This is the third in a series called “Friend of The Lily” where we feature women we admire.
Jeni Britton Bauer founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio. Now, she has over 30 shops in cities like Los Angeles and Nashville, and you might recognize her name from the freezer section at your grocery store. Last month, she opened her first east coast shop in Washington, D.C.
Editor-in-Chief Amy King and Art Director Rachel Orr sat down with Britton Bauer in the two-story D.C. shop. Their conversation — where they talked about Lebron James, “weird” thumbs and “Step by Step”— is below, edited for length and clarity.
Amy King: First, we should tell you that we are both from Ohio.
Jeni Britton Bauer: I heard something about that. That’s awesome. Where in Ohio?
AK: I’m from North Canton.
Rachel Orr: And I’m from Zanesville.
AK: Do you claim Ohio as your home state?
JBB: I claim it as my home because I feel that I grew up there. I mean, I learned to drive there. All the friends that I can remember are there. Of course, I raised my business there for 22 years.
RO: I lived in Arizona for two years, and my whole group was people from Ohio that I had met. I didn’t know them in Ohio.
JBB: It’s really funny. I’m drawn to Ohio people and Midwest people. And those are the people that I identify as like me. And then I’m also drawn to people I identify as not like me. Do you know what I mean? But it’s a different thing.
AK: What’s something you want people to know about Ohio that you don’t think people know?
JBB: That it’s an amazing place to live. It’s weird. I don’t know if you guys get this too, but I get asked the strangest, most offensive questions sometimes. People will be like, “So why are you still in Ohio?” You’ll be like at a dinner party in Brooklyn with people who are very nice to you — it’s respect in every other way — and then they’ll say something like that and you’re like, “Have you ever been to Ohio?”
RO: Or I always get, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I’m like, “Wait, what?”
JBB: Right. And it’s like the strangest thing. Ohio is an absolutely amazing. It’s an amazing place to grow up. It’s an amazing place to live. There’s city and rural kind of together, and I’m 20 minutes or five minutes away from a farm. I really love the connection between the rural and city. I think people in big cities, including sometimes in Columbus, don’t realize how much people in the rural areas, we’re all starting from the same place actually. Which is that we all want every single American to have any opportunity to achieve the life they are tough enough and capable enough of achieving for themselves. We all want everyone to do that and to have those opportunities. It’s all tough and we have a lot to iron out, and it’ll never be perfect.
AK: If you could pick one word to describe Columbus, what would you choose?
JBB: I would choose the word “heart.” I really think that Columbus has heart, and I say that in a couple of ways. The love and passion that people in Columbus have for each other and that sort of spirit that we bring everywhere. It’s alive there, and that’s another word that relates to heart. The other thing is that Columbus can feel almost like frenetic in that sort of beating heart way — that we’re all kind of in a hurry sometimes, even to help out or see what’s going on. I feel like it’s like a loving place but also urgent and ready to go.
AK: Yeah. I love second cities because the people can actually make things and keep doing things. Like in downtown Canton, there are all these amazing little shops in these cool old buildings.
JBB: Yeah, and in a way people can be more creative there because the sky’s the limit. I’ve always felt that being in a city when you’re not faced with this pressure of the “already cool.” There are so many places that are really wonderful right now. You can really be yourself, and the whole community will come out and support you.
AK: So we read a bunch of interviews you’ve done, and we tried to come up with some questions no one has asked you.
RO: So we’re not going to ask you that much about ice cream.
JBB: That’s going to be interesting, because I’m like 22 years an ice cream maker.
AK: Have you ever heard of the web series called “Hot Ones“?
AK: Okay. So it’s this guy Sean Evans and he meets with chefs and celebrities. He does this thing where he goes back into people’s Instagrams and takes an old photo and asks them to explain what’s going on.
AK: So we’re going to do that with you.
JBB: Okay, great. And I’ve never erased an Instagram. Even back when I didn’t realize that when you put four things up in a row that it stayed there, you know, and then my friend Ryan was like, “You know that you’re clogging everyone’s Instagram with the same four photos?”
AK: Okay, here’s the first one:
JBB: Ohhh, Joe Biden! Joe came to do a press conference in our office a year ago. I love Joe Biden. During probably the hardest year that I had in 2015, he 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. I just think that we’re all on his side. He’s not perfect like anybody else. But he’s also pretty damn perfect.
AK: Did you give him ice cream?
JBB: Oh yeah. And he called me, “Kiddo.” He knows how we make our ice creams and he loves our ice creams. And the next meeting he told the whole room, “The best ice cream in America right here.”
AK: Did you ever meet Barack or Michelle?
JBB: Never did. I got asked to drive in the motorcade one time, but I was out of town. My husband did it, so we have a picture of my husband wearing orange-red pants and standing next to Obama. I was so mad. I mean, Obama, again, another one of our incredible leaders who I miss dearly. I try to live up to the work that they do and their leadership every day.
AK: So this next one was confusing to me because you are from Ohio.
JBB: I know, right? So, Lebron’s my guy. Lebron’s my guy. I have a wall of great Americans, but it’s really just my two crushes who are Joe Biden and Lebron. And it’s right at my desk. Just a printout of their portraits. I don’t know when the last time that I bought Wheaties was, but I love the design of this box. I just love that Steph Curry is wearing a suit, not like sports clothes, and I love that it’s on a Wheaties box. And now I love Wheaties. I never had a reason to buy them, but I took them to work that day. But yeah, I’m a Lebron guy 100 percent. The other thing was, I didn’t even know who this guy was. I knew he was a basketball player, clearly. It was like a couple of days go by and I put it up because I really love the bright orange and somebody was like, “You know it’s Steph Curry.” Anyways, that’s just a testament to me being a Lebron person. And I watch King James, his Instagram, everyday. It’s one of the most inspiring Instagrams out there.
AK: Have you met him?
JBB: No, but we were both on the Fast Company’s most creative people in business list I think in 2016 or 2015, so I feel like just through that we know each other.
AK: Seems like Lebron is someone you should’ve met.
JBB: Oh, I know, like 100 percent. It’s like, Ohio.
AK: Okay, well those are the only things we’ll trudge up from your past.
RO: So I saw that you’re a libra. I am too. I’m going to read you today’s horoscope.
JBB: That is really funny. It’s actually totally perfect. In like every single way. I just shook shit up in my office in a huge way yesterday, and it is funny because there is this need to, not just express yourself, but express your ideas and opinions about very specific things and outcomes that you want to happen. But then, of course, you’ve got to be okay and ready for the wave of whatever else that comes with that. As the founder of a company, it’s got its own unique challenges too.
AK: Okay, so now, we tried to come up with ice cream questions that you might not have heard. Did you ever watch “Step by Step”?
JBB: No. No, what is that?
AK: Ahhh, too bad. It was a TGIF show when I was a kid. Well, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen it. I’ll tell you what happens. So at the beginning of the show, they have the intro and there’s this classic scene where the two kids are sitting on a bench eating ice cream and one of the kids looks away and the other kid’s ice cream falls off, so he grabs the other kids ice cream and puts it on his cone. That’s always been a memory from pop culture involving ice cream that’s always stuck with me. Are there any moments in movies or TV shows or anything from pop culture with ice cream that really stuck with you?
JBB: Yeah, I just recently saw the Wonder Woman movie. I think it might be three seconds of the movie, and I don’t even know why it exists in the movie, because I don’t think it advances the plot at all. But they’re walking through the train station and she grabs an ice cream from someone, which I don’t think she pays for, either, tastes it and she has this incredible reaction to it. And I thought, she nailed it. That’s exactly how I feel about ice cream. Imagine the first time you ever had ice cream, and that is exactly like it. I felt like that today when I ate our ice cream for breakfast this morning. This is a really beautiful experience and it’s something about the shock of the cold and the way that it melts and that it’s full of scent and all of that.
AK: What are your thoughts on Halo Top and other low calorie ice cream?
JBB: Obviously I have zero need for them in my life. My philosophy on food is eat really well, eat whatever you want, I’ll find balance. I’ll have a whole head of cauliflower for dinner with butter and salt on it, it only has like 400 calories, the entire thing. That way I can eat ice cream at lunch. I never skimp on butter. I’m not the kind of person who has to eat an entire pint of ice cream, and if I did, I would balance it a different way in my life because I would want to have something that was not forgettable.
RO: Now for some random questions. What keeps you up at night?
JBB: I’m up at night, and even while I’m sleeping, which sounds strange but as an entrepreneur it’s just what you do, I’m always thinking about the texture of our ice cream — the body and the textures of our ice creams. And it’s a science problem. I’m trying to work out how we can really do this, and it’s a problem that I’ve had for a long time. What we’re doing with body and textures in our ice creams is different than anyone else because we’re not using stabilizers and gums which is the standard recipe that everyone uses across the board because it makes it easy to then make whatever flavors you want. How can I make an ice cream more strawberry-y or get more strawberries in it without cooking them too much or making it too jammy. The first thing I think about is my team, who am I working with today, who do we bring together today. It’s more emotional. You drive to work with the music loud. It’s all about people, and it’s just been that way for a long time. It’s staying in service, how can we be a better company than we were yesterday. That’s the sort of forward action that gets you out of bed.
RO: This is a question from a set of questions my boyfriend and I use to start conversation. If you had the choice between a trip to the moon by yourself for two weeks or three months traveling with one other person, all expenses paid, which one would you choose?
JBB: Do I get to choose the person that I travel with?
JBB: Oh for sure I would travel with a person. I travel a lot by myself. I know my sister would choose the moon. She would be like, “I can’t believe you didn’t choose that one.” I know Julia would want the moon — just for the view. I mean, that’s a hard thing to turn down, getting that opportunity. But I have traveled by myself to different places in the world, and I really wanted someone to share it with and I couldn’t, and it’s weird to be by yourself. I travel all over the country, and I’m by myself a lot and without someone to share it with, it’s almost like it didn’t happen. I was in this incredible part of Sicily, which was actually a little bit like being on the moon, with this olive oil producer and I had this incredible adventure for three days there all by myself and had no one to share it with. Even if I wrote out the adventure, no one would be interested in reading it. It’s just another travel story. There were several parts of it that were terrifying. There were parts that were the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen. There were magical moments. Really human moments that were weird and heartbreaking and breathtaking, and I was by myself. And I couldn’t come back and dump it all on my husband, Charly, but I wish so much that he had been with me or my sister had been with me.
I’m also thinking, what are you going to eat on the moon, for real.
AK: What is your favorite part of your body?
JBB: Oh god, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have a favorite part of my body. It’s not that I don’t like my body. I’m like looking at you guys, reminding myself what’s on my body. I feel like I’m not that in tune with some parts of my body. I don’t know. I have weird thumbs, really weird thumbs.
AK: And that’s your favorite part?
JBB: Well, it’s the part that I’m always aware of. Since I was a kid. I don’t care about them. I think they’re hilarious and wonderful. I think that they’ve made me an interesting person because I don’t give a f — . If you want to yell at me about my thumbs or whatever I’ll just say it’s just proof that I’m part alien. Doesn’t bother me. My grandmother was like, “Oh, you poor thing.” And I’m like, “What’s wrong with my thumbs? I mean, they’re totally fine. I can’t use them on my phone so I use my finger, but whatever!” Maybe [my favorite] would be my thumbs, and they’re also my least favorite part too because I don’t know what it would be like to have a thumb that you don’t want to hide all the time. Even now, you’ll never see my thumb. I’ll be getting a facial, totally relaxed, and I’ll be like [hiding my thumb]. They’re never exposed. I also think that I never thought I would be a perfect person because of that. I always had this big gap in my teeth when I was a kid growing up, and I had crazy thumbs and a lot of scars on my stomach because I had all these surgeries, and I never thought that I was going to be a perfect person. It never occurred to me. Maybe just for that it should be my favorite thing. And also Megan Fox has thumbs like mine. And you’ll see on some Facebook post, some guy will be like, “That is disgusting!” and, you know, whatever. But I always joke that it’s like an elephant’s leg or a toe. I also see people in the grocery store or we’ll be waiting in line at the airport or wherever and I’’ll be like, “Excuse me, we have the same thumbs.” And it’s always like “Oooh.” It’s great.
AK: Has anyone ever done that to you?
JBB: No. Because mine are always hidden. But yeah I meet a lot of people like that, tons of people.
RO: How has your smartphone affected your relationships?
J: I don’t let kids on my phone. I don’t give anybody my password because I don’t want anybody just grabbing it and going and sneaking away and sitting in a closet for four hours because that can happen. That’s happened. But it’s really hard as a parent right now to figure out what to do. My daughter is 10. She doesn’t care about the phone, she doesn’t care about iPad or anything like that. She’s more into doing things and art and sewing. She writes. She writes stacks every week. I can’t even keep up buying her journals. But my son really wants to play games on iPad. He’s 8, and he’s the best kid ever, the sweetest kid, but he turns into a monster whenever he finds that and you have to take it away. And he’ll do it for eight hours if you let him. We’ve had babysitters over, and they’ll be like “he never came out of his room.” And you’re like that was 10 hours ago. That, to me, is really terrifying. I don’t know if it’s terrible, but I do know that some of the tech giants won’t let their kids have them so I feel like, okay, that to me is not right. I’m always on my phone, but I also always do other things. I don’t sit down at home. I’m always active. I’m always doing things. I don’t sit on a chair and get on my phone. But I’m reading the paper on my phone. I’m talking with my mother on the phone. Or my sister on my phone. I’m keeping up with people. I’m emailing. I have two different emails. And my kids see me doing that. But I’ve found that the best way for me to say it now is just to say this is for grown-ups. It’s really not for kids.
AK+RO: That’s all we’ve got for you.