Today, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are famously known as the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s, an American ice cream company known for its novelty ice creams. But it wasn’t always this way. They, too, had their struggles and failures before the birth of their company.

The Beginnings of Ben & Jerry

Ben Cohen (pictured, right) was born on March 18, 1951 in Brooklyn, New York to Frances and Irving Cohen. Jerry Greenfield (pictured, left) was born on March 14, 1951 inBrooklyn, New York to a stockbroker. In 1963, Ben and Jerry met in a gym class at Merrick Avenue Junior High School. Their bond formed when they both found that they hated running in gym class, yet loved food. It was from here that their friendship formed until they graduated from Calhoun High School and went to separate colleges.

Ben worked as an ice cream man before he attended Colgate Universityin upstate New York. Over the next eleven years, Ben decided to pursue his interest in pottery while doing a mixture of other things. For instance, he attended the “University Without Walls” program at Skidmore, the New School and NYU. He also held a series of odd jobs such as working as a cashier at McDonald’s, a Pinkerton guard, mopper at Jamesway anfd Friendly’s, pottery wheel deliverer, assistant superintendent, ER clerk and taxi driver. He then decided to become a craft teacher at a school for emotionally disturbed teenagers. At the Highland Community School, he then became interested in ice cream and decided to experiment with flavors.ben and jerryCredit: wikipedia

During this time, Jerry decided to pursue pre-med at Oberlin College, which was unsurprising given his interest in medicine and his hardworking nature. During his time in college, he worked as an ice cream scooper in the university cafeteria. Jerry had hoped to get into medical school after graduating from Oberlin in 1973. However, he failed twice to get into medical school, at which point he gave up and moved to North Carolinawith his future wife to be a lab technician.

Small Steps to Ice Cream Creation

Jerry moved back north to New York in 1976, where he and Ben discussed the possibility of opening and operating a business. They thought of possibly opening a bagel shop, but decided that it would be more feasible to open an ice cream shop because ice cream equipment was significantly cheaper than for a bagel shop. Ben and Jerry then split the cost of a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making to learn more about the art of ice cream fromPennsylvaniaStateUniversity’s Creamery. Armed with $12,000 of investment money of which $4,000 was borrowed, they went on a search to find the perfect location to open their ice cream shop. They eventually settle onBurlington,Vermontsince it was a small, warm-weathered college town that lacked any ice cream shops. On May 5, 1978, they opened up their small ice cream shop in a renovated gas station.

It was a hit. The college students loved their ice cream and people would crowd around the store, waiting for ice cream. The store was able to use freshVermontmilk and cream to make their ice cream, creating new flavors constantly. Interestingly, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is known for its big flavors and textures, such as fruits, nuts and chocolate chunks. This was largely due to the fact that Ben had anosmia, which is the loss of smell and almost no sense of taste. Thus, Ben added larger chunks and mixtures to the ice cream in order to be able to taste and feel the texture of the ice cream. Even though Jerry disagreed, he later said “if it’s not fun, why do it?” This quote largely embodies how Ben and Jerry feel about their business.

Ben & Jerry's coffee heath pintCredit: wikipediaTwo months later, they closed their store and hung a sign saying “We’re closed down to figure out if we’re making any money”. Even though they weren’t, they reflected on what they had learnt and how to better their operations to be profitable. They reopened with this in mind. A year after they had opened, they celebrated their one-year anniversary by holding a Free Cone Day, where they offered free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream all day on their anniversary, a tradition that still happens in Ben & Jerry’s all over the nation.

A Global Reach

By 1980, they decided to rent out space in a spool and bobbin mill in Burlington, where they started packing ice cream in pints. Doing so allowed them to distribute their ice cream to grocery and small shops along the restaurant delivery routes that Ben services. The year after, they opened up their first Ben & Jerry’s Franchise on Route 7 in Shelburne,Vermont.

In order to expand its production, Ben & Jerry’s moved its pint-packing operations to Green Mountain Drive in South Burlingtonfrom its original spool and bobbin mill. Then, in 1985, they built their ice cream manufacturing plant and company headquarters on Route 100 in Waterbury,Vermont. By now, the company had sales of over $9 million, 143% higher than in the previous year. Things were growing quickly.

Only three years later, their sales were over $47 million. They now operated an ice cream scoop shop inMontreal,Quebec, as well as 18 states, which had over 80 Ben & Jerry’s ice cream scoop shops.

In 2000, Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever for an over of $326 million and an agreement to let Ben & Jerry’s join with Unilever to create an even more global ice cream business (having already expanded globally to other countries such as the UK, France, Benelux, Canada, Japan and Lebanon) with social impact and activism in mind. 

Today, Ben & Jerry’s is enjoyed globally in over 30 countries with tons of new flavors that come out, such as Boston Cream Pie, Chocolate Therapy, Cake Batter and Banana Split, to name a few. All of this was from two friends who failed to achieve what they initially set out to do; they had now found their true calling.