Jeni Britton Bauer on Celebrating Failure and Resilience

Jeni Britton Bauer knows all about humble beginnings. Born in the Midwest, Britton Bauer started her career as a glacier with only 400 square feet of workspace and dogged determination. Today, Britton Bauer is the chief development officer for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a B Corporation that works with eight agricultural entities in Ohio and outsells Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs in several markets.

Named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in business, Britton Bauer is the author of the bestselling Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home and oversees the company’s creative strategy. In 2020, Britton Bauer received the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (WED) Ohio Pioneer Award for how female entrepreneurs look to her as an example of dynamism and resilience.

Known for its rich, smooth ice creams, yogurts, and sorbets, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams garnered great success following the launch of Britton Bauer’s cookbook in 2011. But several years later, scandal forced Britton Bauer to reevaluate her company’s business model and parse growth from failure. 

At WED Ohio 2020, Bauer reflected on the direction her life has taken: “I had no idea that I would become publicly known for resilience. I didn’t want my story to be about the worst moment in my life, but I found that it was the best thing that could have happened.”

Hand holding ice cream cone

In 2015, health inspectors found trace amounts of Listeria monocytogenes in a pint of Britton Bauer’s dark chocolate ice cream. It was not the FDA who initiated the recall but Britton Bauer herself, who quickly informed vendors and retailers about the incident. Britton Bauer made a tough choice that prevented her customers from getting sick — but twenty years of hard work hung in the balance. 

“It was the right thing to do, but we decimated our company,” Britton Bauer said, recalling that fateful day in April. “We lost everything, including our kitchen. I couldn’t see color or taste food anymore — a survival mechanism, I’m sure. I felt like I was hanging in an ether so dark that it was beyond black; there was no hope, no ideas floating by. The vision I once had for [our company] was completely gone.”

Recovering From Failure With Fellowship 

With thousands of pints of ice cream lost and sales at an all-time low, Britton Bauer felt broken. But in the wake of the health code violation, she knew she had no choice but to funnel all her energy into rebuilding. The first step? Taking a closer look at her company’s core values. 

To save Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Britton Bauer developed the Fellowship Model, which employs two simple principles:

1. Develop relationships with established businesses central to your community.
Transparency was key to regaining support from old fans and attracting new customers. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams works with a multitude of local businesses and farmers listed on their website. The company buys direct whenever possible. 

2. Clearly define each entity’s role in your supply chain network.
In response to the health code violation, Britton Bauer handed their ice cream production process over to Smith’s Dairy in Orrville, Ohio, a century-old company that partners with family farms. Britton Bauer recognized that making ice cream in-house was not central to her company’s core values. The shift helped reduce costs and reopen their doors in time for the Columbus Pride Festival in June 2015. 

The Listeria drama followed Britton Bauer for months, but her rebranding strategy worked. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams reframed itself as a champion in Ohio’s agricultural community that values local ingredients and the wellbeing of consumers. Their fan base was bigger than ever before.

Embracing Mistakes Leads to Better Branding

Like most visionary entrepreneurs, Britton Bauer has always marched to the beat of her own drum. Her personal mantra — “Follow your daydream” — informs her open-minded approach to learning, growing, and doing business. In college, she discovered her love of scent, which ultimately led her to her passion for artisanal ice cream. 

“I realized that ice cream could be thought of as edible perfume. Even inexpensive vanilla ice cream is a scent that blooms from the butterfat in the cream; the fat melts at the perfect temperature to release that scent on your tongue,” Britton Bauer explained.

Britton Bauer’s first ice cream shop, Scream, opened in 1996 in a Columbus street market. From learning about product display to observing how customers picked ice cream flavors, the ups and downs over Scream’s four-year run helped Britton Bauer become a fearless leader. Britton Bauer attributes her ongoing success to the many mistakes she made as a new glacier.

Her biggest error was thinking like an artist — changing her ice cream flavors month-to-month — instead of an entrepreneur. By prioritizing fans’ preferences to develop a unique list of core flavors, Britton Bauer created a “craveable” reason for people to buy Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.

Resilience and Reframing Your Story

The business world conditions us to think that failure leads to closed doors. But the rise and fall and rise of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is proof that mistakes are valuable tools for growth–and that resilience may be the most powerful marketing tool of all. 

Moving beyond failure, even in the face of public scrutiny, sends a clear message to your consumers: you are an unstoppable, innovative force. Finding the courage to face her critics helped Bauer build the confidence to tackle greater challenges as her company expanded post-crisis. Ultimately, facing your mistakes head-on is essential to developing self-trust, to knowing that “you’ve earned the right to play at this level.” 

Even in a pandemic, Britton Bauer sustains her passion for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. After a lifetime of overcoming setbacks with gusto and creativity, she urges struggling business owners to rethink their relationship with hardship. For Britton Bauer, it is the challenges we face on the road to success that yield the sweetest rewards.

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