If anyone were in any doubt, here in Australia it's definitely ice cream weather. A couple of 40c plus days resoundingly puts us in ice cream weather and when we're invited to a Northside BBQ one hot Summer's Day we feel it our duty to stop by the newly minted Ben & Jerry's Ice cream shop in Manly on the way home. Open with a soft launch for a few weeks already, this Saturday the 28th of November is the big launch where people can meet Ben & Jerry in person and enjoy some free ice cream (and keep reading for my interview with Ben and Jerry!).
We join the queue at one end, even though there hasn't been a large promotional push, the weather and the location right on the esplanade means that there's a constant, steady stream of ice cream lovers. As we get closer, we see the flavours available and I have my eye on Chunky Monkey, Phish Food and Strawberry Cheesecake. As the weather is hot to sweltering we also order a Strawberry Lemonade drink.
The counter shows signs of a mass ice cream pillage by hungry hoardes. Staff are friendly though (it's probably their proximity to the ice cream to eat and the ice to cool off) and we place our order. They're out of large 3 scoop cones so they put it in a cup for us and place a smaller cone on top.
I take our bounty to the table. There's a partition with Ben & Jerry ice cream lids and we dig in. The Chunky Monkey is delicious and my favourite with a caramelised banana flavour, chocolate fudge chunks and walnuts. The strawberry cheesecake has fine cookie crumbs swirled throughout it and a light real strawberry flavour and runs a close second and then there's Phish food which is lovely with marshmallow and caramel and fish shaped fudge.
The strawberry lemonade shake is refreshing and not too sweet which is perfect to quench our thirst although it's best enjoyed before the ice cream as it's much less sweet.
Fast forward a couple of weeks later and I'm talking to Ben & Jerry themselves! They've both just arrived in Australia and are here to spread the word of Peace, Love and Ice Cream.
_You're known as political activists as well as being ice cream men. Tell me about how important politics is to you. _
Ben: Well politics is kind of an ugly word but I'm interested in how they run our countries and how they spend our money is something I'm very passionate about.
_The ice cream flavour "Hubby hubby" was a strike for gay marriage, and "Yes Pecan" was created for Obama's presidential campaign. Do you think that your political stance has impacted sales _
Ben: You know what? I think it impacts sales positively. We always say that when we take a controversial political stance that 30% of our customers like it and 30% don't care and 30% don't like it. I think the ones that like it versus the ones that don't like it kind of equal each other out. I think in general it sets our company apart from others and that is good for sales.
Ben: How do you know about red states? You're an Aussie (laughs). Well super premium ice cream in general is sold mostly on the two coasts which happen to be blue (less conservative states). I'm not aware of the sales of our ice cream being geographically impacted by our politics.
_Peace, love and ice cream is the theme, was it hard to make that decision financially to use free range eggs, thermo acoustic freezers and to support places like Greyston Bakery? _
Jerry: This Jerry by the way how are you? Some of those items cost more but I think there are benefits to using them. If the company wanted to do it the cheapest possible way it would produce ice cream that wouldn't be as good so I think of B&J as a values led company. You want to think about those values and what the company is all about before you make the decision.
_Ben has no sense of taste which turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. Ben, what is life like without a sense of taste? _
Ben: It's actually related to smell. So life without a sense of smell is interesting. People would shove flowers in front of my nose and say doesn't that smell wonderful and I couldn't smell anything. It was perplexing to me. And see now every once in a while I'll take like a whole bunch of allergy pills or sinus decongestant and way more than they tell you to take so every once in a while I'll actually smell something. I remember 10 years ago I smelled oranges for the first time. I was in Florida, in this orange orchard and it was incredible! I just loved it. Again 5 years ago or something and I smelled a flower - it's beautiful!
What ended up happening in terms of the ice cream business was that Jerry was the guy who was making the ice cream and I'd be the taster. Jerry would mix up the vanilla according to how much vanilla the vanilla company recommended that we put in and I'd have to figure out which flavour it was with my eyes closed and I would say I can't taste it so he would put more until it became abundantly clear. So we ended up having a very highly flavoured ice cream that I could actually taste. When you have a sensoral disability you tend to make up for it with some other sense. For me as I couldn't really taste I got a very highly developed sense of mouth feel. I'm very attuned to textures in my mouth. So I really need a whole lot of chunks and a whole lot contrast with the creaminess of the icecream and crunchiness of the chunks and I needed the chunks to be really big. Of course that created a lot of problems with Jerry. Jerry can you talk about your problems?
Jerry: The problems are with making ice cream with big chunks. It's harder to get a good distribution of the chunks. It's easier if you have smaller chunks. Ben didn't really care if he didn't get a spoonful if it meant that the next spoonful would mean he'd get a really, really, big chunk. He let me slide a little on the distribution. It was the size of the chunks and the number of chunks. What's interesting is that we were really making the ice cream for Ben. Not for customers it was just for Ben.
We were entering New York City for the first time there was food critic there that I kind of left her some ice cream at her door and she said in her review Eh this ain't much so then I resolved to come up with a flavour for NYC that she'd like and that the issue was that with New York City there's so much energy, commotion and there's so much going it's got to stand out in the midst of that and there's also a whole lot of good food. You had to come up with something really over the top and we had what you'd call was a focus group but in actuality it was a friend who played violin in an orchestra and I would come up with a flavour that was designed for New York and send it down to him from Vermont and he would share it with his orchestra and he would write me back about the flavour and that's how we came up with our flavour New York Super Fudge Chunk. As a matter of fact that flavour was so thick in chocolate that it wouldn't fit through the pasteurizing machine.
It broke the mold
Exactly it broke the machinery (laughs)
What do you think makes a good flavour? Do you have an instinct of what will sell well?
Jerry: Most of the best flavours that I've personally come up with I have channeled from the collective flavour unconscious. I will have the concept of a flavour that I believe people will want. Our heritage is homemade ice cream and the concept of making food at your house is that you don't cut any corners so I add a whole lot of cream, a very small amount of air. Ice cream at least in the United States is just about the only food product that sold by volume and not by weight and as a matter of fact in the United States there's a federal law that requires that you cannot have more than 50% air in your ice cream.
Yes half ice cream half air so you melt it down you end up with half a container and so our ice cream is just about all ice cream. There is like 17% air so that it isn't like a block of frozen ice. Although I thought my biggest success never sold. Ben: we were only selling our ice cream in the United States, it could be that the ice cream was meant for Australia.
What flavour was it that didn't sell?
Ben: It was mocha walnut. We've had some mocha flavours and the interesting thing about mocha flavours is that we would get these complaint letters and half of them would say it's got too much chocolate and the other half would say it's got too much coffee. We though we should send the too much chocolate letter to the too much coffee people and vice versa.
Ben: I don't know if they ever are going to get together. Those people are never going to see mocha in the same way! Jerry and I were speaking to a university in Chicago a week or so ago and this woman came up to me who said she had a great idea for a flavour and you know how there are a lot of women who eat ice cream when they have bad experiences with men when they break up. She said 'we think you should come up with a flavour in a pink carton for women that's called You Could Do Betterscotch'. It's a whole package for a women who has recently broken up with her man and I think that the combination of coffee ice cream and butterscotch is actually a really delicious combination. I personally think we should do it. I'm going to pass it along.
That's a specific but pretty big market
Ben: (laughs) Of people that have broken up? How many would you say have broken up at any given time.
A lot if you believe the stories, everyone's breaking up at some stage.
Yeah there are a lot of songs about breaking up...
They could buy a CD and a pint of "You Could Do Betterscotch".
So what do you think about that flavour?
_I love it. Coffee with butterscotch. I would put that in a pink bag and give it to a girlfriend who has just broken up with somebody. _
They keep trying to come up with all sorts of eating occasions these food manufacturers so this is coming up with a new eating occasion.
Exactly and it's not like once a year like Valentines Day it's all the time.
We could encourage this stuff for gifts to express sympathy. What else could you get? Are there any other products specifically designed for a woman who has recently broken up with her guy?
There's only so much you can say so instead you can say it with ice cream.
It would be a first. I think it should be a chocolate flavour . How about a butterscotch ripple and a chocolate ripple? And an actual whole chocolate piece on top and on the bottom as a reward for finishing your pint.
And you could stab at it with your spoon and pretend it was him. You can get out a bit of aggression or rage.
(Laughs) You see I think we could go places together!
You have a yearly dessert tour where you try 250 desserts in one week. And how does one get on this tour?
Well we have our Research & Development people who are very good and creative and they are in Vermont so they like to go out and eat a lot of desserts at different places. I'm not sure it's as much fun as you may think. I think they're eating quickly as opposed to eating for enjoyment. I'm much more of a recreational eater than a critical eater.
Tell me about your ice cream graveyard. Is it really a graveyard with tombstones?
Jerry : Yeah there's two graveyards. There's a virtual graveyard on the website but at the factory in Vermont there's a grave site with the headstones and you can visit your favourite dearly departed flavour and pay your respects. The interesting thing is many people have a favourite flavour that they think is the absolutely greatest flavour in the history of the world and it gets discontinued and it goes to the graveyard and they cannot understand it as it's their absolute favourite so it's got to be everyone's favourite. Like Ben and Maple Walnut.
Ben: I can't help it peoples palates aren't as sophisticated as mine
Multinationals aren't known for being kind and gentle, what did Unilever have to do to convince you to sell to them?
Well we didn't really want to sell. It wasn't anything to do with Unilever we wanted to stay an independent company. We were a public company at the time and essentially they offered so much money that we had a board of directors of the company couldn't find a viable alternative to keep it as a company. We couldn't say no.
_The ice cream that's being sold sold here is being made in Vermont. Are there any plans to make it here in Australia? _
Well it's certainly something we'd like to do. Right now since the business is so small and we have so few flavours and we have so few outlets that we can't manufacture on that scale. We'd certainly would like to be not shipping ice cream from the United States to Australia. We are sensitive that we have to ship it so far and the energy involved so we're purchasing energy offsets but certainly we would rather not be making it and shipping it.
So tell me Dear Reader, which sense could you absolutely not do without?
Ben & Jerry's
Shops 5 & 6
25-27 South Steyne, Manly, NSW
Store Cone Phone +61 (02) 8966 9219
The Free Ice Cream will be served on Saturday the 28th of November 10am-10pm