It’s Halloween afternoon. Jeni Britton Bauer is on the phone, thanking us for interviewing her. It’s not that she’s hurting for attention. As the owner of the beloved Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Bauer is rightfully acknowledged as one of the main reasons that America is obsessed with artisanal scoops. No, she’s thanking us because, if she pretends to be busy with a call, she doesn’t have to explain to children trick-or-treating around the office that she’s already eaten most of the candy she was supposed to hand out.
That’s Bauer in a nutshell — fun, free-spirited and full of flavor. Just like the ice cream she’s been making in central Ohio to thunderous applause since the late ’90s.
But this winter is a big one for Bauer. Her company is not only debuting new holiday flavors (Pumpkin Cake Roll? Yes, please!), but she’s also traveling across the country opening new shops.
Bauer took time to give us the scoop on future locations, talk about her favorite desserts and detail some of the fun things to do right now in her beloved Columbus.
Were you born in Columbus or did your family migrate there?
No, I was in Illinois until I was 12 and then I came here. That’s my entire life. Really, this is sort of where I grew up. I love it here. I feel a connection. The city is growing and changing so much and I feel like I’m a part of that. Everybody here kinda feels like that.
A lot of people want to leave Ohio. And I think that a lot of them are from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and a whole bunch of places in the middle [of the state]. But in Columbus, people want to come because we have a lot going on here and it feels like a place that is forward thinking and everybody’s contributions are important. It makes a difference when you grow up in a place and you feel like you’re valued.
A lot of companies started around the same time you did, but they’re not around any longer. What are some things Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams did differently that you point to as reasons for your success?
I like the idea of start small and build. I say that to everybody who will listen. It’s not as popular now to start small and actually stay small for a really long time while you learn about what makes you tick as a company, as a community, as you grow the community that is your company.
I started small. I kept very focused. My focus was always on ice cream and people, and getting better at those two things, over a long period of time. So, to me, that’s what it’s all about. I didn’t start with a lot of money. I didn’t start with anything. I didn’t have a business education. I quit art school to go start a little company in a market in the ’90s. And so I had to go and learn everything. And then it turns out it’s all about science, so I had to learn all about that stuff.
It really is about going slowly, learning as you go, only taking moves when you’re ready and not try to go to fast. And that’s how we’ve, I think, managed to grow kind of consistently, but also grow as a community, which includes our customers all across America, not just in Columbus.
Since we’re moving into holiday season, I’d like to pick your brain a little bit. How do you come up with Cognac with Gingerbread and all these fun flavors?
Well, it’s funny because different seasons mean different things to all of us. So, holiday is one you can’t mess too much with. You can add some creativity, but what I do for holidays is different than what I do, say, for spring. Because in spring, we have flavors that we bring back every year that are just really popular. And then I can kind of do whatever I want because we know that you’re going to come in, you’re going to have that fun, and we’re going to have something for you to love.
But for the holidays, when it’s cold out, we have to up our game. We’ve got to make sure that every single flavor we put out is a winner and everybody is going to be in love with it, and that it makes you feel like everything you want to feel during the holidays, which is love, light, celebration, people, family, warmth and all that stuff.
So, the way that we come up with those flavors, literally, is just asking people, “What is your favorite memory of the holiday?” Or I go back in my own family and I think, “What was the one thing that I always loved about my holiday at my grandparents’ house?” Maybe it was the eggnog made with whiskey that I got one sip of, but it was amazing.
With the Cognac with Gingerbread flavor, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, who used to have The Splendid Table [program] on NPR, makes this incredible gingerbread. And when I tasted it, I put cognac caramel sauce on it, and it was like the most amazing thing ever. It ended up being this great, warm, beautiful holiday flavor.
We just literally ask people, “What is the thing you can’t live without every holiday?” And everyone has something different. Some people have peppermint sticks or peppermint cookies or peppermint shortbread or peppermint white chocolate. Some people have cognac and gingerbread. Some people have whiskey and eggnog. Others have green bean casserole or ham or something like that, you know what I mean? So, it’s not just sweet; it’s just super fun.
And from there, we just try to make the best, most authentic, most beautiful, most flavorful rendition of that as we can.
What was the last dessert you had that wowed you?
I just had a Texas sheet cake somewhere. But it was warm. And I had never made Texas sheet cake warm. With my Texas sheet cake, you pull it out of the oven, you let it rest, cool and then you frost it. But this was, like, warm. And it had frosting on it. And ice cream.
And I was like, “I’m never serving my Texas sheet cake cold again.” That was amazing. I can’t remember where I got it, but the restaurant was not a fancy restaurant. But it was so good, which is what I love.
I like non-fancy desserts. I also like fancy desserts. But I really admire just a piece of very simple cake. Not even a frosted cake. But frosted is fine, too. With ice cream on it. Or pie with ice cream. Or ice cream and cookies. Or just something that is light and nice after dinner.
How would you describe the culinary scene in Columbus right now?
I think it’s great. Whatever you want here, you can get. We have a nice fine-dining scene. We have a really great high-quality-but-not-expensive scene. [The city has places with] organic greens and beautiful vegetables but not at the highest price point. And I think that’s really important.
The dessert scene here is great. The vegetarian scene here is great. Yeah, you can kind of get whatever you want. I think it’s a good city to live in if you like food. It’s nice to have the farms also really close. We have several just incredible farmers markets. Almost every neighborhood has a farmers market. You have access to farmers’ ingredients pretty much everywhere.
Can you name a couple of restaurants that really stand out to you?
Yes, there’s one called The Table. I love that one.
My sister-in-law is also a chef here. She has a company called Little Eater. And she is a vegetarian chef, and she’s amazing. She’s one of our vendors at the North Market, which is one of the coolest indoor public markets in America. It’s a destination for anybody who loves food. It’s the place where I started my business, of course.
And we have the best barbecue here. I don’t think people will believe it.
You’ve got to give me a name for barbecue in Columbus.
For more fine dining, we have Ambrose and Eve. Ambrose and Eve were [the owner’s] grandparents. She has gorgeous stuff [on the menu]. We’ve got a lot of places.
We’ve got a burger joint called Preston’s, and Preston’s burger is the best burger in the country.
If you had friends come up to the city for the day and you wanted to show them the best of Columbus, where would you take them?
No question, I’m going to the Wexner Center. It’s our contemporary art lab. It’s like a museum, but we don’t have a permanent collection. So, there’s something new there all the time. Every single thing that has happened there has been incredible. And then you can go to a restaurant and talk about it.
Likewise, over at [Columbus College of Art & Design] — they are all really close in the downtown area — we always have some kind of art on display.
The North Market, as I already mentioned, is a must-do, because it’s very delicious. Go there hungry because it’s really great.
Our parks are really cool here [as well]. There’s Goodale Park and then there’s the one in German Village [called Schiller Park]. German Village is an amazing place just on its own. All of this is very close to downtown. You can get around in the city really easily. The No. 2 bus goes up and down High Street every 10 minutes.
But German Village is really amazing just to walk around. It’s an 1850s village. It’s historical. All the homes down there are authentic from the 1850s.
Forbes Travel Guide’s Atlanta office is just down the street from your new Buckhead location. What are a few things that you’re looking for in new sites?
First of all, we’ve been shipping ice cream throughout the country just through our website since 2004. So, we have a really good idea where people live who already know who we are, love our ice cream and are superfans. We start with that. Where do we have people who love our ice cream?
Sometimes, we can’t make it work. New York City is really hard for us because, well, New York City is really hard for everybody.
From there, we just keep trying to find incredible streets and incredible communities where we can really grow a presence in and be a part of the community. It’s really important to us to really get to know a community and care about the community and feel like we are local, basically.
I spend a ton of time in a city where we open. I always feel like I live not just in Columbus, but in America because I’m on the road so much. It’s important for us to build community where we’re at. It’s better with people who already know us. If that group is big enough, then really we open up to serve them and their friends and anyone else who wants to come and we grow from there.
You’re going to Austin in 2019 or 2020?
We’ll see. We only have a couple months left this year, but I think we’re going to really strive for 2019. That’s the goal. We will see if we can make it happen. It’s on track right now for 2019. But you know.
Have any other cities been announced for 2020?
Oh yeah, Alexandria, [Virginia]. That one’s coming. And Birmingham, which I’m very excited about. Birmingham is one of my favorite cities in the country.
Very underrated city.
I know. It’s unbelievable. And I love that it’s near Atlanta and Nashville, which are like second homes to me. There’s a thriving entrepreneur scene [in Birmingham]. I love Birmingham, so I’m really excited about it more than anywhere else.
But when you start looking at cities [for expansion], you just realize that they’re all so great right now, which is so cool about America. I feel like, 10 years ago, there were like three or four cities in America where everything happened and radiated from. And now, there’s just so many.
Yeah, everybody’s having a moment.
Yeah! And that’s so important for America because that makes it more fun to travel. It makes it more fun to go to Birmingham when Birmingham means something special. When Columbus means something special. When Indianapolis means something. Atlanta means something different.
Even the accents between Savannah, Atlanta and Nashville are very different. And it’s really cool to see these cities just really coming into their own. Nashville is exploding. Atlanta is crazy. It does make it more fun to travel in America when it’s not just L.A., San Francisco and Portland [getting all the attention].