Recently I traveled out to Burlington, Vermont to visit the headquarters of Ben & Jerry's, one of America's finest all-natural ice cream companies. What I did know before I arrived was that they are a company with an outspoken bent towards activism (and that I love their ice cream). What I didn't know was how deeply rooted their beliefs are in their product and people, and how actively involved they are in promoting and improving the quality of life for people, animals and the earth (and just how much I do in fact love their ice cream). As co-founder Jerry put it, "We're a social justice company that just happens to make ice cream."
Childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield knew nothing about business, but they knew a lot about ice cream. At least eating it. So they split the cost of a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making from Penn State, pooled together their lifesavings of $8,000 and, along with another $4,000 from the bank, they opened shop in an abandoned gas station in Burlington, Vermont on May 5, 1978.
Out of an old-fashioned ice cream maker they churned out the funky chunky flavors they always dreamed about. Soon the ice cream shop became a hit, with long lines always out the door. On their first anniversary they wanted to give back to the community so they offered free ice cream cones, an annual event continued today. In fact, it was Free Cone Day that started their "giving back to the community" philosophy. Not long after they opened their single scoop shop, distribution began to restaurant, grocers and markets throughout Vermont - and beyond. That's when they began to make history.
Cherry Garcia remains the company's best-selling flavor. This certainly tops my list, but after tasting about 15 other flavors I was hard pressed to select a favorite. Their left of center humor shows in collaborative flavors such as Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream (vanilla ice cream with fudge covered waffle cone pieces and a caramel swirl) and Jimmy Fallon's Late Night Snack (vanilla ice cream with a salty caramel swirl and fudge covered potato chip clusters). Some retailers gave the company the cold shoulder when they launched their limited-batch Schweddy Balls, an homage to the ever-popular Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin. Some folks complained that the name was offensive, but unlike many brands on our supermarket shelves - especially a dessert company, Ben & Jerry's refuses to market to children. In fact, their demographic is 24-44 years of age. In celebration of gay marriage they even created a spin-off of their popular Chubby Hubby ice cream called Hubby Hubby. I say keep the fun coming, guys!
This article is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Be sure to check back for more on Ben & Jerry's social and economic missions.
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Editorial disclosure: Foodista.com's travel expenses were generously provided by Ben & Jerry's as part of a media tour.