q&a with jeni britton bauer

I scream, you scream, we all scream for Jeni’s!

I don’t have an overly powering sweet tooth. In fact, I often prefer cheese for dessert. That is, until I was first introduced to Jeni’s,  the artisan ice cream that hails two short hours from my doorstep in Columbus. I first tried salted carmel, and then strawberry buttermilk. And recently, Jamie and I polished off a pint of goat cheese with roasted red cherries. The latter is seriously the BEST ice cream I have ever had – ever. Truly. Ever. It’s worth the price and now I can appreciate why it’s been worth the drive for so many. Jeni’s is unlike any ice cream I’ve ever sampled. In fact, calling it ice cream just doesn’t seem right. It should be in its own category altogether. And the craftsmanship, passion and love for Ohio that goes into each pint makes it just that much better.

PS – If Jeni’s was going to set up shop in Cleveland, where should they open? (note: answering next door to your house is not acceptable, though totally undestood.)

1. How did you get into ice cream? When I was young, I worked at a local French bakery. I fell in love with pastry and started making American baked goods with French techniques – lighter sugar, fresher ingredients, better quality overall. When I started making ice cream I realized that there was no one making ice cream with the same great ingredients we used at the patisserie, so I started my business. That was 1996. I started in our market, which is kind of like the West SideMarket. We have all sorts of awesome ethnic foods and purveyors of exquisite ingredients there – they still serve as a constant inspiration. From single origin chocolates, direct trade vanilla beans, just roasted coffee, every kind of cheese, wines, curries and middle eastern ingredients to wild boar bacon (made into brown sugar pralines) and smoked salmon (in a fresh locally grown sorbet) … all kinds of experimentation has gone on over the years. If it was in the market, it ended up in my ice creams!

2. What’s the most requested flavor? Lemon Yogurt with Ohio Blueberries

3. What local farmers to you support to make your ice cream? Why is this so important to you? Toad Hill, Jorgensen Farms, Wayward Seed, Elizabeth Telling, Mott Family Farm, Just This Farm, and a bunch of dairies from Holmes County. It’s important not because I am particularly strict about natural ingredients, but because I am obsessed with deliciousness. The little strawberries just taste better than those gigantic ones from conventional suppliers, so we have Adam from Wayward Seed grow those for us. Local blueberries tend to have more flavor and more pectin – can’t really figure out why that is, but they make better jam for our lemon and blueberry yogurt. There is no comparison to grass fed local cream – the flavor is so much better. Also, Ohio is an AG state – we are so very proud of that that we want to showcase our flavors.

4. How do you approach ice cream? On a cone, tongue first.

5. What flavors are you currently working on? Norway for Christmas: spiced rice pudding, Glogg, lowland blueberries and fromage blanc, juniper berry, lingonberries, cardamom, candied dried fruits … some configuration of these for the holidays.

6. What flavor combination have you tried and it just didn’t work? Strawberry and fresh spearmint. It tasted like old Double Mint gum. And Smoked Banana … a good concept, bad execution. I smoked them too long and they turned into a turpentine-like substance. We made it anyway, of course. Then we all tried it and, let’s just say, we’re glad we are still alive. Smoked bananas are great when smoked lightly and served with ice cream and caramel, maybe it’s best to keep it simple that way.

7. How long does it take to make ice cream? What’s the process? Our milk goes directly from a few small, independent farms to our dairy in Utica. There, our “dairy guy” Paul gently pasteurizes it with sugar and cream at low temperature to retain flavor. It is then homogenized only once (which is important!) before we get it. That’s when we do all sorts of cool stuff with it. Some, like peppermint, have many steps. We clean the mint (and pick the bugs out), dry it well, then rip it all up and soak it in cream for 24-48 hours. Our coffee is the most time consuming – we heat the cream slowly to 176 degrees and then steep the coffee grounds right in it (just roasted within 48 hours) – getting those grounds back out is a secret process that takes forever. But it’s worth it.

8. Favorite ice cream pairing? Most flavors and champagne. My favorite trio right now is dark dark chocolate, lime cardamom yogurt and cherry lambic sorbet (and champagne).

9. Will Jeni’s ever be available on a retail level in Cleveland? If so, where? We want to open a full-service shop in Cleveland. We are very good at providing a whole experience around ice cream, that’s something you don’t get with just offering retail pints in a grocery store. Our sundaes are really special (we hand-whip local cream for our sundaes), as is our coffee service. You have to taste your way through our shop – it’s part of the whole experience. We’re open to any suggestions on locations!

10. If you weren’t making ice cream, what would you be doing? I would be driving around a gelatin truck, selling gelatin cubes in all sorts of flavors and colors! They would be served in paper cones with a toothpick so that you could walk and eat it. Some would be made with local or exotic fruits and some would be more like panna cotta made with cream. Some would be savory like bloody Mary or clear consommes and you could mix and match. I know what many readers are thinking right now … genius. I actually had this idea before ice cream but I’ve been to chicken to do it. If I get the truck, I’ll be sure to bring it to Cleveland. It seems so futuristic to me … and I know, sort of disgusting. You would have to be absolutely fearless to do this as a business, which I am (most of the time).

11. When visiting Cleveland, favorite restaurant? Favorite restaurant in Columbus? The Greenhouse Tavern blows me away –  the whole experience. I have started to spend more time in Cleveland and I can’t wait to discover new favorites. In Columbus, I have way too many favorites: Alana’s (I am there a lot), Rigsby’s for mortadella panino at lunch and Spagio for a spa brunch on Sundays (so civilized). Third and Hollywood has a great grilled artichoke on the menu right now and I eat it with their pink prosecco – I totally love that.

12. What do you love about Ohio and what drives you nuts? I love that Ohio is full of interesting towns and cities – LOTS of them. I am originally from Illinois and in Illinois you can go forever without running into another town – everything is in Chicago. But here, you can bike from town to town. If you start in Columbus, you can go all the way to Cleveland on back roads and hit a town every few miles. It makes me crazy to think we don’t have a train running between our cities.

13. You’re having a dinner party, top 5 songs on your playlist? The whole album Now & Then by The Carpenters, on vinyl.
14. What book are you currently reading? A Revolution in Taste, The rise of French cuisineby Susan Pinkard. Not that I only read books about food.

15. If Ohio was an ice cream flavor, what flavor would it be? Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry. It’s been on our menu every summer since I started making ice cream and we always say that it tastes like Ohio.

16. What is your favorite ice cream flavor? Salty Caramel or Kumquat Yogurt – which will be available this December. Actually, they will be yummy together.

17. What are you doing when not making ice cream? I am playing with our two babes – Greta is almost 2, and Dashiell is 4 1/2 months. We just got a FatBoy so that has been fun. We also got some awesome bike seats, so riding with the babes has been fun.

18. For someone that has never been to one of your stores in Columbus, what can they expect to find?  Lots of tastes. Beautiful sundaes, ice cream servers who know their stuff! Get coffee, it’s French pressed and comes to you on a tray. It is very romantic. Ideal for a date.

19. Why is it important to hand-pack every pint of ice cream? We hand-pack it right out of the machine. I have seen pint packing machines and they often leave a gap a the top. This is not good for ice cream because the ice cream gets gummy if there is air in there. We prevent this by hand packing.

20.  What’s the biggest challenge running a small company? The biggest challenge is that you are a small fish in shark infested waters. If you aren’t very savvy you can fall into a lot of traps. From leases, to permits, banking and every other thing. You have to be a shark, or hire one!

21. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently since starting out in 2002? No, I had to learn all my lessons the hard way.

22. Best plate of food you’ve ever had? Rare pigeon and roasted red grapes at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant, The Bastide de Moustiers in Moustiers, France. I probably wouldn’t have ordered it on a menu at home, but I did there and was so happy that I did. The bird was almost raw – but I drank rose and melted at every single bite. Also there was a gazpacho that was like nothing else I have ever eaten. The flavors were so subtle and explosive all at once. Each dish was elegant in it’s utter simplicity – almost to the degree of being boring, until the taste.

23. Favorite meal from your childhood? Marinated flank steak sliced thin and potatoes au gratin. At the end, Grandma Bette’s bundt cake.

24. What’s next for Jeni’s? We are working on that plan as we speak! Hopefully Cleveland is a big part of that … we went through so much to get this beautiful organic, grassfed Ohio dairy and we want people to experience it!

24 Comments

  1. Monique
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Great interview! It’s these great interviews that cause me to venture and try new places. For instance my husband and I recently tried Baricelli Inn – wow!!!!

    Speaking of which – important birthday coming up, where do I get a great cake? tried Whole Paycheck – didn’t like the lack of quality. East side suggestions?

  2. Posted August 12, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Jeni’s should open at Eton.

  3. Steve Shoemaker
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michelle, Julie and I will be in Columbus on 8/23/09 and we will go by Jeni’s at least once. So let me know if you want me to bring something back on dry ice. I honestly can’t say what my favorite is but I do like the salty caramel and the bourbon butter pecan.
    Steve

  4. Posted August 13, 2009 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I was actually recently having a conversation with a friend about how I dreamt Jeni’s was in Cleveland & I left a credit card on file there. It’s hands down my favorite part of Columbus and my favorite ice cream. You’re right, it’s more than ice cream.

    Locations? Three jump out for density, character, and walkability – Downtown, West 25th, or University Circle.

  5. Posted August 13, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Dying to get into one of their mojito sundaes with hand-whipped cream. Roadtrip?

  6. kakaty
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    We cannot make a trip through Columbus without a stop at Jeni’s! They would be a success from the start if they opened here. I would say Eton if they want to draw traffic that may be new to them or Coventry if they want a younger, hip neighborhood.

  7. Posted August 13, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    There’s a ‘Where in Cleveland should we put a Jeni’s?” thread on our FB page, if any of you feel like weighing in there: http://bit.ly/Q8Vs.

  8. Tyler
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Stay in the city for sure. I would suggest W. 25th, Tremont, University Circle, or East 4th area.

  9. Julie
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I *loved* Jeni’s when I lived in Columbus! If they open up shop in Cleveland, I vote 100% for East 4th in the Gateway district. It has so many fabulous restaurants, but no ice cream. We live there and crave ice cream at least once a week, but to get it we have to get in the car!

  10. Michelle V
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Monique – I’m afraid I dont’t know too many cake places, I’m sorry! I only know of a Cookie & a Cupcake in Tremont (beautiful cakes, tasty, too) and the one in La Place, but I can’t think of the name. I’ll ask around for others.

  11. Kate
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Definitely in either University Circle, Tremont, East 4th (if you could cram any more in…) or Ohio City. We need to combat urban sprawl and give more to our downtown residents :)

  12. eyehrtfood
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Eton, as noted above, would be a great spot for Jeni’s (for a new place) – part of the outgoing Smith & Hawken, in the front, would give them great visibility and decent parking access (though it can get very crowded). Coldstone didn’t make it there – but they’re no Jeni’s – and Jeni’s would be one of a kind. Coventry or Cedar-Lee (older spots) would seem wonderful spots, too – all the right kind of customers and other businesses around. W. 25th too dicey for families to hit – and parking isn’t nearly as easy as at the other 2. E. 4th is a nice idea and perfect for a summer night if you’ve finished dinner on the street – but parking cost and hassle would mean there’s no simple way to just drop by, the kiss of death for a place like that. Plus, there are no neighborhoods nearby. West side suburbs – perhaps for s 2nd or 3rd location…

  13. john mcgovern
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    DS = detroit shoreway

    up an coming but already UP with cleveland’s most prominent avant garde theater co – cleveland public theater and on oct 1, a historic renovation opens to finally bring films back to gordon square (greater DS) and sometime soon another live theater option…near west theater. check it OUT! try before you buy……right?

    jeni’s is muy rico!! i first had it bout 10 years back, ice cream flavored with columbus (brewing) apricot ale – brilliant!
    and now, could it be in the CLV in the DS?

    hope so.

    pEACE<

  14. Seth Beattie
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Detroit Shoreway, Tremont or Little Italy … I would lean away from the Eton Collection lifestyle center. I’ll expand on the Facebook page.

    Monique, for a unique cake experience, I would suggest checking out Koko Bakery in Asiatown. This is one of Cleveland’s unsung little jewels … delicious artisan desserts, including large cakes. These desserts are BEAUTIFULLY presented and handmade on-site. Definitely worth checking out. And grab a bubble tea while you’re there :)

  15. Posted August 14, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    It would be great to have a great icecream shop downtown… maybe on Euclid or Prospect near E 4th… it would get a ton of ballgame/theatre traffic too!

    Ohio City would be nice too.

  16. brendamod
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I vote for Cleveland Heights! Either Coventry, which is usually bumping, or Lee, for the theater crowd. Detroit-Shoreway would be good too, but less convenient for me :)

  17. jillc
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Eton- Coldstone did not make it because of poor employees or bad training. Their process was too confusing and labor intensive. It took forever to get anything. Mitchell’s at La Place can serve 15 people in the time it took Coldstone to serve one.

    Eton would be great because Trader Joe’s draws people from Erie to Akron daily and all of the restaurants pull in tons of people. Plus people in the surrounding neighborhoods entertain frequently and are always looking for something trendy or unique, and for many cost is not a consideration. Some of the more urban areas suggested would be good for cones but not pints.

  18. Lauren
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    eyehrtfood –
    What do you mean there are no neighborhoods by E. 4th? Ummm, hello?!? About 13,000 people live downtown, and we walk everywhere thankyouverymuch. There isn’t a single ice cream place in downtown Cleveland, and I think it could be a VERY profitable venture there. If you go to any of the suburbs, you’re competing with Mitchell’s, Coldstone, Ben and Jerry’s, Baskin Robins, etc.

  19. jam40jeff
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Not only are there neighborhoods around E. 4th (although I assume not fitting your suburban view of what a neighborhood looks like), you have the 10s of thousands of people going to/leaving Indians games, tourists, 10,000+ workers on lunch break, etc. Plenty of people will walk there and be glad there’s not massive parking lots making their walk longer and more dangerous. If you want an ice cream store with plenty of parking, you already have plenty of options and a new store would have plenty of competition. I think a downtown store would do quite well.

  20. ygogolak
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Eton? I thought they wanted to be in Cleveland? If anything people would drive to Cleveland from Eton, not the other way around.

  21. Hema
    Posted August 14, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree that Eton would be the perfect place! Also, rather than having a full service storefront in downtown Cleveland, how about an ice cream truck/cart on the corner of E.4th and Euclid? I work in that area and I know the downtown lunch crowd could use a place to pick up a quick sweet treat after (or instead of) lunch!

  22. Posted August 15, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Hey, were you there the same time as me? I just posted a little blurb about Jeni’s and Thai on High. Obviously, we think alike! And we need to put Jeni’s in Detroit Shoreway near Eco Village! The second location could easily go in at Coventry and a simple Pints-only stand at the West Side market is a must have! (I say pints only, as who wants to wait while a HUGE line has to taste and decide? The market would grind to a halt!)

  23. Kelly
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Jeni’s is the best! I had the pleasure of meeting Micheal Symon earlier this year and he asked for recommendations for places to try when he was in Columbus visiting relatives. I rattled off the usual suspects, but when I told my kids they said, “you should have said Jeni’s!”

  24. Posted August 17, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    sounds delicious. I would like to purchase several tubs of whatever goat cheese and cranberry concoction she made.