Big Ideas: The Origin of Ben & Jerry’s


Big Ideas: The Origin of Ben & Jerry’s

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield grew up in Merrick, Long Island, U.S.A. They became friends in junior high school. Jerry finished college, but wasn’t accepted into any med schools. Ben got into several colleges, but ended up dropping out of all of them. They soon realized that doing what they were doing wasn’t getting them anywhere. That is when they decided to start their own business.

However, neither of them had any experience starting a business. But they did know what they liked and that was food- especially ice cream. So it seemed like a logical step to open an ice cream shop. To get started, they followed a $5 correspondence course on ice cream-making from Penn State University. They then, combined their $8000 life savings with a $4000 bank loan, and took out a lease on an old gas station building in Burlington, Vermont. They opened for business on May 5, 1978. Using an old-fashioned ice cream freezer, they began churning out all the rich & creamy, fun & chunky ice cream flavors they’d always dreamed about. Flavors loaded with all their favorite chunks of fruits, nuts, candies, and cookies. They started with 12 flavors. Soon there were long lines of customers outside the old gas station. Their ice cream was a hit.

In the summer of 1978, Ben & Jerry launched their first creative initiative that would help expand their company by holding a free summer film festival. They projected films onto a bare wall of their building. By 1980, Ben & Jerry had begun selling their ice cream to numerous restaurants in the Burlington area. Ben drove an old VW bus delivering their ice cream products to customers. On his delivery route, he passed many small grocery and convenience stores. He decided that they would be a perfect outlet for their ice cream. In 1980, they rented space in an old spool and bobbin factory in Burlington and began packaging their ice cream in pint-size cartons with pictures of themselves on the package. Ben & Jerry’s first gained national attention in the U.S.A. in 1981 when Time magazine named their products as ‘the best ice cream in the world’ in a cover story. In the following year, Ben & Jerry’s began to expand its distribution beyond the state of Vermont. First, an out-of-state store opened, selling Ben & Jerry’s products in Portland, Maine. Then, the company began to sell its pints in the Boston area, distributing their goods to stores through independent channels.

With its continuing expansion, Ben & Jerry’s developed a need for tighter financial controls. They brought in a local nightclub owner, Fred ‘Chico’ Lager, with business experience to be chief operating officer. As sales grew sharply, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield slowly came to the realization that their small-scale business had far-exceeded their expectations. This unexpected success didn’t entirely please them. ‘When Jerry and I realized we were no longer ice cream men, but businessmen, our first reaction was to sell.”

Together with their employees, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield drafted a three-part mission statement summing up the company’s unique corporate philosophy. It declared that Ben & Jerry’s had a product mission, a social mission, and an economic mission. In their pursuit of developing innovative ways to improve the quality of life for a broad community, they launched flavors such as Chocolate Fudge Brownie, containing brownies made by homeless and unemployed workers in Yonkers, New York; Wild Maine Blueberry, made with blueberries harvested by Passamaquoddy Indians; and Rainforest Crunch, containing Brazil nuts collected in the Amazon rainforest by indigenous peoples. In addition, 60 percent of the profits from that flavor are invested in environmental groups dedicated to preserving the Amazon rainforest. Initiatives such as these provide an economically viable alternative to deforestation.

When confronted with a declining market for super premium ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield turned increasingly to professional managers. Finally in April 2000, Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s, its only super premium ice cream, for $326 million in cash. Unilever, pledging to uphold Ben & Jerry’s traditional values and commitment to social causes, offered the power to distribute Ben & Jerry’s to millions of new consumers; expanding the Ben & Jerry’s brand to new heights.


Gijs van Wulfen is a LinkedIn thought leader on innovation. The ‘Origin of Ben & Jerry’s’ is part of his new book: “The Innovation Expedition, A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation”. Available at

Photo Credits: Flickr / The Impulsive Buy



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