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The History of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had grown up together on Long Island and were struggling in their chosen fields — Ben was having trouble selling his pottery and Jerry had been rejected by medical schools, so they agreed to open a store together. They incorporated in 1977 with the intention of opening a bagel shop, but the machinery costs were too high, so they pivoted and took a $5 course on ice cream making at Penn State. They each put up $4,000 (Ben’s father paid half of his portion) and secured an additional $4,000 through a bank loan, then began converting a gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Opening day was held on May 5, 1978; both Ben and Jerry were 27 years old. In deference to Vermont’s weather, Ben made crêpes, soups, and other foods while Jerry handled the ice cream. In 1979, they switched their focus entirely to ice cream. Right away, they were focused on intensely flavored, chunky, and creative ice cream flavors, in part because Ben had a poor sense of smell and so Jerry would try to make intense flavors that Ben could easily enjoy. They also cultivated a sense of simplicity and wholesomeness, which helped their business catch on. (For years, they kept the top salary at the company no more than five times larger than the lowest salary, although this is no longer the case.) In 1979, they expanded from their scoop shop to wholesale deliveries. They started in the Northeast and eventually spread their wares all across the U.S. By 1987, their ice cream was available in 35 states and the company had grown into an empire worth $30 million. In 1994, Ben stepped down as CEO and the company hit $150 million. By then, Ben & Jerry’s had become famous for a line of unique flavors that each came with a kooky name. But in the late 2010s, the market began to shift toward healthier options and Ben & Jerry’s premium, rich ice creams were outperformed by low-calorie options at grocery stores. Still, Ben & Jerry’s remains a beloved option in the frozen aisle at grocery stores all across the country today and even offers several new vegan options for consumers to enjoy.

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