Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Founder Talks Rebuilding [Q&A]
A lack of inventory isn’t keeping Jeni Britton Bauer from taking part in the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York this weekend.
“We’re looking forward to the show. Even in our situation it’s gonna be fun,” the founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams said Tuesday over the phone.
When a listeria discovery in April forced the Columbus, Ohio–based ice cream maker to halt its production, the company acted fast, recalling all products and temporarily closing its scoop shops across the country.
Implementing a more rigorous protocol, the company caught a second instance of the bacteria last week—before it reached the supply, meaning the new measures did their job, Britton Bauer said.
Superior ingredients, high-quality production, and a passionate team have made Jeni’s a darling of the specialty food world, with a fervent fan base that happily spends upwards of $12 per pint for ice cream in such flavors as salty caramel and brambleberry crisp.
Earlier this year, the Specialty Food Association awarded Britton Bauer a 2015 Leadership Award for her visionary business.
In her first interview since the second listeria discovery, Britton Bauer talked with Specialty Food News this week about rebuilding supply, improving standards, and embracing an outpouring of support from the specialty food community in Ohio and beyond.
Related: View interview with Jeni Britton Bauer at the Summer Fancy Food Show.
You and your team responded swiftly to the news of the listeria discovery in April with a full production halt. What drove that decision?
We [did] that crisis management the same way we make ice cream, and that is, very simply, the way that we think you should do it—the way that we think is the best way. I’ve always made ice cream that way. Not the way people did it but the way I thought it was done, everything done from scratch.
So the same thing happened with [the recall]. We’re like, “OK, this is what we have to do.” And I believe everybody on our team from every department would’ve made the same decision because it’s just the kind of company that we are. We definitely halt production. We halt production because we’ve got to figure it out. Not only that, but within 12 hours we had done a full recall, which is a pretty big undertaking. Before you do a recall, you have to actually get the FDA’s approval. It’s a whole process of doing that, so on top of that we had to create a plan, get it in front of them, get it approved, and do it. So it’s pretty much record time, I think. [laughs]
The last thing you want is somebody to get sick or something to happen. You have to act as absolutely quickly as humanly possible. And sometimes it means you have to make tough decisions like, let’s just bring it all back. If we can’t figure it out then bring it all back. Even if it’s only in two pints of ice cream, one pint of ice cream, you bring it all back.
Your team has also been very forthcoming in communicating the listeria discoveries and updates. What has your goal been in communicating information with the community?
If there was a goal it’s simply just to be who we are. In the 21st century, we don’t have to rely on media, necessarily, or other modes of communication. We can get out there and say it from our mouths exactly what’s going on, and so that’s exactly what we did.
There’s a trust factor that was born because that’s the kind of company we are. Before the recall, before any of that, we’ve always opened up our windows and doors and let people in—so, keeping in the tradition of that, and also to protect that.
Can you talk about what happened last week? What controls have been put in place?
We have a test-and-hold protocol now so that every batch is being tested, so when a swab comes back positive we can hold that batch or send it to the [anaerobic] digester [an oxygen-free alternative to composting]. That’s how everybody should operate—not everybody does operate that way—but that’s the protocol that we’ve established in our kitchen and it’s at the top of the safety game.
The normal protocol in a rigorous environmental swabbing program is when you find anything—listeria, it could be any number of those things—to shut down, get rid of it, do more swabbing, and then start back up. We have all that in place; the problem is we don’t have inventory to [keep the stores running] when the swab comes back positive.
When we threw into a digester 265 tons of ice cream—some ungodly number that we made—that was months of inventory for us. We had been working with our strawberries to make strawberry ice cream, which were banked from last summer from our growers here to make for this summer. We basically didn’t have the inventory to keep up.
We did not think we would see [listeria] again. We thought that it was gone. It came in again. We know what it is now, and that’s fine, but inventory-wise we had to shut everything down because we just can’t make enough ice cream. But the great news is our protocol totally worked. There’s a lot of positive in that, and we just get back out there.
[Previously] we did not do environmental testing. It’s not required in Ohio. We were not told to do that. We definitely do now. That was something we started doing after the first recall and now we’ve got a rigorous program of that. We actually did test in-house before; it just wasn’t the test-and-hold procedure, and it wasn’t for listeria.
What other efforts are you planning to put in place?
There’s this dairy called Smith Dairy. It’s an old dairy in Ohio—very old fourth-generation family dairy, very traditional. We’ve been working with them for a while to source grass-pastured milk. And so it’s been a fun project to get them making ice cream for us. They have this great ice cream making equipment and they are just top of their game when it comes to equipment and food safety. Now what is happening is that milk is coming in as raw milk and being turned into ice cream right there, so it’s, in many ways, better than when it makes it down to our kitchen.
By the way, a bunch of ice cream makers—every one of them, almost, in Ohio—reached out to us to tell us they would make our ice cream for us, or we could make our ice cream there.
We’ve always thought of our company as a community and a fellowship. We’ve worked with many producers and growers in this big community we talk about all the time. And I feel like this is almost an extension of that, especially because we’re so close to them. One of our top goals is to change dairies—to build demand for better-quality dairies, in the Northeast especially.
What has been the response from the specialty food community—your suppliers, your buyers?
Absolute solidarity. Just lots and lots of good will, tons of support. “Whatever you need, we’ve got your back, let us help you”—from people who we’re purchasing from, all the way to people we’ve just known from years of being at the [Fancy Food] Show, or people we’ve never met before but we’re familiar with their products and they’re familiar with ours, and they’re just sending letters. We’re getting boxes of food, boxes of gifts from all over the specialty food community—which is another reason we want to go to the show.
Shawn Askinosie just sent me this barrel of chocolate, the salty licorice one, which is my favorite one he does. It’s my favorite chocolate in the whole world. That was such an uplifting moment.
Is that support coming from consumers, too?
Absolutely. I mean, I had flowers waiting at my house one time. That was from a customer. And on social media, our consumers have been just passionate. It’s been outrageous, the amount of support we’ve had across our social media channels—just an outpouring from all over the country, which we printed out and put up.
Some of the stores have reopened with limited menus. When do you anticipate those to be fully up and running?
They have nine or 12 flavors, so it’s a good menu of ice cream. [Plus] sundaes, and there are three sauces—there’s about to be a fourth sauce—and now we’re doing floats with Boylan Bottling Works’ sodas. So we have quite a menu. Some people have told me that maybe we just need to keep [the menu] a little bit shorter because it was almost over the top before with so many flavors. So there’s still an incredibly awesome experience in the stores.
There are flavors though that we can’t make right now that we need to get back, like salty caramel and brambleberry crisp, and we’re working on doing that. We’re working with some partners in the specialty food world to help us possibly make our brambleberry jam that we usually make in our kitchen. So those will be coming back online in a rolling way soon over the next weeks. We’ll have more flavors basically every week for a while.
When do you expect wholesale production to resume?
We are working on it absolutely feverishly. I don’t have an exact date right now, but it will be as soon as possible. We’re working to get our kitchen open, we’re working with partners. So we’ll get there, and it will be hopefully a shorter rather than longer time.
What is the biggest challenge your business is facing right now?
We’re working on getting our pints done. The thing we’re working the hardest on is getting our kitchen up and running so we can make some of them, but also working with our partners to get ice cream made.
We lost so much ice cream. We have to get that back, and we have to have our stores open so that we can afford to do it. Right now we’re trying to balance all of that and get everything done.
[Getting the stores open] was the priority because we have to get revenue coming in, or else other things will start falling apart. When we get our kitchen up we’ll be really focused on all the things that only we can make, the things that we know [our partners] can’t make for us.
Despite everything, you’re still planning to exhibit at the upcoming Summer Fancy Food Show. Why was that important to you?
Our company truly is a community. That community is everybody that you affect, not all the people that affect you. I think other people have it wrong, that your community is what surrounds you. I think that your community is all the people that you have an effect on through your action, your inaction.
We have such great relationships with so many people, so many companies, so many people personally at the show, whether it’s our retailers or many of our friends, foodmakers. That is a circle of life that is really important to us, and even if we won’t have product for this time, we’ll still be shaking hands, hugging, looking people in the eye, making commitments that we will honor. Doing that face to face is, in my opinion, still the best way to do it. So we’ll be there doing that, which is why you go to the show in the first place, so you can have a face-to-face interaction with people, and not just email.
What advice would you give to a small business that’s fearing or faced with a food safety issue or potential recall?
If I’m talking to businesses that are small, artisanal food companies, I would say just double-check your safety protocols, because we, too, thought that we were doing everything perfectly. We were in lockstep with [the Ohio Department of Agriculture]. We were following every rule and guideline but somehow missed—so just double-check those.
That, to me, is the message. Now is the time for you to go back and look over your protocols and make sure you’re not letting the rules set the standard—that you’re going above everything.
We understand things in a different way than we ever, ever did before. For instance, we’re not going to hand-pack anything again. We’re not hand-labeling anymore. There are things that we’re doing now that are opened our eyes and changed things for the better.
Any message you’d like to share with the specialty food community?
My message is just one of gratitude. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve come out wiser and truly a better company, without question. We are so full of life and gratitude, and we’re just ready to give high fives and hugs and be back in the mix.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and fit.
Photos: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
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