We all know Ben & Jerry’s. And to know Ben & Jerry’s is to love Ben & Jerry’s. The chunky, super-creamy ice cream isn’t just a childhood staple, it’s an adult indulgence, too, and just about everyone has their favorite flavors, be it Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia. But did you know that ice cream wasn’t what Ben and Jerry planned to sell when they first hung out their shingle? And that the chunks are there for a really interesting reason?
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were two New York City–born childhood friends who were a bit aimless in their early lives. Jerry graduated college and couldn’t get into medical school; Ben dropped out of college. To make a long story short, they decided to go into business together, and after securing a $12,000 investment, they opened the first outpost of Ben and Jerry’s in downtown Burlington, Vermont. That was May 5, 1978. Two years later they started selling their ice cream in pints, the following year the first franchise opened, and the rest, as they say, is ice cream history.
When Ben and Jerry’s hit the scene, their product was unlike anything people had tried before. The “super premium” category of ice cream didn’t exist yet, and the ice cream that was sold in supermarkets was the airy, fluffy variety that you still find under brand names like Edy’s and Breyers. Try Breyers versus Ben & Jerry’s in a side-by-side comparison and it’ll be clear that there’s a big difference: the other brand is mostly air, whereas Ben & Jerry’s is much denser, richer, and chunkier, and that’s before you even get into the wildly creative and inventive flavors.
But there’s a lot more to Ben & Jerry’s than what you find in the pint container. Their origin story is a fascinating one filled with ups and downs, and over the years they’ve sparked firestorms of controversy, scared the pants off of the competition, and have led the vanguard in socially and environmentally conscious food brands. So read on to learn a whole lot of cool things about the world’s coolest ice cream company.
1. Ice Cream Wasn’t Their First Choice
Being from New York, Cohen and Greenfield’s first impulse was to open a bagel shop. The necessary equipment was too expensive, however, so they settled on less-expensive ice cream instead.
2. They Learned to Make Ice Cream from a Correspondence Course
The duo got all the training they needed from a $5 correspondence course from Penn State.
3. They Settled on Burlington for a Logical Reason
In order to figure out where to open their ice cream shop, they had two criteria. One, it had to be a college town, and two, there had to be no pre-existing ice cream shop there. After doing some research they settled on Burlington, VT, which had no ice cream shop and was the home of University of Vermont. The only thing going against it? The winters were brutal. They took a risk, though, and it paid off.
4. The First Location was a Refurbished Gas Station
With a $12,000 investment ($4,000 of it borrowed), they opened their first shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington. The first winter was so brutal that once spring rolled around they celebrated their anniversary by giving everyone who visited a free scoop, a tradition that’s still in practice today.
5. The Chunks are There for an Interesting Reason
Cohen has what’s called anosmia, meaning that his sense of smell is nearly non-existent. This also seriously affected his sense of taste, so for him it was all about the texture. That super-creamy mouthfeel, and the addition of all those satisfying chunks? Those were indicators that told Ben that they were on the right track.
6. They Got into a Big Fight with Häagen-Dazs
During the company’s big expansion in the 1980s, competing Häagen-Dazs (owned by Pillsbury) wanted to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s in the Boston area. Not only did Ben & Jerry’s sue, they also launched a major national marketing campaign, asking “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”, resulting in great publicity for Ben & Jerry’s and a PR nightmare for Häagen-Dazs, who lost the case.
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