It’s 5:30 p.m., and although the doors won’t open for almost two more hours, a few people have formed a line outside of Jeni’s Ice Cream on Rose Avenue, the brand’s latest scoop shop and its second in Los Angeles. In honor of the store’s grand opening, owner Jeni Britton Bauer is in town from Columbus, Ohio. She’s in her typical uniform for the occasion — jeans and a white top with a faux flower pinned at the collar — and she shuffles some potted plants off their stands so we can sit and chat comfortably.
If the craft-store peony brooch didn’t give away the 43-year-old’s creativity — she’s channeling Gucci, she says — an easy conversation about her flavor-making process surely does. When asked if she ever gets an ice cream maker’s version of writer’s block, she’s quick to reply.
“I think you can find the seed of an idea anywhere — in colors, in scents — but what I have to do is edit,” she says. “If I ever do need inspiration, the one place I go is the library. Always.”
A library excursion for Bauer looks like this: She heads to the fiction or reference section, selects a book and opens to its first page, scanning for words that grab her attention. She once stumbled on “lemon-yellow Camaro.” From there, her mind roamed until she landed on the idea of lemon candy and chamomile, the latter of which she says has a haylike flavor and seemed a nice blend with citrus.
Not everyone can spin a random literary phrase into something delicious, but Bauer has been at this since she was 21, or her “entire adult life.” In addition to her dedication to using top-quality ingredients — milk from grass-raised Ohio cows, bean-to-bar chocolate, fair-trade coffee beans — Bauer is skilled at noticing details and creating flavor stories. She attributes this in part to her arts education. Her grandmother was an art teacher, and Bauer studied the subject at Ohio State University, until she dropped out to make ice cream.
Her brain still turns like an artist’s, though. She makes or assists with all creative choices for the brand — scoop shop paint colors, carton design, in-store flavor labels — and she designs a “conceptual collection” every year. If that sounds highfalutin for an ice cream brand, that’s just fine with Bauer.
“For me, it’s fun to pretend that we’re an art gallery or museum, and that we’re telling a bigger story,” she says. “All of the ice creams we’re doing next month were originally called ‘We’re Not From Here.’ Then it became ‘You Belong Here.’ It all centers around this idea of belonging, or of discovering what’s behind something.”
As such, flavors in this collection may have foreign-seeming titles — for example, “Osmanthus and Blackberry Candy” — and their descriptions on in-store tags might be purposefully vague. When customers take a bite, though, the tastes would be familiar. In the above case, osmanthus is a flower with a slight peach flavor (and peaches and blackberries are seasonal companions). Another ice cream in the same collection may be titled “Genmaicha Tea.” Bauer is making this one by steeping the tea in warm cream, which then takes on the flavor of toasted rice, for which genmaicha tea is known. The end result is Rice Krispie–esque, she says.
These kinds of experiments are at the heart of what Bauer does. If she has one piece of advice for her peers, it’s to keep your eye on your passion, rather than trying to take the lead on everything.
“Entrepreneurs are not business people — we tend to come from everywhere except business,” she says. “The vision we have becomes the most important thing, and you take everyone in your life with you; there is no choice. Then, we bring business and finance minds and organizational people onto the team to help. Early on, I knew to hold on to that.”
While Bauer focused on the creative aspects of her brand, the business side put L.A. on the radar early on. Jeni’s launched in 2002, and by 2004 Bauer was shipping pints nationwide; the top three destinations were Manhattan, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. In 2011, when Bauer was roaming L.A. for a book tour, her wheels started turning faster about opening locations in town. Venice, in particular, held a special place in her heart. She recalls a pilgrimage to Sunny Spot, back when Roy Choi was offering granola topped with Fruity Pebbles (a treat she loves), followed by time spent on the beach.
“We fell in love with L.A. in the early 2000s, and we’ve been developing a fan base here for years,” Bauer says. “Every single project we do is the work of hundreds of people and a lot of time, so this is a huge moment for us.”
Bauer recognizes L.A.’s ability to attract, inspire and support talented people. She also sees it as a place where creative risk-taking happens constantly, making for a resilient community that’s always pushing the envelope, even when the going gets tough. She’s walked that path herself. When Jeni’s shops shuttered in 2015 due to listeria detected in production facilities, Bauer and her team banded together to overcome the crisis.
“I would never go back to the moment before that all happened,” she says. “We’ve grown so much as a company from it, and I’ve grown as a person. And I talk about it a lot, especially with other makers. If you’re making really good food — which is complex — you cannot rely on the protocols that already exist. We have to push quality and safety on our own, and innovate it.”
The challenge also reminded Bauer how strong the community surrounding her brand is.
“When your community wants you there, they stick with you,” she says. “Not only did customers stick with us, I think we set a new standard for how to do that — by being transparent. I feel like we built such trust from that experience that we actually came out ahead.”
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, 540 Rose Ave., Venice. (310) 314-2024, jenis.com.