How a Homemade Sundae Launched an Empire

She started by mashing cayenne oil into chocolate ice cream—and grew an artisanal-desserts empire. Her company, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, now has 23 thriving shops across the United States and products in more than 1,500 stores. Real Simple got the scoop from Jeni Britton Bauer, 42, on crafting goals, rebooting after a crisis, and learning the difference between art and commerce.

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Photo by Nick Fancher

What was your first real job?
I wanted to be a grown-up when I was 12. I wanted to go out and work. I had been selling stuff and babysitting industriously. When I turned 15 and could get a real job, I got one immediately at an ice cream company. Then a French family opened up a bakery across the parking lot, and I went over there and got my next job. I worked there for six years, and I started making ice cream at home during that time.

Tell us how you started playing around with flavors.
I had lots of essential oils at home because I was also really into perfumery. One day I took some cayenne essential oil and mushed it into store-bought chocolate ice cream. I brought that to a party and everybody went crazy. Six or eight months later, I opened a little farm stand in an indoor public market, making ice cream out of the ingredients [cream, fresh fruit] I bought there. That was the beginning of everything.

You were more of a worker than a student.
I probably got straight C’s in high school. I applied to Ohio State and didn’t get in, but I’ve never taken no for answer, so I wrote an appeal in pencil on notebook paper. I told them I was working a lot and I loved to work. They reversed their decision and let me in. I took art-history classes, figure drawing, and an incredible class on the French Revolution.

What happened next?
By that point, I had already started making ice cream, and I was really excited about it. One day this model walked in to figure drawing who I always had trouble drawing. I remember thinking, I can’t sit here for three hours and draw her. So I just got up and left and never went back.

You opened a shop called Scream but had to close it. Why?
I was very young, just 22. I thought I would make any flavor I wanted each day and people were going to be excited to see what I had come up with, like going to see a live show. I was an ice cream artiste! I make fun of myself now because, as an entre-preneur, that’s the opposite of how you should think. But I didn’t know that at the time. My major problem was that my customers didn’t know what I would have every day. When you don’t know if your favorite thing is going to be there, you don’t go. Even though I made a lot of mistakes, I couldn’t do what I do now without that time in my life.

How did you regroup?
I went back and worked at the bakery for a year or so, made all their croissants, worked in the kitchen, and learned a ton. I also worked at the library and spent my breaks in the business section and cookbook section. I was writing my business plan [for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams] during that time.

What was different?
At Scream, I had bubblegum pink hair and wore old-lady slips. I was a goofy girl. At Jeni’s, I cut my hair short, made it brown, and wore starched white shirts and aprons. I took all the emphasis off me and put it on the ice creams and the service. From day one at Jeni’s, we had a line through the market and out the door.

What’s most critical in a business like yours?
The most important thing that you can do is have an amazing team. Don’t hire B players.

Your company recently dealt with a major crisis. What happened?
A pint of our ice cream tested positive for listeria, a bacteria in soil and water. We had impressive safety practices but weren’t testing for listeria, because our state didn’t require it. But we should have been.

How did you respond?
Within 15 hours, we decided to recall everything. We aggressively restructured our kitchen and our entire company. It was this incredible blow-up moment. It was a total crisis, but something like that brings you together and clarifies you in a way that you never would have known had you just been going along.

How is it being a mother and running a business like this?
My kids are in first grade and third grade. When you’re an entrepreneur, your work is always in the back of your head. It’s never not there. Even when I sleep, I’m often thinking about ice cream, which sounds crazy, but it’s true. I involve my kids, and we’re always talking about business. I’m trying to get them thinking about what they can give back to the world and who they can become. I like the idea that there’s no moment in your life when you become an adult. You can start planning and doing things when you’re a kid.

How’s your work-life balance?
I don’t know if I have any balance. I always go back to whatever I’m working on after the kids fall asleep. Women get asked this question a lot. It can be tough, but as you move forward, balance will change.

Any advice for would-be entrepreneurs?
When you find an idea, it’s about just starting. It doesn’t have to be perfect. If you’re bold enough to start, you just have to stay on the train. Once I get on a train, I don’t get off unless it crashes and burns.