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The ice cream man

Ben and Jerry's Jerry Greenfield on activist dessert


Jerry Greenfield (pictured) and Ben Cohen met in junior - high school, when they ran the track in gym class. A $5 - correspondence ice-cream-making course led them into - the dessert business. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIEL JOHNSON
  • Photo courtesy of Daniel Johnson
  • Jerry Greenfield (pictured) and Ben Cohen met in junior high school, when they ran the track in gym class. A $5 correspondence ice-cream-making course led them into the dessert business.

Family lore has it that my now-departed distant cousin, Reuben Mattus, founded Hagen-Dazs ice cream after immigrating to New York City.

He distributed his treat in a horse-drawn wagon and made it big when he slapped a phony Dutch name on the containers. But because the company was bought out in the '80s, when I was young, I never tasted a free melted drop of mint chocolate chip.

If only I were heiress to Ben and Jerry's. The company managed to stay true to its roots and make bank. Founded in a renovated gas station in Vermont by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the ice-cream enterprise has operated for nearly 30 years by giving back to local communities.

In spite of its corporate ownership and yes, it was acquired by Unilever the company has embarked on global warming and peace campaigns. It's opened nonprofit PartnerShops to employ struggling youth. Most recently it launched "AmeriCone Dream," a flavor based on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," with proceeds going to Colbert-chosen charities.

At the end of the month, Jerry (favorite flavor: Heath Bar Crunch) will share company wisdom and free ice cream at Colorado College. The Independent grilled him on how to go big and stay tasty.

Indy: I spoke with John Krakauer, the owner of Josh and John's ice cream shop in Colorado Springs. He owns two stores in this city, compared with your 580 scoop shops worldwide. He wants to know if you miss being a small company.

JG: I am most nostalgic for the very early days of Ben and Jerry's, the startup phase. I don't think you could call us a company at that point. What I miss about that was that it was chaotic. Every day you came to work and you had no idea what was going to happen. Everything was a complete surprise, and Ben and I had no idea what we were doing.

Indy: You and Ben are no longer intricately involved in the company. What do you do at this stage of the game?

JG: We have the opportunity to be involved in projects that we want to be involved in ... I am interested in helping the company's social mission succeed in order to demonstrate that you can have a business that is caring and community-involved and financially successful. That is the mission of the company. But it is conventional thinking that a company can't be compassionate and caring and be profitable. Our experience with Ben and Jerry's has been quite different.

Indy: Tell me about one project you're particularly proud of.

JG: Last year, we came out with a flavor called American Pie. It was an apple pie flavor. On the packaging, there is a pie chart of how our country divides the federal budget. You can see that half goes into the military. The rest is split up into little slices that go into the environment and education and health care. The company was using packaging to talk about our federal priorities and our nuclear arsenal.

We spend $30 billion to maintain a nuclear arsenal of 10,000 nuclear bombs. Military experts agree that is way more than we need. And wouldn't we be a safer and stronger country if we put some of that into our kids' education and health care? I was very proud of that. It is so atypical for a business to talk about an issue like nuclear power.

Indy: How about the ice cream itself? Are you working to make its production more sustainable?

JG: We use unbleached paper for our pint containers. Most packaging for food uses chlorine bleaching, and it gets dioxins into the environment, which is one of the most toxic chemicals around. Years ago, the company dispensed with that.

We also source milk and cream from farmers who pledge not to use bovine growth hormone in their cows. It's a synthetic hormone injected into cows that makes them produce more milk. It puts stress on the cows and it increases their rate of infection and necessitates the use of antibiotics, which gets into the milk.

Indy: Ben and Jerry's was acquired by Unilever seven years ago. Has that compromised anything in the business?

JG: Recently, I was down in D.C. because there is an issue with the FDA about dairy products and meat from cloned animals. The FDA has determined that dairy products and meat from cloned animals are safe. They are contemplating allowing it into the food supply.

Ben and Jerry's sent a contingent to Washington, D.C., to try and publicize the issue. It is a disturbing issue to many people on different levels. People just feel uncomfortable with cloned animals in the food supply. Is it really safe? Are people going to buy less food? And then there is the issue of the people's right to know ...

For Ben and Jerry's to go down and take this stand on the issue, for example, they needed to run it by Unilever and Unilever lawyers. The final result was we went down and we did this protest. It is like you have to ask permission from your parent.

Indy: Some of your most popular flavors were pitched to you by customers. Tell the story of Chubby Hubby.

JG: There were some Ben and Jerry's fans in York, Pa., who wanted to play a trick on a friend who was a huge Ben and Jerry's fan. They told this person there was a new flavor out and not even this guy had heard of it, and it was called Chubby Hubby. They made a mock-up of the pint container. They went into a store and put it in the freezer and brought this guy into the store to show him that it existed.

They wrote to us about it, and we ended up making the flavor. It is a very unusual flavor vanilla malt ice cream with chocolate-covered, peanut-butter-filled pretzels. The pretzels need to be chocolate-coated so they don't get soggy in the ice cream. It's quite complex, yet delicious as well.

Jerry Greenfield on "Social Responsibility, Radical Business Philosophy and Free Ice Cream"

CC's Shove Chapel, 1010 N. Nevada Ave.

Wednesday, March 28, 7:30 p.m.

Free; for more, call 389-6607 or visit

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