Jeni's and Joe Biden: A Love Story

How the new president and Columbus' favorite artisanal ice cream maker fell for each other

Suzanne Goldsmith
sgoldsmith@columbusmonthly.com
In this January 2012 file photo, then-Vice President Joe Biden, enjoys an ice cream cone from Jeni Britton Bauer, owner of Jeni's Ice Cream, during a brief stop at North Market.

Editor’s note: After this story was published in the January issue of Columbus Monthly, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams announced it was releasing a special flavor in honor of Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration as the country’s 46th president.

When Rocky and Suzy Saxbe threw a fundraiser for Joe Biden in October 2019, the then-Democratic presidential candidate thanked the Bexley couple by sending them six pints of Jeni’s ice cream. Some might call that carrying coals to Newcastle—Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is headquartered in Columbus, and there was a Jeni’s scoop shop (now permanently closed) just a few blocks from the Saxbes’ home. Indeed, Suzy Saxbe and her caterer, Suzanne Karpus, had packed a freezer bag with a dozen individual servings of Jeni’s to send with the Biden campaign staff on the plane as they headed off to Iowa after the party. 

Nevertheless, Suzy Saxbe was so touched by the gift of Jeni’s that she took a picture of it—and was disappointed when, later that day, she discovered it had melted. “Unfortunately, Rocky didn’t close the door of the freezer properly,” she says, laughing. 

The Saxbes, it turns out, were not the only ones to receive a gift of Jeni’s from Joe. According to campaign-finance disclosures, between August 2019 and September 2020, the Biden campaign spent $12,546.11 on Jeni’s, mostly in increments of between $70 and $80—about the cost of sending a half-dozen pints. 

Jeni’s also made a campaign cameo in September (courtesy of a tweet from Biden) just before the first, chaotic debate between Biden and President Trump. The president’s supporters had been circulating an unsubstantiated claim that Biden was refusing to consent to a pre-debate, third-party “ear check.” The rumor supported the conspiracy theory, also circulating online, that Biden planned to get secret prompting via some sort of electronic earpiece. Trump was also demanding a drug test, claiming that Biden used performance-enhancing drugs during one of the primary debates. 

Hours before the debate, Biden sent out a light-hearted, pitch-perfect message trolling the Trump team’s dark innuendo. “I’ve got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready,” the tweet read, over a photo that featured a pair of Apple earpods beside a pint of Jeni’s. 

Salted Peanut Butter with Chocolate Flecks, to be precise. 

Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in 2016.

So what is it with Joe and Jeni’s? At $12 a pint, Jeni’s seems a tad highfalutin for a candidate who was running on his Pennsylvania working-class roots. And everybody knows Biden is more of a vanilla (or vanilla-and-chocolate, or chocolate chip) type of guy, while Jeni’s is known for fancy artisanal flavors like Goat Cheese With Red Cherries and Brambleberry Crisp. But for those who know Biden, and for Jeni Britton Bauer’s friends and her 138,000 followers on Instagram, it was not a surprise at all. 

The cheerful, earthy flavor maven has been a loyal and vocal follower of the man from Scranton for years. Her 3-year-old chiweenie is named Joey B. In a 2017 interview with The Lily, she confessed to having a crush on Biden (as well as LeBron James). And throughout a bruising primary season that featured numerous strong female candidates, Britton Bauer stood by Joe. When he was nominated, she put out a video message that was circulated by the Democrats prior to their virtual convention. “I know Joe,” she said, speaking to the camera. “This is a man of deep integrity. Of deep, deep heart. He’s one of us—an American just trying to do their best every day. And in doing that, in his own unique way, he has become a beacon for so many of us.” 

***

Before addressing the JB-JBB connection, let us pause to discuss Joe Biden and ice cream. Not just Jeni’s, but all ice cream. Dairy Queen. Breyers. Frozen custard. Soft-serve. If it is creamy and frosty and sweet, Joe Biden is all about it. The man has been photographed with a cone in his hand so often, one wonders how many hours a day he spends on the treadmill to burn it all off. Whether it’s soft-serve or hard, he usually orders two scoops or a double twist and gets down to business. 

“You have to appreciate the Joe Biden mastery of the ice cream cone,” says David Niven, a former speechwriter for Gov. Ted Strickland and a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Because there’s always a cone. It’s not a cup. And yet he’s never, ever getting it on his tie. I mean, imagine how well-known a photo would be if he had one of those scoop-fell-off-the-cone kinds of moments. Yet that never happens. This is a guy who knows his way around an ice cream cone.” 

It’s an assertion that’s easy to verify; a quick Google search will turn up photos and videos of Biden eating ice cream with Barack Obama; with his wife, Jill; with Ted Strickland; with Mike Coleman; with Jimmy Fallon. He’s passing out cones of vanilla in a DQ in Steubenville; he’s forking over a couple of tens for Chocolate Woodblock and Double Fold Vanilla in Portland. He’s eating one cone while holding a second. He’s maintaining direct eye contact with a voter while devouring a scoop. One memorable Biden-eating-ice-cream mashup video culminates with a slo-mo shot as he opens wide and pushes the whole top of the cone into his mouth—and emerges from the experience without a smidge on his face. 

“I’ve eaten ice cream with Joe Biden in New Hampshire when I was up there campaigning for him, and I’ve eaten ice cream with him in Nelsonville, Ohio, and I’ve eaten ice cream with him in other places that I’m sure that I don’t really remember,” says former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. 

“I eat more ice cream than any three other people you’d like to be with—all at once,” Biden said at a 2016 press conference. That was the press conference he opened with the words, “My name is Joe Biden, and I love ice cream.” It was held at Jeni’s headquarters in Columbus.

***

Jeni Britton Bauer, through her staff, declined to be interviewed for this article. “Jeni hasn’t been doing any Biden-related interviews,” her rep told us, without saying why. No matter. Biden’s associates were happy to talk, and Britton Bauer has spoken about Biden plenty on the record in the past. 

From left to right: then-Vice President Joe Biden, Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream's founder Jeni Britton Bauer and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland order ice cream from Britton Bauer's shop in the North Market in this May 2016 file photo.

Their first meeting might have been earlier, but Biden and Britton Bauer definitely met in 2012, when the vice president was in town to give a speech about college affordability at Gahanna-Lincoln High School. Bexley native Elisabeth Hire, who worked as Biden’s director of scheduling in the 2008 campaign and went on to work for him in the White House for three years, says it was Greg Schultz, a Parma native and graduate of OSU who was directing the Obama campaign in Ohio, who told the vice president he should visit Jeni’s North Market shop. “It was an OTR [off the record, or unannounced] stop,” says Hire, “but if Jeni was there scooping ice cream you can be sure Greg tipped her off.” 

Hire says the story that circulated after the visit was that Joe asked Jeni what flavors she offered, and as she reeled off her unusual lineup, he finally stopped her and asked, “Do you have vanilla?” 

Schultz says at some point during another visit to Ohio, Biden simply remembered Britton Bauer and asked him to get her on the phone. “He never gets credit for the memory he has,” says Schultz. “He’ll meet someone and three years later, he’ll be like, ‘I wonder how they’re doing.’ It’s just, like, what he does.” 

The two connected. And, according to Britton Bauer, the connection deepened in 2015, a very tough year for both the ice cream maker and the vice president. That year, listeria was found in pints of Jeni’s, and the company made the tough decision to recall and destroy $2.5 million worth of ice cream and stop production while searching for the source. The same year, Biden’s older son, Beau, died of brain cancer. 

“During probably the hardest year that I had, in 2015,” Britton Bauer told The Lily, “he [Biden] was my North Star because he was also going through a very tough year. I really just think that our leaders [should have] the kind of integrity that he has, and the values that he has openly. He puts them on the table and he lives by them every day. Not everybody can do that.” 

“I’ll be driving in my car and start thinking about Joe and start bawling,” she continued. “I just think that we’re all on his side. He’s not perfect, like anybody else. But he’s also pretty damn perfect.”

***

Ice cream is part of Biden’s mythology. In “The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden,” biographer Jeff Wilser writes that young Joey Biden would ride his bike to the pharmacy after Sunday dinners to buy a half gallon of Breyers and bring it home to eat while watching Lassie. In her memoir, “Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, and Finding Myself,” Jill Biden describes how in the final years of his mother’s life, Joe would walk up the driveway each night to the guest house they had built for his mother and join her in eating a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream before bed. “I used to tease Joe when he’d come back down the hill with the smell of ice cream on his breath like a kid getting away with something,” she writes. 

For Biden, who drinks no alcohol and appears to have few vices, ice cream is both a guilty pleasure and a vehicle for connecting with both family and the public. “It makes him seem like a regular person,” says Suzy Saxbe. 

Plenty of politicians have used their dietary likes to create a more approachable image. Think of Ronald Reagan’s desktop bowl of jelly beans. But connecting through food doesn’t work for every pol. Gov. John Kasich was ribbed mercilessly for eating a slice of New York pizza with a knife and fork during a visit to the Big Apple. (“The pizza came scalding hot, OK?” he told Good Morning America). Candidate Barack Obama’s comment about the high price of arugula at Whole Foods during a 2007 campaign stop in Iowa cast him in the public eye as an elitist foodie and was dubbed “arugula-gate” in the press. 

Ice cream might seem to be a natural for connecting with Americans, but Biden threads a tricky needle when he aligns himself with an upscale brand like Jeni’s. In November, a coalition of progressive groups blamed Democratic leaders for the party’s downballot “underperformance,” calling a television interview Nancy Pelosi did last spring showing off two freezer drawers stuffed with Jeni’s and other pricey confections an “unforced error.” The New York Post put the flap on Page One under the headline, “Dessert Storm.” The criticism might explain why Britton Bauer is reluctant to speak about Biden now: She doesn’t want her friend to suffer a Pelosi-like backlash, too. 

But no matter the price point of a frozen treat, Biden pulls it off because his love for ice cream appears so genuine. When Biden gets his hands on ice cream, Niven says, “it’s just a pure, human moment.”

***

In addition to the personal connection between Biden and Britton Bauer, another reason the president-elect is likely comfortable aligning himself with Jeni’s is the values its founder has infused into her company. From the start, Jeni’s has emphasized careful product sourcing, including local, grass-fed dairy and fair-trade flavorings. The story of how Jeni’s fought its way out of the existential threat of listeria contamination in its product by doing more than the law required is seen as a case study in responsible crisis management. And Jeni’s is the only company in Columbus that has been certified as a B Corp., meeting “the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” according to the international nonprofit that certifies such companies, B Lab. 

“The reason why we chose this company,” Biden said when, as vice president, he announced new federal overtime rules from a podium at Jeni’s headquarters, “is that Jeni understands what the word fair means.” He turned to Britton Bauer. “You did it before there was a rule,” he went on. “You concluded that not only for the benefit of the people that work with you but also, I suspect, for the benefit of the company, that when you have workers who are committed and happy, being treated fairly with dignity, that they do better.” 

He was looking directly at Britton Bauer. “Love you, kiddo,” he said.