Ice-cream icons Ben and Jerry may have sold their famed company, but the pair still has the scoop on Bostonís favorite dessert
BY TAMARA WIEDER
FEW IN THE world of commerce and consumerism are so broadly recognized, so iconic, that they are known by their first names alone. But think about it: you know Ben and Jerry, youíve eaten their ice cream, but do you have any idea what their last names are?
For the record, thatíd be Cohen and Greenfield. But to the world they will forever be Ben and Jerry, two guys who met in a seventh-grade gym class on Long Island in 1963, took a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making from Penn State University, and in 1978 opened what would become a multi-million-dollar Vermont-based ice-cream enterprise. (The duo sold the company to Unilever in 2000, though theyíve stayed on in a diminished capacity.)
But Ben and Jerry arenít just known for their ice cream. The pair has a history of social activism, from establishing socially conscious programs ó including the Ben & Jerryís Foundation, which funds community-oriented projects; 1% for Peace, which works to redirect one percent of the national defense budget to peace-promoting activities (the organization is now called Business for Social Responsibility); and One World, One Heart Festivals, which highlight music, arts, and social action ó to supporting the Childrenís Defense Fund, partially sponsoring the Newport Folk Festival, and developing more environmentally friendly packaging for the companyís products. And, last year, Ben founded Truemajority.org, a nonprofit that monitors Congress on issues of social justice and sustainability.
Still, itís ice cream that put Ben and Jerry on the map, and itís ice cream that brought them to Boston on a recent Tuesday afternoon to promote the companyís new organic line. And so, over far too many pints of the cold stuff at Ben & Jerryís Scoop Shop on Newbury Street, the pair, along with flavor developer Mike Spinelli, sat down to dish.
Q: Is it true that Boston has one of the highest ice-cream-consumption rates in the country?
Ben: I believe thatís correct.
Q: Why do you think that is?
B: Why do you think that is, Jerry?
Jerry: Iíve never had any idea why that is.
B: We know that cooler places have higher ice-cream-consumption rates.
Q: Why would that be?
B: That is counterintuitive and nobody knows why. I mean, New England is the highest-consumption region in the country, and I think Alaska is the highest-per-capita-consumption state. But thereís two ice-cream towns in the country: Boston and San Francisco. Part of it, I think, is having a lot of college-age kids.
J: Well, thereís also a real tradition of good ice cream here. I mean, this is a good place to eat a lot of ice cream. Certainly, before we started, we came and visited Steveís Ice Cream in Somerville, and watched the ice-cream machine turning around and around and around, and tried to count the number of revolutions per minute that it was turning so we could learn from that, and we spoke with Steve Herrell, who was really amazingly helpful for someone who didnít know us at all and had no reason to be helpful. He was just a really nice guy and very helpful, and he still makes great ice cream at Herrellís. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Steve Herrell.
Q: Did you ever expect, when you took an ice-cream-making correspondence course back in 1977, that this would happen?
J: No. Of course not. And nobody else who knew us ever wouldíve guessed what wouldíve happened.
Q: What was the goal? To open one shop?
B: Right, to open one shop, operate it, to stay in business for a year. We thought the odds of us staying in business a year were slim, so at the beginning we said, if weíre in business for a year, weíll open our doors and serve free ice cream to everybody on our anniversary. And then the original thought was, weíll do this for a few years and then sell the one shop and with the money we get, weíd buy a tractor-trailer and become cross-country truck drivers. Didnít work out that way.
Q: Any regrets?
B: Only that the business is no longer independent.
Q: Why was the decision made to sell the company?
B: Well, the business was publicly owned, and there was another company that wanted to own it, and they were offering so much money for the stock that the board of directors felt that they had no choice but to accept the offer. So thatís what happened.
Q: How has your involvement in the company changed since then?
J: Well, weíre still employed at the company, but weíre not involved in operations or management. So we have no responsibility, no authority, and very little influence.
Q: How does that feel?
J: Funny. Very funny. Itís very different. Weíre somewhat goodwill ambassadors for the company, which I like, because ó and I think this is true for Ben ó we both want to help promote the values of the company, not simply to sell more ice cream, but the other things that the company stands for and works for. So to the degree that we can move that forward is what we want to do, which is why weíre here to help introduce organic ice cream.
B: I didnít know there was a spoon at the bottom of the straw. Did you? The funny thing is, it doesnít really fit through [the hole in the lid].
J: It wasnít developed in conjunction with the lid, was it?
B: I donít think so. I think they used two different sources.
J: They were developed independently.
B: But you can see the idea was good. Itís nice to know that thereís a spoon at the end of your straw, donít you think?
J: I donít think the lid is really designed to have things lifted up through it, anyway.
B: I think it definitely is, otherwise they wouldnít have made [the hole] so big.
J: I guess.
B: Yeah. Otherwise, why make it so big?
J: I donít think they were thinking of this thing, though.
B: No, they werenít thinking of this particular straw, they were thinking of a Slurpee straw like they use at 7-Eleven. A Slurpee straw would fit through here easy, I can guarantee you that. Slurpee straw has reduced their use of materials. Thereís a lot less material in a Slurpee straw. This is a very hardy ó I mean, this is a reusable straw. You could take this home.
J: What do you think of the color?
B: Itís neon.
J: It is. Itís really bright. You wouldnít think of it as ó
B: Au naturel.
J: Yeah, right.
B: Well, thatís the thing: the product is au naturel, so they probably feel like they needed to jazz it up.
Q: Why organic? What brought the company down this road?
B: Iíve been wanting to do organic for a long, long time. I mean, we both were. If you care about the environment as a food producer, itís clear that the way food is conventionally grown is really bad for the environment, in terms of all the chemicals that end up going into the environment. And then those chemicals have negative effects on human health, and so I think if a food manufacturer is environmentally responsible, they really have no choice but to come out with an organic alternative for their customers.
Q: How much ice cream do you think you each consume on an annual basis?
B: I used to be an extremely heavy user of ice cream. I mean, I was eating ice cream not for pleasure; I was eating ice cream for work. And you know, see, this is something Iíve always wanted to discuss with our flavor developers; Iím glad thereís an opportunity to do this. You know, I always believed, as a former flavor developer ó
J: ó with no formal training ó
B: ó that it was important to eat through the pint. The idea was that the normal way that people eat ice cream was to sit down with a pint and go through a pint, and if all youíre doing is taking like a teaspoon of it and tasting it, youíre not getting the total eating experience. You canít judge how a pint of a particular flavor is going to be perceived and received by a consumer by taking a teaspoon of it. So my body, when I was in the position of a flavor developer, showed the signs of my work. I was exceedingly large. Because I believed that you needed to eat the whole pint. Now itís my understanding that you and your peers and your ilk, you test flavors just by eating a teaspoonful. And I donít understand how you can possibly do it.
Mike Spinelli: You look at the background, for the flavor balance, but you bring up a good point. The balance between the chunks and the background ó thatís important. We do a lot of sampling and spitting, without actually swallowing.
B: There you go, thatís exactly what Iím saying. I donít think itís as valid [a method] of testing. I understand that itís better for your own health; Iíd be the last person to say to sacrifice your body for the cause. I was untrained. These guys are professionals. They probably have a way of, having eaten through a few pints, they can probably take a few spoonfuls and kind of understand the trajectory ó
B: Right. I never had that capability. I once went to ice-cream school, a short course at Penn State, and there was a session on what they called organoliptic sensory perception of ice cream, and they did teach you the professional way of tasting, which is to spit it out. And I tell you, I could never understand that either, and I could never do it. But anyhow, clearly both ways are valid, because these are some incredible flavors. And the guy is trim and fit. Proving that you can eat shitloads of ice cream and still retain your physique!
Q: As long as you spit it out once in a while.
B: I suppose. What percentage of the ice cream that enters your lips do you think ends up going down your esophagus?
MS: Iíd say 50 percent.
Q: In your history with the company, do certain flavors come to mind that just didnít work?
J: We were just talking about one today. Lemon-peppermint-carob-chip. It was a mistake. It was an error.
B: There are a lot of flavors that didnít work. See, a lot of times, thereís like conceptual flavors that you come up with in your head; you say, this will be a good combination of flavors, and then you try it out and itís no good. Once we hired this marketing guy, you know, he was like a marketing professional, who decided ó itís not like he came up with the flavor in his head ó he came up with a literary concept: sugarplum. He was trying to come up with a flavor for the holiday season ó
J: It was actually to support the Boston Ballet.
B: There you go. Support the Boston Ballet, doing their Nutcracker Suite thing, and he said, okay, weíre going to come up with a flavor called sugarplum. So the packaging gets made, but thereís no flavor. People are trying to come up with the flavor, and we were like, whatís a sugarplum? And it turns out that there is no such thing as a sugarplum. So thereís no flavor. So we came up with, what, plum with a caramel swirl?
Q: Well, thatís creative.
B: Can you buy sugarplum on the shelf in your supermarket today?
Q: Did it last at least one holiday season?
B: At least one holiday season.
Q: Long enough to use up the containers.
Q: Whatís one flavor weíll never see?
B: Bubblegum. Iíve had so many requests for bubblegum. I tell people to go to Baskin-Robbins. Look, we make a classy product here. I mean, we have a base of ice cream thatís the best quality you can get. Soiling it, adulterating it, by throwing in bubblegum, itís just incomprehensible. It would be a sin.
Q: Gummy worms?
J: I donít think theyíre that good in ice cream. I think they get really hard. Theyíre good at room temperature.
Q: Do you each have a favorite flavor?
B: Cherry Garcia.
Q: What about Jerry?
B: Heís not really faithful to one particular flavor.
J: No, Iím not.
B: He eats around.
J: Heath Bar Crunch I like quite a bit.
B: Coming back to Heath Bar Crunch? Wow.
J: I had some Cookie Dough last night, but thatís just because I had some in my freezer; I donít really eat it that much. I find it too sweet. I like Mint Chocolate Cookie. I like the mint. Iíd like it a little mintier. You ever hear that from anyone?
MS: Oh, yes.
B: Then why the hell donít you put more mint in it?
J: Do you have an opinion on that?
MS: I like it minty. Itís a peppermint flavor; I actually prefer spearmint.
J: Oh, no. It needs to be peppermint.
B: It does need to be peppermint. I think it used to be mintier. Is that true?
MS: Itís possible. Weíll look into that for you.
J: That would be good. I think it needs to be mintier.
Q: How many days go by that you donít eat ice cream? Does that ever happen?
J: I can go months without eating ice cream. And I can eat ó and this is going to sound like an exaggeration ó but I could probably go for a month and eat a pint of ice cream every day.
J: Because I think Iíve done it in the last month.
B: You donít look it.
J: I sort of go over the line. But then, like I say, I can go for months and not have a scoop. Iím sort of a binge eater.
Q: You were scooping "Big Dig" sundaes in Cambridge today. Why would you name something as fun and happy as a sundae after something so universally despised in Boston as the Big Dig?
J: It wasnít my idea, Iíll tell you that. I told them it was old news. The Big Dig? I mean, all this stuff has been done about the Big Dig. Itís like 10 years old, right?
B: I think this is a fun Big Dig. I mean, this is the way a Big Dig should be. This is a way of helping people feel better about the Big Dig.
J: I think we can safely say that the name for the sundae Big Dig was not suggested by somebody who is really that familiar with what is going on in Boston. [Points to Ben.]
Q: What would be the flavor of the Bush administration?
B: Oh, God. Poison.
J: I think itís helpful for us, Ben, to be clear that Ben & Jerryís is a nonpartisan company. Often Ben and I speak about our own individual beliefs, but we donít really represent the company on those aspects.
Q: How much of the companyís popularity do you think has been about your social activism and how much has been about the product?
B: Well, itís certainly been a combination of the two. All I can say is that during the heyday of super-premium ice cream ... the only one thatís survived is Ben & Jerryís. Those other ice creams, a lot of them were good ice cream. So itís a combination. I mean, nobodyís going to buy ice cream that they donít like, just because they believe in the social values of the company. But it certainly has given the product, the brand, a pointed difference, and just kind of made people feel good about it. So much of advertising and public relations is about really just trying to get people to feel good about a brand. And for Ben & Jerryís, people feel good about it because of the social activism.
Q: How does one prevent an ice-cream headache?
B: One eats at a slow, deliberate speed. One tries to extend the moment of ecstasy, as opposed to trying to shove it all down at once.
J: I donít suppose youíve ever fallen prey to an ice-cream headache?
B: I never have.
J: Really? How íbout from a Slurpee?
B: Never. I get loads of headaches, but I have never gotten an ice-cream headache.
J: Oh, man.
B: Or a Slurpee headache. And Lord knows Iíve consumed enough Slurpees in my day.
Q: A lot of Slurpees going on in Vermont?
B: No. None in Vermont. Thatís the main reason why I travel: there are no 7-Elevens in Vermont. Itís a problem. But you can ask anyone Iíve traveled with: when Iím out of state, I stop at pretty much every 7-Eleven I come across.
J: Itís true. And heís turned his daughter on to Slurpees, too.
B: She likes blue.
Q: I donít know that Iíve ever had a Slurpee.
B: Oh! Youíre missing a lot. And youíve even got 7-Elevens. And the spoon-straw fits through the hole in the lid.
Q: They apparently have better engineers than Ben & Jerryís.
Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com