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An interview with Ben & Jerry 


Beloved co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are probably best known for creating ice cream flavors with tastes and names like no others—favorites like Phish Food, Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia, to name a few. But what you might not know about these two longtime friends and business partners is that since co-founding Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in 1978, they have created a company with a long history of social activism and a community-oriented approach to business to back up their sweet, rich and tasty ice cream.

The duo, who met in high school on Long Island, opened up Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in May of 1978 in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt. Often labeled as hippies, Cohen and Greenfield—who have no formal business background—managed to turn a storefront venture into a $300 million ice cream empire with these simple ingredients: good ice cream, unusual flavors, creative marketing strategies and an emphasis on social responsibility.

Cohen and Greenfield wrote a book in 1987 titled Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. In 1988, three years after establishing the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, they were recognized by the Council on Economic Priorities and the U.S. Small Business Administration for donating 7.5 percent of their pretax profits to nonprofit organizations through their foundation.

Oy!Chicago’s Stefanie Pervos recently caught up with Ben and Jerry about their kooky flavors, impressive sense of social responsibility and the future of their ice cream company—to quote their Cherry Garcia T-shirt “What a long, strange dip it’s been.”

Oy!Chicago: Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be talking about at the JUF Trades Industries & Professions dinner on May 13?
Ben: We’re going to talk about some humorous anecdotes of the early days of Ben & Jerry’s. Then we’ll get into a little progressive, radical, socially responsible business philosophy, and finish up with a little socially responsible federal budgeting.

And most importantly, will there be ice cream?
Yes, and that is most importantly.

Tell me briefly how Ben & Jerry’s got started—your friendship, why the partnership and why the ice cream?
Ben and I met in junior high school. We actually went to the same temple and were in Sunday school together as well. After less than stellar college careers—I was trying to go to medical school and never got in and Ben had dropped out of college—we just decided to do something fun. And since we’d always liked to eat, we thought we’d do something with food and we chose homemade ice cream.

From the day you opened in 1978, it seems you have been able to combine business with social activism. How did this come to be?
I think it was an idea that evolved over time. When we first started our company we were a little homemade ice cream parlor in an abandoned gas station and we didn’t plan to do anything more than that. As the business started to grow, we understood more about the role that business plays in the community and the society at large and we wanted to try to use that influence of business for something more than just making money. We don’t have any business education or background, so we wanted to run the business the way a typical personal on the street would—so that it’s a good neighbor and it helps take care of its neighbors instead of just looking out for itself. I think as we went along those feelings evolved into social activism.

How else does social activism play out?
Jerry: The company tries to get involved in certain issues. One thing the company has done, it has pledged not to use bovine growth hormones in the products and puts a message on all our packaging. The company has taken a stand about the military budget and trying to find nonviolent, nonmilitary solutions to conflicts. I think one interesting thing is that the business will be outspoken about issues that are not necessarily in its financial self-interest. Ben & Jerry’s has always felt that we should be standing up for issues for the good of society and not just to make the company more money.

What are your Jewish backgrounds, and how, if at all, do you think your Jewish background played into how you chose to create and run Ben & Jerry’s?
I think my Jewish background made me aware of people that were discriminated against, and that a big part of the issue is poverty and people not getting their fair share of social services because of discrimination. So in terms of the stands Ben & Jerry’s has taken, it has been about trying to get more fair treatment for people who have been discriminated against or exploited. I certainly identify myself as a Jew. I’m not a practicing Jew in terms of I don’t go to temple—but I do really like to eat the food and sing the songs.
Jerry: [Ben and I] both grew up in Long Island and there was a significant Jewish population in our town, and I was bar mitzvahed. [Today], I identify as being Jewish but am less practicing. Sometimes, instead of Ben & Jerry, we say we’re Cohen and Greenfield…

How did your ice cream flavors and naming method become so distinctive?
I was just trying to make flavors I really liked. That was pretty much chopping up cookies and candies and sticking them in ice cream, so that’s how Heath Bar Crunch came about; and then we had great suggestions from customers, and that’s how Cherry Garcia came about and Chubby Hubby and Chunky Monkey. Those were all flavor names and concepts that our customers thought up, although it was I, along with the help of a whole bunch of people, that actually brought those flavors into reality, gave birth to them through the birth canal—the flavor birth canal!

What are your favorite flavors?
Jerry: Heath Bar Crunch.
Ben: Cherry Garcia.

Do those change?
Not for me.
Jerry: I eat a lot of flavors.
Ben: (singing) There’s so many flavors to crave from Ben & Jerry’s…

What is your involvement on a day-to-day basis with the company today?
Jerry: Ben and I are not involved in the operations or the management of the company. We are the beloved co-founders.

So, what are you doing when you’re not being Ben and Jerry of “Ben & Jerry’s?”
Ben: I walk with my dog in the woods.
Jerry: I spend some time doing public speaking. I am the president of Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, so I’m involved with that. I’m also on the board of a nonprofit in Vermont. And I think Ben and I also interface with the company to a certain amount, even though we don’t have any responsibilities. We’re in touch with the CEO and we try to encourage the company to be more active in terms of social issues and environmental issues.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield will speak at  JUF’s 3rd Annual Trades, Industries and Professions Suburban Dinner May 13  at Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling.

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