Welcome back, Jeni's: The artisanal ice cream maker opens up about recall

Justin McIntosh, Columbus Alive

The first two and a half weeks after two pints of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams were found with listeria were, as you can imagine, chaotic. All of Jeni's products were immediately recalled, just short of the company's prime selling window. In all, $2.5 million and 265 tons of ice cream, quite literally, down the drain.

"When crisis hits, it's like color drains out of the world," owner Jeni Britton Bauer said during an interview in her Arena District office on Tuesday. "You can't taste things anymore. You have no capacity to even speak really. You're so engrained in what you're doing that that's all you do."

And yet, here we are. On Friday, Jeni's ice creams will once again be for sale in nearly all of her scoop shops across the country. The turnaround was nothing short of miraculous, but that shouldn't imply divine intervention. It did involve a nearly complete reinvention, not just with the company's safety measures. For the first time ever, another company will make some of the artisanal ice creams, which will also, for the first time, not be hand packed and hand labeled, which is, Jeni admits, "a little bit nuts for us."

And that's just the tip of the salty caramel iceberg. The company redesigned its pints, figured out how to survive the summer, scrapped its entire summer flavor campaign, save for a new sun-popped corn line, and retrained 500 employees about how to talk about the ice cream. It redid its menus, detailed all of its stores, and the list goes on.

"What we've done in this time has been kind of awesome to look back on," Jeni said. "Every single little detail that's happened has been unprecedented."

In her most extensive public comments to date, Jeni talks about what it took to get through the recall and what new safety measures are in place moving forward.

I've been told that, as a small business owner, you always feel like you're one bad week from closing. You're reopening after much more than one bad week. How has the company gotten through this? Were there insurance policies? Contingency funds?

A lot of talent, hustle and guts, and I'm not joking about that. It was absolute hustle and really smart people coming in for 24 hours a day.

One of the reasons you grow is to build safety in your company, to build safer jobs for people to create careers and to be able to pay fairly and for people to have benefits. But you never do - as an entrepreneur - feel like you're in this position of safety. It's kind of a weird feeling.

Of course, the safety of our customers is a different story altogether; that's something we've always worked very hard on. We've always been permitted and certified and followed every single rule and guideline. The last thing in the entire world we'd ever want is for our customers to become sick. That keeps us up at night and did before this.

So there wasn't much of an insurance policy or anything like that?

I wish that there was. I have no idea what the actual answer is, but it's very, very little. It will not cover what we [lost], but I sort of like a big challenge. We're used to it. I don't know what the exact answer is, but it's not enough by far.

Same with contingency funds?

We are an ice cream company coming out of winter. It's a typical situation where you make your money in the summer, and so it's the cycle. So no, not really. There's not much. In fact, we were on fumes, I'd say, waiting for summer, and that's how we do it every year.

How much of a role, if any, did the Blue Bellsituation play in your decision to do a full recall? Ten people got sick and three died in their case.

We knew it was a very serious thing. I don't think anything Blue Bell did had anything to do with the way we reacted. We remembered from times past when [other food-borne illnesses] happened and we just knew that this could be bad.

It turned out that it really wasn't that bad. We had two pints that came up positive and we tested a lot of ice cream. But we felt like we couldn't wait to find out. Those were [responses] that every single person down to our scoop shop employees would have made. That's not just [Jeni's CEO] John Lowe and me sitting in a room and deciding that we need to do this. That is just the only answer to that question we could have made as a company.

A food science professor in a Wall Street Journal article suggested that the precautions you just put into place should have already been in place.

It's the responsibility of every entrepreneur in the food business to keep everybody safe. I also think it's a moving bar, and even still it's our responsibility to keep up with it. Doing what you're required to do is not enough. And we learned that.

But I also know there are hundreds of artisanal kitchens across America that are not even where we were four weeks ago. I can look at many people I know in the artisanal food business who are working out of rented kitchen spaces that are not up to where we were.

So I agree with that statement and we will be doing that. But I think it shouldn't have taken this long for us on that. I didn't get trained on that. You do what you're supposed to do, but now we know and now there really aren't any excuses, and that's fine. We'll help other people learn that too. If we made that mistake, there are many others making that mistake. I think we can help.

You feel like this is achance to lead the way, so to speak?

I will continue to talk to smaller entrepreneurs. I want to make sure it still feels safe and like a secure, good business decision to go into the food business. I want people to be able to start food-based businesses without freaking out that if I follow all the rules I can still hurt people or still do it wrong. Safety was a big issue for us. If you knew what we were doing in the kitchen before, it's pretty incredible. We were doing everything we were supposed to be doing. We had a HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points] plan, and it was all approved. We had an in-house testing lab. But what we weren't doing is testing for listeria and that was something that was a mistake and not something that was required either by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture].

Was the move to have Smith's produce some of your ice cream something that came about directly because of this, or was that something you had considered previously and this expedited it?

Never before. We need to make a lot of ice cream. We have 22 stores, plus we have over 200,000 pints of ice cream just to get back up on the shelves. And we have to keep making it because it's going to sell. We lost months of inventory.

For the first time, someone's actually going to make our ice cream for us, some of it. But we've always worked with partners in Ohio. That's kind of how we make it all work.

A couple years ago when we shucked our 70,000th ear of corn or whatever, we realized it doesn't make sense for us to do this all the time. There are people who are dedicated to doing that who can do that outside of our kitchen, so now they do it for us, which is really great. But we need to make our ice cream. I actually think it's better when we make it.

Competitors, too,other ice cream makers in Ohio and elsewhere have offered help.

One of the best things was Johnson's [Real Ice Cream]. We were all bawling when that email came in. It was like, "Oh my god, what amazing people." Toft's up near Cleveland, which is a great ice cream company. Smith's of course. They sourced all of our grass-pastured milk anyway. And Velvet, whom we love too. The fact that these companies understood that it could happen to any of us, even if we work really hard for it not to, it really can. Listeria is in dirt, it's really everywhere, and that's a battle we have to continue to fight as a business. That was one of the coolest things, I think, when the ice cream makers just started reaching out. The best ice cream in Ohio came together.

What are your expectations for Friday?

This is what happens when you almost die; you have this absolute gratitude for everything, for the world. While we were in crisis we couldn't see color - really, truly, that's how it is. All of the joy in the world fades away. I'm sure that's an evolutionary thing; you have to focus on what you need to do to get back, but once you overcome that, the world is filled with even more color, and more opportunity, and more hope than it ever was. That sort of sheer happiness and gratitude is what we'll have Friday night and going forward.