Little Jeni Britton would frolick in her grandmother's 10 acres of gardens, picking blueberries to eat, conjuring maple from trees to boil into syrup and collecting cattails to weave baskets.
"I feel," she said, "like it was Eden."
But her creative genius wasn't the only thing percolating in those younger years: Her entrepreneurial spirit was, too.
In fourth grade, she crafted yarn into colorful shoelaces, created a cardboard display case to showcase them, and sold her goods for 25 cents on the playground until the principal called her into his office. Later (and this time, smartly enough to elude authorities) she ran a custom sticker-making business for spending cash. And in high school, she worked every afternoon grinding Kool-Aid with sugar in a mixer, pouring it into homemade paper straws, stapling the ends, and selling the Pixy Stix-like candy at two for a quarter-bringing in as much as $20 a day.
"If you can't find a job," she said, simply, "make a job."
Now 36, Jeni Britton Bauer, has done a lot more than make a job. The founder of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams has quickly expanded her one-woman operation, selling delectably different ice cream at the North Market, into a mini empire, and she's garnered a cult following-and national acclaim-doing it.
Even as experts lament the nation's economic state, hundreds of people are willing to wait in long lines to pay $5 for a dish of three Jeni's flavors. Whether or not they know it, it's a testament to the success of a little girl who people said was, quite frankly, too creative for her own good.
Yet despite the success, and ensuing attention, Jeni is charming in precisely the way one might imagine her to be-artistic and whimsical, but thoughtful and engaging. She is confident and direct without being arrogant or pushy, a savvy businessperson-clearly-but a friendly one, too. She's the type of woman who wears flowing scarves and retro glasses, cherishes her Italian bike and got married in her grandmother's backyard with just three witnesses on hand. The type who supports local farms and artists, cooks for her employees once a month and still enjoys standing behind the counter to help customers more than any other part of her business.
Warren Taylor, owner of the Athens-area creamery where Jeni buys her cream, is one of many who adore her.
"I think we have our time on this earth to accomplish something, and I think that it's to make the world a better place and to take care of each other-it's just that simple," Taylor said. "She knows that."
Jeni grew up in Illinois and moved to Central Ohio at 12. After high school, she set her sights on Hollywood-where she dreamed of doing crazy movie makeup-and earned her esthetician's license. But soon, she switched gears and enrolled at Ohio State University. She studied art and art history for five years. Despite her counselors' attempts to focus her, however, she never graduated. "That's just my nature," she said. "I don't focus."
Meanwhile, she had been working in the kitchen at a local bakery, La Chatelaine. Maybe, she thought, she should go to culinary school and become a pastry chef. She started experimenting at home.
One night, she used chocolate and cayenne pepper to make ice cream for a dinner party. "When I tasted it, it was like a light bulb went off," she said. "Everybody freaked out about it."
She shopped the North Market for interesting ingredients-basil, rose petals, lavender, yogurt, cherries, wine-and concocted myriad recipes. Six months later, the ice cream artisan (who sometimes sported pink hair) opened Scream in the market with a friend. Their always-evolving flavors weren't perfect, but the women developed a following nonetheless.
"It was really fun to see the person behind the product," recalled Michelle Maguire, a local librarian, photographer and artist who met Jeni in those early days. "It was the first kind of place I saw somebody really enthusiastic and passionate about making something that was edible."
Still, three-and-a-half years in, Jeni was bringing home only $638 a month ("All the merchants fed me," she said), and Scream closed.
Jeni spent two years working other jobs-baking croissants at La Chatelaine, helping people in an Upper Arlington library, nannying for a local family. Her old fans would see her out with her then-boyfriend, Charly Bauer, and buy them drinks. They would corner her in the library to chat.
Everyone wanted to know when Jeni would return to her calling.
Having learned many lessons from her first go-round-like the fact she needed at least one mainstay, addictive flavor that people could always expect (salty caramel it is!)-Jeni poured time and effort into a serious business plan. Her goal: To make flavorful ice creams with fresh ingredients from Ohio and around the world. But she needed a $1,200 machine to get started, and wasn't sure where she would find the money.
Charly, who taught math and physics in Malawi as part of the Peace Corps and earned his master's degree in library science, was determined to figure it out.
"She had a passion for doing this kind of stuff that I had never seen before-not in any friends of mine, not in colleagues," he said. "The type of person with a passion like that only comes along once in a lifetime."
In December 2001, Jeni arrived home to the Short North apartment she shared with Charly, and there it was-her machine.
"It was like an engagement ring," Jeni recalled. "I knew we were going to be together forever. I knew we were going to be in business together. I knew it was going to work this time."
Looking for input-and financial backing-Jeni made salty caramel ice cream for the family whose children she nannied, and showed her plan to the childrens' father. Impressed, the successful executive offered her a significant sum of cash to start her business.
Then, he offered this advice: Don't take the money.
"Because if you take it, I'm going to want something from you-a big stake," he said. "Think of it as a rainy day fund. It's always here if you need it. But figure out other ways to get it."
Jeni secured a loan from the bank, and on an autumn Saturday in 2002, with Charly by her side and having hand-made every bit of ice cream in her case, opened her namesake shop at the North Market. It was Ohio State-Michigan game day, and they expected a slow day.
But the line was long-and only continued growing.
Jeni's plan-to use one dipping cabinet for always-available signature flavors and another for seasonal delights plucked from North Market vendors-was well received. Sometimes so busy that her feet swelled too badly to squeeze into her shoes, she was exhausted, but hopeful.
"There was never a day off-ever," Jeni said. "Not for years."
Soon, Charly's brother, Tom Bauer, quit his business job and became a company partner.
"She was kind of that mini-celebrity at the market," he said. "People would come in and talk with her, and she would talk as long as they wanted."
As Jeni's following grew, she began selling her ice cream to restaurants and stores. But such growth came with a visit from the agriculture department. Wholesale production regulations, they gently explained, did not allow such practices.
Jeni moved her operations a couple of miles away, to a facility she calls "The Kitchen." To justify the cost, she, Tom and Charly-who worked as a librarian for OhioLINK-decided they needed to open a second store.
In 2006, their Grandview shop opened, and Charly quit his day job.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams now boasts shops in the North Market, Grandview, the Short North, Bexley, Dublin and, most recently, Clintonville and Powell. It is also sold in roughly 30 groceries nationwide, including in all of the gourmet Dean & DeLuca markets.
At $10 a pint ($12 in some locations), it's among the most expensive ice creams in the country.
That's because Jeni insists on doing things right by seeking the most exquisite ingredients possible and putting care into every step of the process. She gets strawberries from a farm in Fremont, for example, and blueberries from one in Marysville. Her peppermint is grown from a particular patch of land on a Westerville farm. And all of her cream comes from cows at Snowville Creamery, Taylor's family-owned property near Athens.
Jeni's team (and yes, one gets the feeling the mostly young, artsy bunch does actually enjoy their roles) performs nearly every task by hand-from hulling strawberries and chopping mint, to slabbing spatulas of ice cream into pints and writing labels.
The resulting taste-and the stories behind it-are why she believes people are willing to splurge on a small luxury. "I think people love to know who grew the mint, or where the chocolate came from," Jeni said. Plus, she noted, tastings are encouraged. "Even if you end up with chocolate," she said, "that's what you pay for-the experience of tasting things you didn't know existed."
Jeni's employs 25 people full-time and about 100 part-time. About a year ago, Jeni, Charly and Tom hired longtime friend John Lowe, an attorney, to be the company's chief executive. They needed someone to steer the ship so they could focus on the creative. "He knew who we were," she said. "He wants to protect it."
Besides growing the company, Jeni is also putting the finishing touches on a book she wrote that is scheduled to be published next June. It will include 70 ice cream recipes that she spent months perfecting in a test kitchen, using a $50 Cuisinart mixer.
At night, Jeni and Charly, now married, go to their small-but-cozy Upper Arlington home, where they hang with their toddlers Greta, 3, and Dashiell, 1. (They weren't planning on marrying, but Jeni's grandmother offered the ring she hadn't taken off for 45 years. So in that grandmother's backyard, with only her, the minister and his wife present, Jeni and Charly tied the knot.)
"She's just an incredibly inspiring person," Charly said. "She's very easy to be around 24 hours a day. She's extremely giving and sharing with her time. She's never too busy to help me as a husband, even if it means interrupting work. She's always been family first."
They love their lives. But they certainly don't live large.
"Our wealth is in this business, in the daily fun we have," Jeni said. "We don't have a big house. We live a modest life. If we ever have personal wealth, we'll travel with it. I don't want to keep it."
Even as she opens two new shops and finishes her book, even as national publications herald her sweets and TV shows feature them, Jeni is in no way satisfied-or even, for that matter, comfortable.
"I wake up every morning still feeling like I'm fighting for my life, fighting for my job," she said. "Especially now-now that we feel like this is really working and we don't want to lose it."
So she doesn't feel like she's reached the top?
"A thought like, 'We've arrived?' That's never crossed my mind," she said.
As she sits in her office, surrounded by sketches and scribbles and a box full of tasting spoons beneath her desk, one gets the feeling she's truly being honest.
If that's the case, then-if Jeni Britton Bauer hasn't yet arrived-that must mean she's still headed somewhere.
And Columbus is banking it will be somewhere splendid.
"I want to be in a city where I feel like we can make something happen. I'd rather help create the community I want to live in than move to a place where someone else has already established their version of cool."