Columbus' top ice cream entrepreneur dishes on her career, goals and motherhood.
Let’s face it: Jeni Britton Bauer is the ice cream queen of Columbus. The founder and chief creative officer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams took a North Market ice cream stand, Scream, which she opened in 1996, and turned it into a fast-growing juggernaut.
Since launching Jeni’s in 2002, she has expanded beyond Columbus into eight other states and Washington, D.C., with 34 scoop shops, an online store and grocery store sales.
Britton Bauer is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, a 2017 Henry Crown Fellow and a mom of two children with her husband, Charly.
Did you ever imagine this level of entrepreneurial success? Yes! I formed an impossible vision 24 years ago and started putting one foot in front of the other, one dollar at a time. Having a strong vision is how you make it so!
I love to tell the story of how my company was built—with nothing more than my brain, brawn and buddies. We all saw the vision and kept our eyes focused on it. We knew we could make better ice cream here in Ohio than others could anywhere else, and that people would love it. We were right!
What do you know today that you wish you’d known when you opened your first scoop shop? First, I would not go back to give myself any advantages or make anything easier. It was really hard. I worried a lot. We made a ton of mistakes. But all of that led to us upending the whole ice cream industry, and if we’d followed established rules of ice cream or the established rules of business then, we would be a very different company than we are—less about quality and community, more about marketing and profit. So, if I could talk to myself when I was just starting, I’d just smile that all-knowing mom smile —that would have been sooooo annoying.
Which makes me think about how I have to be that annoying mom now, not making things easier for my own kids when I can. It’s so hard! But it’s so good for them to make their own discoveries.
Has the company’s evolution been different than you imagined? You hold a vision close to your heart and that never changes, but the path there is never a straight line. It’s more like ice skating on a river — you swerve one way, then the next, go back, swirl around, all the while inching slowly forward. Companies are like children. My company is not me. I have a lot of input, but literally, hundreds of others have, too. Plus countless thousands of our customers. I look at it today with such pride. It’s such a reflection of all of us, in particular, of our wonderful city who set our foundation before we began to grow.
What’s the best part of your job? Serving ice cream. Loving people. I work hard each day on projects—from new flavors to artwork or service training—but I channel all of my love for our customers and community into that always. Then when I get out to stores, I love to see people interacting with it and learn from their reactions.
What else do you hope to accomplish in your career? One day I will be able to devote my talents to getting kids to start businesses here in Columbus. I can’t wait. I graduated from Upper Arlington High School, but I come from a very broken family. We lived in apartments and had very little. By the time I was starting my life in business, I had nothing. I was on my own with no safety net. I have a unique POV on that — the opposite of Silicon Valley (which is not the only kind of business). I want old school, service-based, community-building kind of companies. Like mine—where you work to make something that is best in class.
Has motherhood changed the way you operate at work? I work a lot. But I also balance time with my kiddos. And when I’m with them, I’m looking right at them, reading to them, engaging with them, asking them to challenge what they learn or believe. I am very interested in them. Their interests, opinions, work.
On another front, I think motherhood makes me a better entrepreneur. I am aware of how people might be feeling. I think my senses to that have heightened since becoming a mother—that instinct to jump in and help. To nurture—as cliché as that is, it’s true. To not just tell people what to do or what works and what doesn’t, but to help them become the kind of thinker and doer who can solve challenges and create great work on their own. Just like being a mom, it’s easier to tell someone what to do or to do it myself, but much more important to help people learn how to ask the right questions and answer them on their own.
What has been the biggest surprise of parenthood? That I wasn’t immediately good at it. It took a while, and no one tells you that it might, but I’ve met lots of other moms and dads who feel the same way. We want to be good at it for our kids, but life goes upside down when you have children and it takes a lot of getting used to. But I’m very honest with my children. They can see that I am trying and that I care, and that they are the most important thing to me. And I think they appreciate the mistakes and expect them, and it all shakes out.
What advice would you give to other working moms? Trust your kids. They are so tough. If you trust that they will be OK and that they themselves will do most of that work, then you can let go of some of the guilt.
Buuuut not all of it. Because the guilt never goes away. But it is irrational—every study says that. Parents throughout history have engaged child care help. The important thing is that you value them as human beings. And show that you are curious and interested in them and their ideas. That you love them unconditionally. Plus, I like to show my children that accomplishment is fun. That adventure is fun. There is nothing I wish more for them than to build their own adventures. To find their purpose and passion.
What’s your proudest accomplishment? I don’t think I have one. I’m proud, but I’m a forward-moving person and I like to think it’s all in front of me.
What’s your favorite way to spend time as a family? I love weekends. I love it when we get to take family trips to the beach. I love reading and hiking together. Conversations. Gosh, anytime we’re together. I just like to be together doing anything.
What’s your favorite Jeni’s flavor? Rainbow!!!!! Our Buttermilk Frozen Yogurts are always my favorite. This is our version of rainbow sherbet—passion fruit, raspberry, key lime—every bit as good as you remember, which is better than it actually was.