Building an Ice Cream Empire, One Scoop at a Time

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams could be one of the most frequently referenced small business success stories of the past decade. Husband-and-wife duo Jeni Britton Bauer and Charly Bauer launched their business inside The North Market in 2002 and it has quickly grown into five locations, with two more opening this fall. Additionally, their ice creams can be found in more than 75 grocery stores across the country and their online home delivery sales continue to grow.

We recently sat down with Jeni and Charly to talk about how they were able to get their business up and running, how they’ve built their brand, and what they’ve done to cement their products as an essential part of the Central Ohio experience.

Walker Evans: I have to imagine that you probably get asked quite often for advice on starting dessert-related businesses. How do you typically respond to those types of inquiries?

Jeni Britton Bauer: I do actually get a lot of emails like that. Someone says they really want to open a cupcake shop, or they have a great idea for a candy shop, and they’re asking if I can give them any advice. I get those emails every day. And my advice to them is to keep in mind that you will never have another weekend off. You will be working all of the time. You have to think about it like you are campaigning for office. You are always doing something. I think some people have this idea that you can have a business from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then you’ll be able to be with your family for the rest of the time. They think that being an entrepreneur will give you more time with your family. It doesn’t. It gives you less time. Or you have to rework it all and find that balance again. So when I give this advice, I’m trying to scare people on purpose a little bit at first. After that, I will usually direct people to the SBA website and tell them to get through that fear and get through their business planning template. Write your whole plan and then we’ll talk again. Because if you can get through that whole process, that’s step one of the challenge.

WE: What other types of local resources did you utilize to get up and running?

Charly Bauer: We used the local SBA office, we used a local bank, and we used the library a lot for how to write a business plan.

JBB: We used every business book in the library!

CB: Jeni had a lot of small business books too.

[Local Resource Database – Educational & Training Resources]

WE: Do you recall any specific books that stood out to you both?

JBB: I think somebody has yet to write the best one. For boutique, or mom-and-pop businesses, or people doing things similar to us, I think we liked Business Plans for Dummies. That book does spend a little too long focusing on mission statement development, which I think even ten years on in our business, we’re not really too worried about our mission statement. We know what it is, but I think you could spend a lot of time trying to figure out your mission statement and it’s not quite as important as business writing and planning.

Charly was the one that taught me most of the business side of things. When you are the creative one, you can write for decades. It seems like you can have chapter after chapter after chapter of all the fun things you want to do in your business and all of the things customers are going to love. But the bank could care less about all of that. If you can’t describe your business in just one or two pages, then don’t even bother. It really should be very concise, and then everything else is financial information and projections.

But again, the SBA website was a great informational resource, too. The only problem is that they have way too many templates. Their business plan outline is, like, four pages long. It’s too much, but if you can get through it, it does help. It’s all about equipment lists, what it’s going to take you to get open, how much money do you need to open, and then projections looking forward. Starting out sometimes you have no idea about this stuff. You can’t lowball it too much because then it becomes unbelievable, but at the same time, you really don’t know. You don’t want to go into it thinking you are going to make tons of money because if you don’t, then you can’t pay your bills. So you have to find a middle ground or none of it really matters.

CB: Another book worth reading is The E-Myth. It talks about how people who go out of business are often passionate about their craft, but they fail because they don’t have experience in management and finance and the other things you need to manage a business.

JBB: I would say that most entrepreneurs I talk to don’t have experience in those areas, or even an interest in that.

CB: The fundamental problem is that you have to obtain those skills. Delegation, management… And you have to put aside, at times, your craftsmanship to make room for the balance.

JBB: So the smartest entrepreneurs, which we’re hopefully in that category [laughs], know what they are capable of and what their strengths are, and hire the best people for the rest of everything else. You have to look for the best people in your community to help and then you can focus on doing your thing. Of course, the benefit of doing everything yourself is that you get to keep all of the money. You don’t have to pay an accountant or attorney or business manager. But the downside is that you can’t grow your company because you’re stuck doing all of these things that you’re not particularly interested in. Part of the wealth that we’ve created is our daily jobs, what we do, and the lifestyle that we have. That’s worth more than anything else. I mean, we ran into problems trying to get Ugandan Vanilla Beans through customs for our ice creams. Which is the story I like to tell about the reason that we hired CEO John Lowe. It was a nightmare of a project that we worked on and it took a full year from the time that we ordered and paid for the vanilla before we actually got everything. After John was brought on, he was able to make that happen within a day. It was a legal issue with Homeland Security and Customs, and not our area of expertise.

WE: What local advisers, role models or mentors have you been able to rely on for advice and input?

JBB: The Stauf’s and Cup o’ Joe guy, Mark Swanson, is great. He was always there and we were so grateful for that. When you have a mentor, you have to show up ready in order to get somebody of the right caliber to help you. You have to do your homework. The Ohio State University Dairy Science Department has been really helpful to us when we have questions about things. We’ve spent a lot of time over there working with them. But again, I’ve always shown up ready. I’ve read everything I am supposed to read and I show up with that knowledge. I don’t ask them to do any of the work for me; all I want is for them to validate and verify what I think I’ve discovered on my own. Mentors are supremely important in business. Cameron Mitchell is a great example. He isn’t a personal mentor of mine, but I’ve met him and he has helped me with a couple of different things. He’s a really nice guy and the people who work for him just love him. My sister worked for him for a long time. The culture they have within their company is really great. He’s got a great story.

WE: Jeni’s got its start in the North Market. Do you think starting there helped to alleviate some of the issues that small businesses typically run into?

JBB: The North Market is definitely the closest thing we have to a food-related business incubator in Columbus. They have people that are willing to help you through anything and are willing to help with whatever you need: design of your signs, retail display, management, you name it. It’s already set up as a place for food businesses. It was also a lot cheaper for us. If we would have opened in a free-standing location, the cost to build it out would have been three or four times more than what we paid to start at The North Market. The venue is already permitted and everything, so you don’t have to put in a grease trap, which is a big deal. It’s a place where you can put in a couple of shelves, a couple of cabinets and an ice cream machine and you are in business. Also, The North Market is where the food community already congregates in Columbus. That’s where all of the chefs go, the food critics, foodie people, and all of the innovators and tastemakers in our community. They shop there on Saturdays, they go there for dinner with their families. When it comes to food, they go to the North Market. So having access to those people and getting feedback from them as they tasted our ice creams was completely invaluable to us. The merchant community at the North Market is equally as important for that constant feedback. If you are open to it, you can learn so much as a business in the North Market.

CB: Yeah, the Market is great. It is low barrier to entry and high traffic. You can’t beat those two things for a starting business. It doesn’t guarantee you success, but you are setup for success there if you are willing to work at it.

JBB: And there is nowhere else in Columbus like that.

CB: Right.

WE: You mentioned the networking and community aspects of being in the North Market. Are there any other specific networking resources for someone starting out in a food-related business?

JBB: It is really important when you are in business to be active in the community. It’s part of that campaigning thing, just being a part of your community. It’s important anyway, but especially if you are a business owner. I’m pretty active with Local Matters which is a great resource if you are in the food business. It’s a great place to connect with farmers. It will also help with some of the business-related stuff.

CB: Jeni also went through Leadership Columbus. It was good both personally for her and it was good for the business. We learned a lot and hopefully we contributed back to the community a little bit.

JBB: Yeah, Leadership Columbus teaches you how to sit on a board, how to be engaged with the community, and how the community runs and operates, which is great. It was about a year long program once a month for a couple of days. It’s tough to make the time for it, but it was worth it for me coming from the creative world and really not having a lot of experience with people who weren’t artists. I had to learn how to talk to people and be engaged. It really gave me a lot of confidence going forward being a business owner.

[Local Resource Database – Networking Resources]

WE: You now have shops in Columbus, Bexley, Grandview Heights, Dublin and, soon, Powell. In terms of permitting and inspections and regulations, have you found that working with any one city has been easier or more difficult than with the others?

JBB: Not really. You really have to be on top of that sort of thing because rules can change. As a business, you usually don’t really worry too much because most new laws or regulations you can absorb costs pretty easily. But if you have to install a grease trap, and it’s another $10,000 for your buildout, that’s something you need to figure out sooner rather than later. I think sometimes entrepreneurs can get really upset by some of those regulations if they don’t know about them in advance when planning.

WE: Yeah, I have talked with a lot of business owners in the past who have been upset by those types of unexpected problems that come up during inspections and permitting.

JBB: We have a fantastic architect, Andy Rosenthal at GRA+D, and he’s on top of all of that stuff. And also Sullivan Builders when it comes to building. They are great, they are a small company. Those guys really protect us. Other than that, I think we are just willing to work with the cities. Signage in Dublin was really funny. At one point I said that I would go to Dublin, Ireland and find a woodworker, and have him whittle us a sign that will be beautiful, and it will only be 1.5 feet by 1.5 feet, and we will stick it out in front of our store, and it will be gorgeous. Nope. They turned that down because the only signs that you are allowed to have are the regulated signs. That was frustrating to me, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. We have a gorgeous location in Dublin. It is right on the corner as you go into town. It couldn’t be more perfect or more beaufitul. People in Dublin don’t need to see our logo, but I think those regulations have affected some businesses in Dublin and I think there are other things like that too. But to be a creative company and not be allowed to have the type of signage we wanted, that’s not something we loved.

[Local Resource Database – Community & Neighborhood Resources]

CB: Also, a lot of those regulations are coordinated through Franklin County, such as food service. So that stuff is the same for Bexley and Dublin and Grandview.

JBB: When setting up the Short North location, the people at the city of Columbus were all really easy to work with. Really nice people. Columbus Health Department has also been wonderful. They don’t want to see you go out of business, they want you to thrive.

WE: I think everyone wants to see you thrive! Thanks again for taking the time to share these resources with us today.

CB: No problem!

To read more about Jeni’s Spendid Ice Cream’s expansion plans and new store locations, check out the following story on “Jeni’s Expanding to Beechwold, Powell and Beyond“.

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