Jeni’s: Where modernism meets meringue

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Reilly Blum

It’s almost impossible to walk through the Westside Provisions District after 6 p.m. The mile-long line pouring out of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams fills most of the narrow walkway adjacent to the shop. Every night, people queue for up to an hour for just a scoop of ice cream.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, an Ohio-based ice cream shop, opened its first Atlanta location in the Westside Provisions District last October. A second Atlanta location in Inman Park’s Krog Street Market is slated to open this fall.

Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of the shop, is an award-winning ice cream maker. She has published two cookbooks with dessert recipes and serves on the boards of two art colleges in Ohio. Despite these academic accomplishments, Bauer is an entrepreneur at heart. She said that even as a child, she knew she wanted to own a business.

Jeni Cropped
I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM: Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, says that her company is currently developing flavors for Spring 2015. (Courtesy of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams)

“I feel like I’m doing what I’ve always done,” she said. “I go to work every day, and I feel like my job is the same today as it was when I was 8 years old.”

In 1996, Bauer opened Scream Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio’s North Market.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I made a ton of mistakes. I even failed with my first business. But I got back in and kept going.” The second time was the charm: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams opened in 2002 in Columbus.

The company currently has locations in Chicago, Charleston, Columbus, Nashville and Atlanta, as well as nearly 500 employees.

The Westside Provisions District, an area already known for its artisan eateries such as Star Provisions, seems all the busier after Jeni’s opening. Kristen Morris, vice president of realty for Jamestown, the company that owns the Westside Provisions District, said that the district maintains high standards of service and quality.

“We do a lot of food with people who are award-winning chefs or are in the industry,” she said. “We have a lot of connections and relations with the James Beard Foundation, and Jeni won a James Beard Award for her cookbook a few years back.”

The James Beard Foundation Awards, deemed by Time magazine to be “the Oscars of the food world,” are presented annually for culinary excellence. Bauer won a 2012 award for her cookbook Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home.

Bauer, however, didn’t always know she’d end up making ice cream. Yet somehow, a few years in art school, a stint as a pastry chef, and a passion for collecting essential oils and making perfumes led Bauer to her current profession.

“I thought one of those [hobbies] would become a business,” she said. “But all of those things sort of came together in ice cream.”

Bauer’s eclectic background has contributed to the company’s unique flavors. For instance, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, inspired the flavor Sweet Cream Biscuits and Peach Jam. Bauer read about her love for biscuits served with peach jam, and the flavor was born. In addition, the coffee ice cream sold in Atlanta shops contains Batdorf and Bronson coffee, which can be purchased from several Atlantan coffee bars.

Another interesting flavor, including absinthe and meringue, was inspired by an Igor Stravinsky ballet shown in Paris in 1914.

“This amazing symphony and ballet changed the world,” Bauer said. “So I found all the flavors that were common back then, things they were selling and drinking and eating that were different than what we have now. And so we made an absinthe and meringue ice cream.”

The flavors are symbolic: the meringues represent the upper class, as the recipe is complicated and difficult to perfect. Absinthe represents the lower bohemian class.

“We make tiny little [meringue] kisses, thousands of them, and they take forever,” Bauer said. “We put them in the absinthe ice cream, and they slowly disappear. The sugar from the ice cream sort of eats them up, and you end up with these empty pockets. That’s exactly what happened in the world as modernism took over.”

But the symbolic nature of flavors isn’t the reason for the store’s excessive popularity.

HERE'S THE SCOOP: Two customers enjoy waffle cones outside the Westside Provisions shop.
HERE’S THE SCOOP: Two customers enjoy waffle cones outside the Westside Provisions shop.

“I mean, it’s really more about the taste,” Bauer said.

Alicia Dadlani, a frequent customer of the shop, found out about Jeni’s when she lived in Ohio.

“The quality, flavor, and taste of the ice cream make it better,” she said. “It’s made with quality milk and cream.”

Unlike most other ice cream manufacturers, however, Bauer doesn’t use egg yolks when creating an ice cream base. She believes that yolks give the ice cream a brittle texture, and instead uses cream cheese.

“Most people buy an ice cream base, and I would say that most, maybe 99 percent of ice cream makers don’t actually know how to make ice cream,” Bauer said. “It’s like calling yourself a pastry chef because you know how to buy a box cake mix, add water, and bake it. It’s a similar situation: ice cream makers just buy a mix, add flavorings, freeze it, and then sell it.” Her company, however, created its own unique ice cream recipe that is constantly being tweaked.

Perhaps customer Jabari Martin puts it best.

“It’s worth the price because it’s delicious!” he said. “Jeni’s is my guilty pleasure.” Though the ice cream may be a source of guilt for Martin, it incites nothing but pride in Bauer.

She sets the bar for her ingredients high: everything that goes into the ice cream is either locally sourced or fair trade certified.

Though Bauer acknowledged that it’s more expensive to purchase ingredients directly from farmers, she values the company’s commitment to the community more than its profit margin.

In fact, Jeni’s is a Certified B Corporation. This is a certification granted by the nonprofit B Lab, which works to promote sustainable business. This significant achievement ensures that the company is environmentally friendly and gives back to the community. There are only about 1,000 B Corporations worldwide, as the certification is quite difficult to receive.

Bauer believes that her company’s culture makes the product better.

“For us it all goes back to quality, and when we create a company that is a community, we get better quality in the end, and our ice cream tastes better,” she said. “That’s something we have people working full time on, to make sure that we’ve got good relationships with our suppliers, so we can have a product.”

Elizabeth Brown, a customer who braved the lengthy line for a scoop of “The Milkiest Chocolate in the World,”  said that she likes Jeni’s because of the unique, original flavors.

“When we were eating at Star Provisions, there was a line out the door,” she said. This piqued Brown’s curiosity, and she decided to bring her family to try Jeni’s. After tasting the ice cream just once, she returned for another scoop.

It seems that long, twisting line isn’t just a sign of success. It’s helping to cause it.