'One scoop at a time': How a failed ice cream shop became a sweet sensation

Jeni Britton Bauer has loved ice cream since she was in college, but an early setback almost destroyed her career.
By Kerry Breen

When it comes to building a successful business, entrepreneur and ice cream maker Jeni Britton Bauer only has one piece of advice: Focus on the people around you.

"I think that if you focus on making people happy, and I mean, like, one person at a time, I think that everything else kind of falls into place," she told TODAY.

There are dozens of standalone Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream shops in the United States. TODAY

It's a lesson the 44-year-old has been learning since 1996 when she opened her first ice cream shop, called Scream, at a farmers market in Columbus, Ohio. There, she started developing the unique flavors that would soon become her trademark.

"I learned about seasonality from farmers and how to work together with people," Britton Bauer said. "I learned about cheeses and herbs and spices and chocolates and baked goods and wines and just anything you can imagine under that roof, and I made ice cream out of all of it."

The brand is defined by fun, unique flavors, inspired by Britton Bauer's early days working in a farmer's market. TODAY

While the farmers market helped her create and develop her product, sales for the seasonal, artisanal ice creams never quite took off. After four years, she had to close up shop in 2000.

"I thought I was walking away from ice cream," she said. "I had burned out in a big way."

And then, in 2002, she relaunched her business as Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. The unique desserts took off, and today Britton Bauer has 45 ice cream shops around the country. Last year, the brand topped over $50 million in sales and employed more than 200 people, while still using local ingredients and unique recipes. The shops are also super eco-conscious: 95% of what you buy in their shops is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

Britton Bauer sources her ingredients from local operations. TODAY

The flavor options are just as varied as the farmers market Britton Bauer was first inspired by. The Cream Puff ice cream includes real pastry flakes, while the dairy-free Texas Sheet Cake flavor combines fair-trade cocoa and crumbly chocolate cake pieces to satisfy any sweet tooth.

"I think of entrepreneurship as building your own world, and this is our world," Britton Bauer said about her shops. "It's this beautiful place of flavor and optimism and forward thinking and all of these wonderful values that we all share."

The ice cream brand also has celebrity fans: Katy Perry and Bethenny Frankel have both expressed their love for Britton Bauer's creative confections.

The ice cream is sold in pints and can be purchased online or at major retailers including Whole Foods, Kings and Fairway Market, as well as at independent stores. At $12 a pint, it's not the cheapest option in the freezer aisle, but its local, organic ingredients and unique flavors make it a bestseller.

While it's been a struggle to get her brand to this point, Britton Bauer has never been discouraged by the challenges she faced.

Britton Bauer describes her shops as "beautiful places of flavor and optimism and forward thinking and all of these wonderful values that we all share."TODAY

"I think a lot about this idea of blazing your own path," she said. "You're going to fall, it's going to be hard, and every time you make that sort of stumble or something doesn't work, you now have information that everybody else doesn't have, something that's unique in the world. You have to keep going."