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January 2013
The Taste of Success By Pete Mihalek

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams of Columbus, Ohio, is a small company with some big ideas to help get your business to the next level.

Sometimes we just hate it when our favorite band goes mainstream. But on the contrary, when a favorite brand goes Main Street, we couldn’t be any prouder. That’s because witnessing a small business succeed is a reflection of the community it’s based in.

Simply put, smart communities reward good business acumen. And Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams of Columbus, Ohio, is a fine example of just that.

With interest-piquing flavors like Yazoo Sue With Rosemary Bar Nuts and Queen City Cayenne to Sweet Corn & Black Raspberries and Sweet Potato With Torched Marshmallow, Jeni’s isn’t your typical freezer-section ice cream vendor.

At around $10 a pint, quality comes at a price. But according to Jeni’s CEO John Lowe, the company’s authenticity, community service, genuine staff and exceptional product quality are ingredients that make this product well worth every spoonful.

Leading up to his speaking engagement at the Next Level event in Nashville, Jan. 31 – Feb. 2, John took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for Lawn & Garden Retailer about marketing, going local and customer service.

Marketing — How does Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams use social media to its advantage?

John Lowe: We use social media to give a peek into our kitchen. The way we make ice cream is unlike other ice cream companies, and we do our best to show that. For instance, our Sweet Corn with Black Raspberries starts with us shucking Ohio sweet corn. We have a video that captures the process.

Social media is perfect for a company like ours that is authentic and open and also doesn’t have the budget to tell our story through more traditional advertising.

Personality — Social media aside, what do you do to put a face to Jeni’s?

Lowe: A company’s personality cannot be faked. It pains me to see companies like Ford and GE (my former employer) try to have a schtick on social media. If it isn’t authentic, don’t do it. Period.

Our personality is easy. It reflects Jeni and our team. That Jeni has developed into a bit of a celebrity is certainly beneficial to selling ice cream — and the book becoming a best-seller and Jeni receiving the James Beard award for it are tremendous assets to us. It helps other people explain that there is a reason our ice cream is better – our ice creams are made by the best craftsperson making ice cream today. She has spent the better part of the last 16 years honing her craft on hard cement floors, making every batch and serving every customer.

Community — How has Jeni’s positively impacted the very community from which it got its start?

Lowe: We exist for two reasons: to make the best ice creams possible, and to make the world a better place. Woody Allen said success had enabled him to strike out with a higher class of woman. Our success has enabled us to better support the organizations that we have been close to from the beginning. For example, Jeni is a founding member of Local-Matters, an organization created before 99 percent of us had ever heard of the phrase “Eat local.”

We look to Chipotle as a model. It has remained true to its roots in many — maybe not all — ways, and its success has enabled the company to very meaningfully impact the World through its sourcing and its charitable giving. We like to think we are doing something similar — just on a much smaller scale.

We recently sponsored FarmAid, which is something we would not have been able to dream of previously, but that is right in line with our goals of supporting family farmers. The aim of that organization is great, and we were happy to write a check to their foundation. Additionally, we have long supported VeggieU, and we are now able to do so with a larger check each year, which feels good for our team.

Competition — How has Jeni’s used its locally owned branding to stand out from the litany of mainstream ice creams brands?

Lowe: It isn’t about branding. It has to be about quality and service. If our ice cream was the same quality — or frankly, if it was even close to the quality of whatever was down the street, we wouldn’t exist. If an uninspired franchise could give the same level of customer service we give in our stores, we wouldn’t have stores.

We have to be better — a lot better — because there are brands, marketers and monied brains that can do everything else better than us. Everything, that is, except make ice cream and give great service.

Experience — Which steps do you take to ensure your staff maintains the Jeni’s message and high-quality experience to customers walking in off the street?

Lowe: Ensuring the quality of our shop customer service has to be in our top three priorities at all times. It is really difficult to do retail well. Retail is detail, so the saying goes, and finding people that get the importance of the shop experience is not easy, but it is crucial.

We try to get people through an orientation that includes quality time with Jeni, so they can hear her talk about customer service and the shop experience; and they get to spend time with myself and other company leaders so they get that this is personal.

Our entire team is 100 percent tied up in the service they are giving. We need them to be great. We would love it if Jeni could serve every customer. She can’t, so they have to be as good as Jeni. They have to know the flavors, what goes well together, what ingredients are in each, etc. We don’t do it perfectly every time, but there isn’t a team in the world I would rather compete with than ours.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams of Columbus, Ohio, is a small company with some big ideas to help get your business to the next level.


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