Welcome to “When we were small,” our new series looking back at the small-business years of what became some of the country’s most recognizable companies. In interviews with their founders, we explore how they got started, what fueled their rise, and what challenges they faced along the way.
In the summer of 1978, two friends opened a makeshift ice cream parlor in an abandoned gas station in northern Vermont. Using a single five-gallon ice cream maker, they churned out batch after batch of wacky flavors like Chunky Monkey and Heath Bar Crunch.
In the decades that followed, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield built Ben & Jerry’s into a legendary ice crea m company, with more than 600 scoop shops in 35 countries around the world and annual sales now topping $500 million.
And to think, it all happened because one of them couldn’t get into medical school, and the other couldn’t sell enough pottery.
During a joint interview, Cohen and Greenfield took us back to the early years at the company, including their $5 investment in an ice cream-making course, the invention of their most inspiring flavor, and their epic marketing battle with the Pillsbury Doughboy. What follows is a transcript of our interview, lightly edited for clarity.
J.D. Harrison: How did you two first meet?
Ben Cohen: Jerry and I met in junior high, when he fainted in gym class. It made quite an impression on me, and we quickly became friends.
Some years later, I had dropped out of college and was trying to become a potter, but nobody wanted to buy my pottery, and Jerry had finished college and was trying to go to medical school, but nobody would let him into their medical school. So, I was delivering pottery wheels and working as a taxi driver, and he was a lab technician, working on rat brains and cow livers in a research lab, and neither of us really liked what we were doing with our lives. So we decided to try to start something together.
Harrison: Why ice cream?
Jerry Greenfield: What Ben didn’t mention was that we were both fat, dumpy kids growing up, and we liked to eat. So we knew we wanted to do something with food. We thought about a whole bunch of different types of foods — bagels, fondue, some others.
In fact, we actually priced out bagel-making equipment from a used restaurant equipment supplier, but we realized it was more money than we had between us. When we found out ice cream would be cheaper, we picked ice cream.
Harrison: How did you learn to make it?
Greenfield: We took this $5 correspondence course from Penn State. I think we actually split it, paying $2.50 a piece. They sent you a textbook in the mail, we read through the chapters, and all the tests were open book, so we actually did pretty well on those.
Harrison: Why did you open the shop in Burlington, Vermont?
Cohen: We were both 26 and we liked the idea of a rural college town; that’s the environment we wanted to live in. Most of the warm towns already had homemade ice cream shops, so we started looking in Burlington because they didn’t have one yet.
Harrison: So how did you find your first location?
Cohen: We were looking for a spot that we could afford, and we came across this old, run-down, dilapidated gas station across from the city hall park that had parking where the pumps used to be. The roof had failed, though, and there was about four inches of ice on the floor inside. But you know, we went with it, because of the location.
Harrison: How did you finance the start of the business?
Cohen: We were both supposed to come up with $4,000. Jerry came up with his $4,000, and I came up with $2,000, and then I managed to get another $2,000 out of my father.
Greenfield: Then we got another $4,000 from the bank, so we started with $12,000. Our initial loan request was for $18,000, but because we had only signed a one-year lease, they didn’t think that was very prudent. So they gave us $4,000, and we had to make it work.
Harrison: So what was your next move?
Greenfield: We had to start with the roof. I mean, you could see daylight coming in through the ceiling. Ben spent many hours up there repairing it personally.
Harrison: So you’re the ice cream makers and the repairmen?
Cohen: I had to, it was in bad shape, and we were short on money. I went by the local newspaper, and they had stacks of these thin tin sheets they used to print the papers, and they would sell the stacks for 10 or 15 cents a piece. I would buy them all up and tack them onto the roof with some tar to cover up the holes.
That worked pretty well for a while, but eventually it started to leak through. So we put up this giant sheet of plastic across the top of the ceiling to catch the water. But then that started to sag. So we cut a hole where it was sagging and ran a hose to a sink in the back.
Greenfield: It wasn’t exactly elegant.
Cohen: Yeah, but it worked for a while — until the thermostat broke one day and the plastic melted. The fire department came out at that point, and we had to really fix the roof.
Harrison: What else can you remember about that first store?
Greenfield: We had high ceilings, and we had these wood stoves in the middle of the store, with chimneys going up through the roof. The colors inside were pretty muted, mostly cork and natural wood. All the bright colors in the stores today, that came later. But we did have this player piano in the shop that Ben and I had rebuilt ourselves.
In the front of the shop, we had our five-gallon, rock-salt-and-ice ice cream freezer, like one you might have in your house. It would take about a half hour to make a batch, and then Ben and I would be behind the counter scooping it.
One of the best parts was the dashers — that’s those wooden blades that spin around, and when you take them out, they always have ice cream clinging to them. Of course, at home, you would get to lick the dashers. So, we would do the same thing at the parlor and put them out for customers.
Harrison: Wait, to lick?
Greenfield: Absolutely. It was a different time, much more down-home, without all the regulations you have today.
Harrison: How did you decide on the name Ben & Jerry’s?
Cohen: I tried to be cute at first, playing around with some ideas like Josephine’s Flying Machine, based on the old-timey song. I think we talked about Grandma’s, too.
It was Jerry who said it was traditional for homemade ice cream parlors to be named after their owners, and he was right. We played around with Ben & Jerry’s, Jerry & Ben’s, and in the end, Ben & Jerry’s just rolled off the tongue a little better. So, we made Jerry the company president to make up for coming last.
Greenfield: Not really last. Second.
Cohen: Alright, that’s true. Second.
Harrison: How did you learn the ins and outs of running a business?
Greenfield: Honestly, we learned a lot from these little brochures that the Small Business Administration put out back in those days. They were 20 cents a piece, you could get them at the Post Office, and one would be about how to calculate your break-even point, another would be about how to manage your books. That was pretty much our business education.
Harrison: So what about your hiring decisions — what were you looking for when you brought on your first employees?
Greenfield: Honestly, it was completely random. We didn’t really know what we were looking for and we didn’t have any hiring skills. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t. Overall, though, the people we found were amazing, and some of them came up with some our best ideas. Our recipe for hot fudge, for example, basically the one we still used today, was a recipe one of our early hires brought to us.
Harrison: What was your greatest challenge in the first few years?
Greenfield: Money. We didn’t have enough of it.
Cohen: Yeah, come winter, more money was going out than was coming in, and we didn’t really have any cash reserves. We weren’t making as much money as we had hoped in the summer, either, because we were over-scooping. We couldn’t bring ourselves to scoop smaller portions, because customers wanted the big scoops.
Harrison: Is that what pushed you into the wholesale business?
Cohen: Right, we thought we could drum up some extra business by selling tubs of ice cream, which would solve both the seasonal business problem and the portion-control problem. I started by going around selling tubs to restaurants, and I was transporting them in this insulated box in the back of my station wagon — the idea being to drive around as fast as I could delivering as much ice cream as I could before it melted.
I could only hold 16 tubs in that box, though, and we started selling more than that, so we bought a really old ice cream truck with mechanic refrigeration. I drove that around for a while, but our delivery costs actually went up, because the truck kept breaking down and would have to be towed back to the garage.
Our last ditch effort was to pack it into pints and sell it to the mom-and-pop grocery stores we passed on the way to the restaurants. That’s how we got into that business.
Harrison: So was there a moment that sparked your rise to a global brand?
Greenfield: I don’t think so, it definitely didn’t happen overnight. If there was one moment to point back to, though, it was probably the invention of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream — that really captured people’s imaginations, and it came about because we had started baking homemade cookies on site along with the homemade ice cream at the store in Vermont. One day, the baker and the ice cream maker got together, and the baker said, “Why don’t you try some of this cookie dough in the ice cream?”
Harrison: Can you take me through your legendary marketing battle with Pillsbury?
Greenfield: Sure. We had just started to package ice cream and sell it to grocery stores, and Haagen-Dazs had just been acquired by Pillsbury, so they were now owned by this large conglomerate. Our company had partnered with distributors up north to start selling Ben & Jerry’s, and most of them were already carrying Haagen-Dazs.
At some point, Pillsbury came to the distributors and told them to drop Ben & Jerry’s or they would stop selling them Haagen-Dazs, which was a profitable item for these distributors. So they were going to stop selling our products. We knew that trying to sue Pillsbury, a $4 billion company, wouldn’t work, so, we decided to take our case to the people with a campaign called “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?”
We took out signs on transit buses and put an 800 number on our ice cream packaging. If customers called, they would get an answering machine message with Ben and I explaining the situation, and if they left their address on the machine, we would send them a mailing kit with a bumper sticker and they could order a “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?” T-shirt.
It was this classic David-and-Goliath story, and it got picked up in the press, and eventually, Pillsbury backed down because they were getting so much public pressure. That’s really what permitted Ben & Jerry’s to be distributed across the country.
Harrison: Eventually, Ben & Jerry’s was sold to a large conglomerate, Unilever. How did that sale happen?
Greenfield: It’s still not completely clear to us whether the company was approached or not. Our CEO at the time said he was approached, though he had quite an interest in selling the company because he was very incentivized with stock options. So he’s probably the only guy who really knows. Once that happened, though, there were several companies that showed interest, and we got into a bidding war. Once the company was put in play, there was really no putting the lid back on the jar. Honestly, at points, it was excruciating.
Harrison: If you could go back to those small-business years and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
Greenfield: I think we could have been more selective in chasing opportunities. We just felt so much pressure to go after so many different things when we started growing — new markets, new products. It’s hard to do things well when you’re trying to do so much so quickly.
I would also put even more time into making sure we put the right people in place, too, ones who believed in our social mission but also had the necessary business skills. Those don’t always go together. And we knew that’s what would separate Ben & Jerry’s — even more than the great flavors, it was important for us to make our social mission a central part of the company.