production plant? Does Ohio? Because the truth is that many already exist, especially in Ohio. And Smith’s ice cream plant is at the top of the game for ice cream tech, safety, and quality. If the ice cream plant of my dreams doesn’t build us better ice cream then what objective is it achieving? What’s the point?
What was once unthinkable to me has become the inevitable conclusion:
If we can make our ice creams (better ice creams) as a community (bring people together), which is not so far from how we were doing it before, and make it better and, importantly, safer than it’s ever been, then we ought to do it. Even if—especially if—we aren’t actually freezing all the ice cream ourselves.
So it’s a shift, but it’s actually quite modern, which inspires me. We live in the 21st century. None of the old rules apply. We are free to break things apart and put them back together in ways that we couldn’t do before. Transportation, communication, and equipment are better now than we ever could have imagined. It is still true: NOBODY else can make our ice cream but us. But our company is not just one ice cream production kitchen. Our company is a growing community of people devoted to making better ice creams and bringing people together, and we are achieving that mission better today than ever.
Many of you have been asking when our pints will be back in our shops, online, and on grocery store shelves. I can’t give you an exact date yet, but I can tell you that it will be in time for the holidays, if not before. We are working harder than you can imagine on it and will keep you updated as soon as we know more.