Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Report: Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop (Part 1)

Published in 1994, this book was written by Fred “Chico” Lager, the man who became the company’s first general manager in 1982. More than just a dry history lesson, this is an entertaining read written from someone on the inside. Anecdote after quirky anecdote makes this account of the company’s path to success worthy of a Coen brothers movie. Here’s the quick version.

Ben and Jerry became friends in junior high and worked summers together growing up in Merrick, NY (part of Long Island). After high school, Ben applied himself where he liked, which included a brief stint at Colgate University (an institution he selected because of its inclusion of fireplaces in the dorms), jobs working on ice cream trucks and teaching crafts in the Adirondacks. Soon after Jerry successfully completed college, Ben decided they should start a business together.

After ditching their first idea of Sunday Bagels & Lox delivery in NYC, they decided on making homemade ice cream in a rural community with a large college population and a warm climate. In pursuit of this dream, they took a correspondence course in ice cream making through Penn State, splitting the $5 tuition. Though the climate was far from warm, Burlington, VT was the setting they chose. They secured a loan in Dec. 1977 (impressing the bank with the fact they had taken a course in ice cream from Penn State, but not mentioning the key words “correspondence course”) and on May 5, 1978 opened their flagship location in an abandoned gas station.

People lined up from the beginning. They were after all, offering a unique product. Beyond some of the zanier flavors (Mocha Chip, Pina Colada, Burgundy Cherry, Banana Rum, Coconut, Carob and their best-selling Oreo Mint) they had tricked out their ice cream maker to churn at just 20 rotations per minute, thereby lessening the amount of air that got whipped into the ice cream. On only ninth day of business, they sold out of ice cream. It would be the first of many times. After two months of business they had to close for a day to figure out finances, putting a sign up in the window that said, “We’re closed today so we can figure out if we’re making any money.” They seemed to be breaking even, though their non-ice cream products (including Ben’s sea scallop crepe with mushrooms and onions) were not selling well at all and were soon after dropped. Being that they were just a couple of guys and not accountants, they learned as they went: “At first Jerry paid the bills, but when they ran into cash-flow problems Ben took over. Ben stopped paying bills and cash flow improved immediately.” (28)

Beyond a unique product, they were a part of the community, holding events that were part-circus sideshow and part carnival fair. (At one such event, Jerry set his chin on fire while fire-eating.) They projected movies on a neighboring building. And at their 1-year anniversary, they introduced Free Cone Day, an annual event that still happens each year. Flyers for the event included a quote from Ben: “Business has a responsibility to give back to the community from which it draws its support.”

While still a young business, they started wholesaling ice cream, first to businesses and later to mom-n-pop grocers. They offered 8 flavors: Oreo Mint, French Vanilla, Chocolate Fudge, Wild Blueberry, Mocha Walnut, Maple Walnut, Honey Coffee and Honey Orange. They bought a machine to fill the pints, but it frequently got clogged due to the larger-size chunks. This sparked a debate: Jerry wanted smaller chunks so there would be a chunk in every bite, but Ben wanted larger chunks because the downside of not having a chunk in every bite was overcome by getting a huge chunk in other bites. They made the holes in the machine bigger to allow for the bigger chunks.

Business continued to grow, so they decided to begin franchising and in July of 1981 the first franchise was opened in Shelburne, VT. But this growth made them worry that “they had become a cog in an economic machine whose values they had questioned all their lives. The business had grown well beyond the small, community-oriented ice cream shop they had set out to open.” (54) Ben changed his mind when he met Maurice Purpora who said Ben could “[redefine] the business so that it was consistent with his personal values, even if they didn’t conform with traditional notions of how a business should be run.” (57)

Continued in Part 2...

(I do not take credit for the information in this blog entry. All credit is due to Fred “Chico” Lager, author of Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop.)

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