GUY RAZ, HOST:
Before we start the show, I just want to share some really exciting news, which is that we're doing two more live events supported by American Express OPEN before the end of the year. The first one is on November 30 right here in Washington, D.C. My guest will be Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, Black Entertainment Television. And the next show will be in Atlanta on December 6 with Arthur Blank who co-founded Home Depot and now owns the Atlanta Falcons.
And if you haven't seen a live episode of HOW I BUILT THIS, it's super fun. Tickets are now on sale, so if you want to buy them, go to nprpresents.org. That's nprpresents.org. And one more quick thing before we start this episode - there's a little bit of salty language in here, so if you're listening with kids, just be mindful. It's not too bad, but you'll hear a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JERRY GREENFIELD: Pillsbury had bought Haagen-Dazs, so they owned them. And they went to independent ice cream distributors and, you know, told them that if those distributors continued to deliver Ben & Jerry's that they wouldn't sell them Haagen-Dazs anymore. You know, we recognized that Pillsbury was controlling the marketplace, and they were using their power to keep competitors out.
RAZ: So what'd you do?
GREENFIELD: We took our case to the people. We decided to go after the Pillsbury Doughboy, the most beloved food mascot in the country, the pudgy little doughboy. But this particular case - it was a matter of survival.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, how two hippies named Ben and Jerry turned their small ice cream shop in Burlington, Vt. into one of the most iconic ice cream brands in the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I don't know about you, but I have a feeling that most people at some point have spent a quiet evening in front of the television with a spoon and a pint of, you know, Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia or New York Super Fudge Chunk or chocolate chip cookie dough because there's something really comforting about a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Even though it's full of sugar and saturated fat, it somehow feels OK. You know what I mean?
Maybe it's the fair trade symbol on the front or the we buy from local Vermont dairy farmers on the side of the pint, or most likely, seeing Ben and Jerry's photo on it because you kind of know they're good guys, that their heart's in the right place. And the thing is, all that peace, and justice, and love and equality stuff that Ben and Jerry's kind of tied together with their brand - it's real. It wasn't a gimmick. It wasn't a strategy designed to attract customers because it's who they are.
There weren't social enterprises back when these guys started, and they certainly never planned to get rich, but they did do well, and they did do good. And their amazing story of building one of the most beloved ice cream brands actually begins almost 60 years ago when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were at the same middle school on Long Island in New York.
GREENFIELD: We were both fat as kids. We were both, you know, nerdy, not in the mainstream, socially.
BEN COHEN: You know, we were the two slowest, fattest kids in gym class. So, you know, if you're running around the track, and you're half a lap behind everybody else and there's another guy there beside you, you know, you get pretty friendly with that guy.
RAZ: And did you end up going to the same high school?
GREENFIELD: We did. Yeah, we went to Calhoun High School. We graduated. Ben...
COHEN: Jerry was a mathlete. I was in debate club.
COHEN: I lettered in debate club.
RAZ: You lettered...
COHEN: Did you letter in math, Jerry?
RAZ: All right, so you guys grew up in Long Island, you finish high school there, and did you - where did you go - Jerry, where did you go to college? Ben, where'd you go?
COHEN: I went to a lot of colleges. I went to Colgate. I went to Skidmore. I went to NYU. I went to The New School.
RAZ: Wow, you did the circuit.
COHEN: I dropped out of all those schools.
RAZ: OK, all right.
COHEN: And then I finally joined the University Without Walls, which was the most unstructured college program at the time. The idea was that the whole world was your campus, and you go out there and learn whatever you wanted to learn, and then you come back to this administrative body and prove that you learned it, and they give you a degree. And I dropped out of there too.
COHEN: So that was my college career.
GREENFIELD: Still too much structure for Ben, as I like to tell people.
RAZ: Yeah, right? Jerry, how about you?
GREENFIELD: I went to Oberlin College in Ohio. I did four years straight. I was pre-med and applied to and got rejected from lots of medical schools on two different occasions. So...
RAZ: So you guys were - I mean, look, I...
COHEN: Failures, I think is what you would call it (laughter).
RAZ: Let's be honest, that's just not true. That's just untrue. But what happened after you graduated? How did you guys reconnect?
COHEN: Well, I was working at a school for disturbed kids in the Adirondacks. I was teaching pottery there, and then I decided I wanted to try to learn - try to be a real potter, you know? Those who can't, teach. Those who can, do. Well, I tried doing, and nobody would buy my pots.
So I left the Adirondacks, and I moved to New York City in order to get, you know, some more - other influences on my pottery. And of course, it was so expensive to live in New York that I needed to spend all my time making rent driving cab and - so I had this apartment, and it was a pretty grungy apartment. And Jerry showed up.
RAZ: In New York?
RAZ: And you - but you moved into Ben's apartment or you just ended up both being...
GREENFIELD: I did. So this - after I graduated college and after my first bout of medical school rejections, I moved in with Ben in New York City. And then I left and went to North Carolina. And after my second bout of medical school rejections, I connected with Ben again. And it was at that point that we decided to put our fortunes together and open up a little...
GREENFIELD: ...Shop, which - yeah - which turned out to be an ice cream business. You know, we didn't exactly think of it as a business. We thought of it as a venture.
RAZ: Like, let's do something because we're not...
GREENFIELD: That's exactly right.
COHEN: Because we're failures.
GREENFIELD: Let's do something for a couple of years, and then after we do that, let's do something else. We talked about becoming cross-country truck drivers after we did this ice cream shop.
RAZ: So was ice cream the main idea? Was that what you were going to do from the beginning? Because I've read that you weren't really sure what kind of shop you were going to do.
GREENFIELD: Yeah, we thought we would do something with food because we had always liked to eat, and we wanted to live in a college town. So we thought about picking a food that was becoming popular in big cities but had not yet been brought to a college town. And at that time, the foods we thought about were bagels and homemade ice cream.
So we went to a used restaurant supply store to price out bagel-making equipment. This was G&G restaurant supply in Albany, N.Y. Lou (ph) was there. Lou was this old guy with a gold chain around his neck and a big cigar in his mouth. And he told us we didn't have enough money to buy big equipment.
COHEN: He also told us, hey, I wouldn't screw you, life's too short.
RAZ: So I'm curious. I mean, I'm curious, were you - because you guys were in your mid 20s, and did you sit down, like, and, you know, hang out late nights, putting out a strategy, thinking - you know, sort of starting to think about different ideas you could do together? And were you meeting in cafes during the day or was it - like, how did it even - how did you even start to develop this idea? Or was it just much less - you know, was it just much more sort of, yeah, let's do this?
COHEN: This was in the old days, the...
COHEN: ...Before cafe culture.
RAZ: Right, right.
COHEN: No, we did not meet in cafes to discuss this. But we did discuss it quite a bit, and we researched it quite a bit. We sent away for 30 SBA pamphlets that cost between 15 cents and $3 per on all the different aspects of running a business.
RAZ: This is just, like, pamphlets from the Small Business Administration that you - I guess were available...
RAZ: Yeah - that the government put out?
COHEN: Yeah, and...
GREENFIELD: How to calculate your break-even point - pretty basic stuff.
GREENFIELD: Our goal when we opened was to make $20,000 a year apiece.
RAZ: Which was...
GREENFIELD: That was what...
RAZ: Which was pretty good money, I guess, in the late '70s, right?
COHEN: No, it was shitty money.
COHEN: And it took us a long time to achieve that goal.
RAZ: So when you were in New York kind of thinking about what you could do, how did you settle on an ice cream shop? And how did you settle on Burlington, Vt.?
COHEN: Well, we settled on ice cream because bagel equipment was too expensive. And we settled down Burlington, Vt., because originally, we settled on Saratoga Springs. And we actually moved to Saratoga Springs to get ready to open up the place. And we were spending most of our time working on this business plan for an ice cream shop and doing a lot of research, and we took this correspondence course on how to make ice cream. We were doing the correspondence course. We got the big college textbook called "Ice Cream" by William (ph) S. Arbuckle, the...
GREENFIELD: Wendell S. Arbuckle.
COHEN: Ah, thank you - the father of modern American ice cream. And Jerry could understand that very complex textbook because he had this biochemistry background.
RAZ: Oh, right.
COHEN: ...From his failed medical school experience. So there was some other ice cream shop that opened up in Saratoga Springs before us. It was called Afternoon Delight (ph).
RAZ: Did they make good ice cream?
COHEN: We don't know. We left town before they opened up. And...
RAZ: OK. You just figured, we're not going to open up here 'cause there's already a shop.
COHEN: We didn't want to compete. We figured we had a better chance of success if we opened up in a place where there wasn't much competition. And originally, we were looking for warm, rural college towns. And all the warm ones already had ice cream.
COHEN: So, you know, as we went further and further north - but then the only town left that we knew anything about was Burlington, which, you know, is an hour and a half south of the Canadian border.
COHEN: It's kind of cold. And there wasn't much ice cream here.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, I just want to pause for a sec because I think a lot of people hear Ben & Jerry's and think, these guys were hippies, which is true, and they're, you know, they're sort of activists and - but that it was just kind of slapdash. But you guys really did actually - I mean, there was some method to this. I mean, you researched.
You actually scoped out possible locations. I mean, this wasn't - I mean, you were really actually trying to do this in a methodical way.
COHEN: We're very hard workers.
RAZ: No, I mean, you are...
GREENFIELD: No, but when you describe it, you're - and, yes, all those things happened. But the way you're describing it is putting a lot more thought and planning into it than we actually did. I mean, we just took one step at a time and we did whatever the next thing was in front of us.
COHEN: I think it was near that time that we kind of realized that, you know, the word business is, you know, essentially kind of a busy-ness that is mostly common sense and a lot of work.
RAZ: Yeah. And, I mean, this is pre-Internet. So you couldn't just go online and type in how to make ice cream, which you could do today, or where do I buy restaurant equipment? Like, you had - I mean, things took a lot longer, presumably.
GREENFIELD: The yellow pages.
GREENFIELD: Spent a lot more time with the phone book and the yellow pages. Yeah, I mean, you know, when Ben and I talk to people today about taking a correspondence course, correspondence courses don't exist.
GREENFIELD: I mean, the closest thing would be an online course. But the idea that somebody would mail you a textbook and then you read through these textbooks and you'd fill out answers to a test and you mail it back to your professor and then they grade it and then they mail it back to you and you find out how you did on your test, it's a quaint idea.
RAZ: Yeah. How much did that course cost, by the way?
COHEN: Five dollars.
COHEN: We split one between the two of us.
RAZ: When you decided - when you told, I don't know, friends or parents or family, like, we're going to go to Burlington, Vt. and we're going to open up an ice cream shop, did anybody just say, do you guys realize that, you know, maybe seven months out of the year it's really cold there and it just might not make a whole lot of sense? Or did that conversation never come up?
COHEN: My parents were really happy...
COHEN: ...Because finally, their son was giving up the idea of being a potter for the rest of his life...
COHEN: ...And finally becoming a businessman. This really turned them on. And they were so supportive of it that I started thinking, oh, I must be doing the wrong thing.
COHEN: Yes, of course we thought about, you know, the cold weather. Jerry even came up with this idea of a promotion that ended up in the business plan called POPCDBZWE, which was the penny off per Celsius degrees below zero winter extravaganza.
RAZ: Wait, can you say that again slowly?
COHEN: POPCDBZWE, the penny off per Celsius degrees below zero winter extravaganza. You can say it slowly if you want.
RAZ: Wow, that's incredible.
GREENFIELD: And how did it work?
RAZ: How'd it work?
COHEN: The colder it got, the more you saved. For every degree below zero Celsius, which is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, you got a penny off the price of your cone, which was significant at the time because a cone cost 52 cents.
RAZ: All right, so you get to Burlington, Vt. and you start looking around for the perfect place to open up your ice cream shop.
COHEN: Well, we got one of those clickers. We did customer counts at various corners around Burlington.
COHEN: We didn't know exactly what number we were looking for, but we did customer counts.
RAZ: Did you really? You stood at a corner with a clicker and you just clicked?
RAZ: And you would just click as people passed so you would know how many people passed that location every hour?
COHEN: Yeah. Ice cream is an impulse item.
COHEN: You need to make money off the passing traffic.
RAZ: I mean, I'm going to just interrupt you for a second because that - again, like, that is a pretty sophisticated technique. Did you...
COHEN: It's all in the SBA manual.
RAZ: Oh, wow. So in those manuals it would say...
COHEN: Yes, yes, yes.
RAZ: ...Go to a corner with a clicker and click how many people pass and then that will determine where you should open your shop?
GREENFIELD: You know, I'm going to interrupt here because I haven't been giving Ben enough credit all these years. Ben actually does think a lot of these things through.
GREENFIELD: And I think it was me who wasn't thinking them through. But, yeah, I think Ben's a very thoughtful person.
RAZ: So after all that research, where was the location that you thought would work? Was it actually on the main drag?
COHEN: It wasn't on the main drag. It was a block off the main drag. But it happened to be, you know, right across from City Hall Park, which was a great thing for us - an ice cream parlor where, you know, get a cone, sit in the park. And it also was an old gas station. It was totally dilapidated. It was falling apart. Nobody wanted to rent it.
And it had some parking spaces in front where the gas pumps used to be, which was also an incredible boon for an ice cream shop in a city to have some places where people could pull up in a car, jump out and get a scoop.
RAZ: So how much money did you have to have to sign the lease and then also buy the equipment and, you know, get the store ready for customers?
GREENFIELD: So Ben and I each had $4,000. And...
RAZ: That you saved up or you - yeah.
GREENFIELD: Yeah. Ben actually borrowed 2 out of the 4,000 from his father. But that was fine 'cause that was our commitment to each other that we were each going to come up with $4,000. And then we wrote this business plan in order to try to borrow money from the local bank. You know, we wrote a business plan only because we felt like it was the only way the bank was going to lend us money.
RAZ: And did this business plan sort of have projections, like, five-year projections showing revenue and profit and loss and all that stuff?
GREENFIELD: It had projections. I can't remember if it was five years. I mean, it probably wasn't five years. The beautiful thing about the business plan - so Ben and I didn't know how to write a business Plan. But we have a friend, Jeff Furman, who is mentioned often. And Jeff used to work for the Small Business Administration in New York City.
And Jeff got us a copy of a business plan that was from a pizza parlor in New York. So Ben and I pretty much copied that business plan except every place where it said slice of pizza, we crossed it out and we wrote in ice cream cone. And the other great thing about the business plan was when we first wrote out and figured out our projections for how much ice cream we would sell and how much it would cost, the projections told us that we weren't going to sell enough ice cream to stay in business.
So we just changed the projections.
COHEN: Kind of like the government.
RAZ: Yeah. So...
GREENFIELD: And I think that's the way everybody does it. You just make it up. I mean, you have this idea that people come up with these projections and they're based on something and they're just made up.
RAZ: That's so true, yeah. You see it all the time in Silicon Valley.
GREENFIELD: Right. And if they don't work, you make up different ones. It's brilliant.
RAZ: What did that first store look like? Was it sort of bright and, you know, with the clouds painted on the walls and cows and things like that?
COHEN: No, but it was beautiful.
GREENFIELD: I mean, most - Ben says it was beautiful. And it was beautiful. Most people would have described it as pretty funky.
RAZ: Which is probably right, I mean, fit with the aesthetic of what you were selling anyway, right?
GREENFIELD: Yeah, homemade ice cream. It very much looked homemade.
COHEN: And it was very low-budget as well.
RAZ: Yeah. How would you - when you opened that first shop, what flavors were you serving? Do you remember?
COHEN: Jerry probably remembers better.
GREENFIELD: Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee...
RAZ: So it was basic, straightforward.
GREENFIELD: Pretty basic.
COHEN: You know, the two unusual - the first two flavors that we did that were not your normal ones were Oreo Mint and Heath Bar Crunch.
RAZ: And I read - I mean, I read that, Jerry, you were sort of the ice cream maker. And, Ben, you were the taster. And I remember reading a long time ago that you had, like, some - you couldn't taste things because of some, you know, sinus or - I can't remember what you - things that you dealt with. And so you would focus on the feel of the ice cream. Is that true?
COHEN: Yeah. I have a very, very poor sense of smell.
GREENFIELD: What's the term for that?
COHEN: It's called anosmia.
RAZ: It makes a lot of sense, though. In some ways, not having a sense of smell was a kind of hidden blessing - right? - because you had to rely on other senses that maybe competitors weren't thinking about. They were focusing only on flavor or smell rather than the feel of ice cream.
RAZ: How did you - I mean, I remember the first time I tried Ben & Jerry's in the - I grew up in Los Angeles so not until the late '80s. But it was so different 'cause it was chunky ice cream. It had big chunks and - was that completely different in 1978? Were other people making ice cream like that?
COHEN: No, they weren't packaging ice cream like that. Ice cream like that came out of the homemade ice cream parlor genre.
RAZ: Like, with big chunks and, like, nuts and - yeah.
COHEN: Right, right, right, right because a lot of them - our shop and a bunch of other homemade ice cream shops, you're making ice cream essentially in overgrown, home-style ice cream making equipment. So it's really easy to put in big chunks. The difference is that no commercial ice creams were packaging ice cream like that.
And as we discovered, the reason why they weren't doing it is because the machinery, the commercial ice cream machinery was not designed to be able to handle large chunks.
COHEN: So all you would get would be these little itsy, bitsy pieces that would flow through the machinery well, but you didn't get the requisite mouthfeel.
GREENFIELD: I was making the ice cream. And it was no picnic putting in those big chunks. And Ben and I had many discussions about it.
RAZ: Like, discussions like what?
GREENFIELD: So I was arguing for having a larger number of smaller chunks that were well-distributed throughout the ice cream. And, you know, Ben was saying, no, what people want - and this is what Ben wanted, of course - but what people want is a really big chunk. And they don't care if they get a chunk in every bite as long as they know there's a really big chunk coming up next.
And it turns out, Ben was right. People love it.
RAZ: What happened after you opened that first store? Were you a huge hit in Burlington right away?
GREENFIELD: No, no. We were a hit in the summer. The first summer was great. And then the first winter was also a revelation (laughter). You know, it can get very slow. And it was actually...
RAZ: Were there days that would go by where you'd get, like, one or two customers?
GREENFIELD: Probably a few more than that. But, you know, it's very slow. And it was actually during that first winter when Ben and I came up with the idea of free cone day. That if we were still in business after a year, we would celebrate and treat all our customers by giving out free ice cream because we thought it was so unlikely that we would still be in business and we recognized so clearly that if we were still in business, it was going to be because of the support of our customers.
RAZ: Was there any tension between the two of you at that time?
COHEN: Just about the size of the chunks.
GREENFIELD: Ben and I have a lot of trust in each other and in each other's judgment. So we were never doubting what the other person was doing. So there was that. And then I think another thing was we have very different skills and interests. Ben is tremendously creative, very spontaneous, very entrepreneurial. And I like a manageable agenda.
So, you know, it made sense that Ben would come up with all these flavors and do all the marketing and I would sit back and make the ice cream because I sort of knew what I needed to do.
RAZ: So what was the turning point? How were you able to survive that first year?
COHEN: We ended up getting a - you know, SBA has this service called SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. And, you know, if you're a little business, you could get in touch with the SBA and say, hey, I'd like a mentor. And they would set you up with some retired business guy who would volunteer to be a mentor. And we asked for one of those, and we got one.
And it was in the middle of the winter and we were losing our shirts. And we couldn't make our loan payments to the bank.
COHEN: And he says, oh, you know, that's no problem. Just go to your bank and ask for a moratorium on your loan.
RAZ: Who was this guy?
COHEN: Manny (ph) - he was an old guy named Manny. And he said, well, just tell them you can't pay your loan right now, that you can pay it, you know, when the weather turns. You know, they'll, like, just let you pay interest. And we went to the bank and we said that. And they said, sure, no problem. Just pay interest and, you know, we'll extend the loan. And that got us through.
RAZ: Wow. And this was only in Vermont at the time, right?
RAZ: Wow. So the shop opens in '78. And then I guess it was 1981 when Ben & Jerry's happened to be in an article in Time Magazine, which was a hugely influential magazine at the time. What did that mean when you read - what did they call you at the time?
COHEN: The best ice cream in the world.
RAZ: The best ice cream in the world. That's incredible.
COHEN: Yeah, it was a real stroke of luck.
RAZ: Were you expecting the article?
GREENFIELD: Well, but not only that. So it was the cover story of Time Magazine.
GREENFIELD: And that was the first sentence of the cover story.
COHEN: What you must understand at the outset is that Ben & Jerry's in Burlington, Vt. is the best ice cream in the world.
COHEN: That was all we needed to read, you know?
COHEN: If you read on, it continued to say that, you know, blah, blah, blah, ice cream somewhere else is the best ice cream in the world, blah, blah, blah, somewhere else is the best ice cream in the world. But, you know, who needed to go any further than that?
COHEN: Well, you know, prior to that article coming out, I started to realize that, you know, all these, you know, reviews that you see for Broadway shows, you know, where they say, this is the best play ever, oh, you'll laugh your ass off. You know, whatever it is...
GREENFIELD: If you see only one play this year...
COHEN: And then there are all these little excerpts from an article that was, you know, like, two - you know, a page. And, you know, the page went on to say, oh, it really wasn't that great. But you know, there was a moment where you laughed your ass off. And they just took that one little phrase - laughed my ass off - and I, you know, figured, if they can do it, I can do it.
RAZ: When we come back, once the laughing died down, how Ben & Jerry got a taste for the ruthless and competitive side of the ice cream business, how the Pillsbury Doughboy tried to take a bite out of the company and how Ben & Jerry fought back. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So in the early 1980s, Ben & Jerry's was just one shop in Burlington, Vt. and it was doing well. Ben and Jerry gave out big, generous scoops of ice cream, they had happy customers. But they were pretty bad at doing all the things it took to run a business.
COHEN: We weren't making a profit, you know, the 16 hours a day that we were open seven days a week. The standards that we had for ourselves in terms of how a retail shop should be run were not standards that we were able to achieve.
GREENFIELD: We were really good at creating an atmosphere in the shop that was welcoming and fun, less than excellent at hiring people, at supervising people. And most of all, we were really bad at portion control.
RAZ: You were giving away too much ice cream.
GREENFIELD: Yes, we - you know, when you scoop out a nice, big scoop for a customer, you get this beautiful smile and really warm response.
GREENFIELD: And it's really positive reinforcement for over scooping. And, you know, Ben and I, we wanted to make people happy.
COHEN: Well, and also we wanted to keep our prices really low. You know, in terms of the food service business, in every business except for ice cream, the portions are controlled in the back...
COHEN: ...Out of sight of the customer. And when you're scooping ice cream, you're supposed to control the portion in site of the customer. And if the scoop is too big, you're supposed to take a little off. And the customer hates that.
GREENFIELD: One of the reasons we started packaging our ice cream was because we weren't so good at running a shop. And one of the things we thought about was, well, maybe we can't control how much ice cream we're putting on a cone, but you certainly can control how much ice cream you're putting into a pint container because it only fits so much.
RAZ: Right. So that was a big turning point for you when you decided let's package this stuff?
COHEN: Well, before that, we decided to pack it in two-and-a-half-gallon tubs and sell it to other people and let them figure out how to control the portions.
RAZ: And then they were charging a massive premium for it probably, right?
COHEN: Well, you know, I mean, I was the guy who was going around selling the ice cream to these restaurants. And the restaurants would say, no, I'm not going to carry your ice cream anymore because my employees are eating it. A lot of our problems would be solved if we made the ice cream shittier.
RAZ: You guys started to sort of get more attention and to distribute your ice cream in pints, I guess. Pillsbury, which was distributing other brands, like, I guess, Haagen-Dazs, they threatened other distributors. They said, stop distributing Ben & Jerry's to the shops, right?
GREENFIELD: Yeah, well, Pillsbury had bought Haagen-Dazs, so they owned them. And they went to independent ice cream distributors who were distributing all sorts of different brands of ice creams and, you know, told them that if those distributors continued to deliver Ben & Jerry's, that they wouldn't sell them Haagen-Dazs anymore.
RAZ: Did it start to cut into your sales?
GREENFIELD: Well, you know, we recognized that this was a real threat. Plus it seemed like it was illegal, that it was a restraint of trade, that Pillsbury was controlling the marketplace and they were using their power to keep competitors out.
RAZ: But you couldn't sue them, right? I mean, you were a $4 million company and they were a multi-million, maybe billion-dollar company.
GREENFIELD: Well, I think we did have a legal case, but we realized that that was not really going to be the best place for us to fight them because they were so enormous.
RAZ: So what did you do?
GREENFIELD: We took our case to the people. We started the what's the Doughboy afraid of campaign. We decided to go after the Pillsbury Doughboy, which was the most beloved food mascot in the country, the pudgy, little Doughboy.
RAZ: How did you go after him?
GREENFIELD: Well, it was started by me going to Minneapolis to the Pillsbury world headquarters. I was a one-person picket line. The sign said, what's the Doughboy afraid of? It was a hand-lettered sign. Yeah, I had never really done anything like that before.
RAZ: And did anybody at Pillsbury come out and say OK, we'll meet you? Or did they just ignore you like you were this crazy man protesting in front of their headquarters?
GREENFIELD: Nobody had any idea what I was doing there. It was a fight for us. I don't know that it was a fight for them. It was a fight for survival from us. So nobody knew what was going on.
RAZ: So did they eventually drop their restrictions and allow distributors to - presumably allow - they did stop forcing distributors to not carry Ben & Jerry's, right?
GREENFIELD: Well, there were a lot of steps that we took, escalating the pressure on Pillsbury, you know, starting with a small classified ad in the back of Rolling Stone magazine. And we flew aerial banners around the sports stadiums in Boston. And we took out signs of the - on the signs of the transit buses in Boston. And we had a toll...
RAZ: And the sign said the same thing? - what's the doughboy afraid of?
GREENFIELD: The sign on the side of the transit buses had these two pudgy, white hands squeezing a pint of Ben & Jerry's. I think it said don't let Pillsbury's dollar strangle Ben & Jerry's...
GREENFIELD: ...Or something very provocative.
RAZ: It's amazing because just doing that is a lot of work, like, you know, organizing that campaign. You were also running a business and trying to sell ice cream. Were you just - the two of you - were just constantly working all the time?
GREENFIELD: But this particular case, it was a matter of survival. You know, this was like you're either going to get shut down and you can't get your ice cream out to people or you do whatever you can to get it out there.
RAZ: Do you remember that - do you remember that, Ben? Do you remember working all the time?
COHEN: I certainly felt during many of the times at Ben & Jerry's that the experience was like falling down the side of a cliff trying to grab onto whatever branch was there...
COHEN: ...That you can hold onto. So you know, in that situation, you know, falling down the side of a cliff, you know, grabbing onto branches, you're not really thinking about, well, am I having a good time or not?
COHEN: But, you know, you're energized, you know? You're using all the skills you have, you know? You're doing everything you can to save your life. And you know, it's really interesting. It's a peak experience.
RAZ: Did you guys - as you grew and grew, it was plainly obvious that you were going to both make a decent amount of money from this. Were you OK with that? I mean, did that conflict with your own values? Or were you able to kind of say, all right, you know, whatever. I've got money, and that's just the way it is.
GREENFIELD: I mean, if - so for me, I think it was something I needed to grapple with. I mean, you know, part of the thing for both Ben and me was that we never really saw ourselves as bosses. You know, from early on, we were scooping ice cream right next to everybody else who was scooping ice cream.
RAZ: Right. Right.
GREENFIELD: We were mopping the floors at night. And we didn't have a very good boss mentality. We had a good worker mentality. You know, Ben is the most anti-authoritarian person I've ever come across...
GREENFIELD: ...And here he was being an authority. I mean, it was laughable.
RAZ: You were the CEO.
COHEN: I was.
RAZ: And how did you feel about that, Ben? I mean, did you also feel like, you know, this is weird? I'm a businessman. I never signed up for this.
COHEN: Yeah. There was a time when Jerry and I both turned around and looked at ourselves and said to each other, you know, we're not ice cream men anymore. We're spending our time being bosses and hiring and firing. And so much of what we were doing was in order to pay our loans back to the bank. And we felt like we were becoming just another cog in this economic machine. Our reaction to that was to sell the business. And we actually put it up for sale. This was early on. This was in the '80s.
And then I ran into this older restaurateur that I had come to know a little. And I explained to him that we were planning to sell the business. And he said, Ben, how could you possibly do that? The business is your baby. It has so much potential ahead of it. And I said Maurice (ph), you know what business does. It exploits the community. It exploits its employees. It exploits the environment. And he said, Ben, if there's something that you don't like about business, why don't you do it different? And that was when we decided to conduct this experiment to see if it was possible that business could be a tool for improving the quality of life for people as opposed to making people's lives worse.
RAZ: One of the things you guys did was you had a policy where the highest paid employee couldn't earn more than five times the salary of an entry-level worker. You also had, like, day care. And you did college tuition aid and a bunch of things - profit-sharing. Is that what you mean when you say you wanted to try to do business differently?
COHEN: That's part of it. But I think the more critical part of it is using our business to address social issues through the very fabric of our business.
RAZ: So that meant, like, taking very, very vocal positions on hot-button issues but also doing things like working with former prisoners, former felons - right? - who were making brownies in a bakery in New York.
COHEN: That's our project with the Greyston Bakery - and deliberately choosing to use this ingredient supplier because this particular ingredient supplier was driven by a social mission of providing employment opportunities for formerly unemployable people. And that's a very good example of how Ben & Jerry's demonstrated that it's possible to make a profit and address social problems at the same time.
RAZ: So after all your success in the 1990s, eventually, Ben & Jerry's did end up selling. It sold to Unilever, which is this huge multinational, right? It sold, I think, in 2000. And it was sold by the company's board without your permission.
COHEN: That's correct.
RAZ: How did it happen? I mean, how was your company sold without your assent?
GREENFIELD: Well, it was a public company, which meant that anybody could own shares. And Unilever ended up offering so much money that the board of the company couldn't find an alternative for the shareholders that they thought was acceptable.
RAZ: Did you guys say to the board, you can't do this; you can't do this? Or did you just sort of at a certain point say, all right, nothing we can do?
GREENFIELD: Well, eventually, we had to go along with it.
RAZ: Why were you opposed to it?
COHEN: You know, I think that the thing that was most important was to maintain the social mission of the company. We felt like, you know, if another company were to buy Ben & Jerry's, that they would not continue those cutting-edge social mission activities.
RAZ: What did it mean, practically, for the two of you? Did it mean that you were sort of done going into Ben & Jerry's - into the offices every day?
GREENFIELD: You know, I think a lot of it was up to us about what it meant. There was going to continue to be an independent board in the new entity that oversaw the social mission. And I think Ben and I could have remained on that board. And we both chose not to.
GREENFIELD: Well, I can't speak for Ben. You know, I had no idea what was going to happen to the company. And I mean, quite frankly, I just didn't want to be part of it at that point.
RAZ: How about you, Ben? Why didn't you want to be on the board?
COHEN: You know, I felt like I had lost, you know, a major battle in terms of trying to keep the company independent. You know, I didn't want to continue under the ownership of Unilever.
RAZ: So did you both kind of just mentally check out?
COHEN: Yeah, I certainly checked out for a while.
GREENFIELD: Yeah. That's a good way to put it.
RAZ: Were you sad? I mean, were you upset? So here's the thing. Like, a lot of people who've been on the show and a lot of people listening would say oh, my God, they walked away with millions of dollars, like, what an incredible achievement. They started this little shop in Burlington, and it's an international brand, and it's done all these amazing things. Like, this is their moment to shine and to do a dance and - but it sounds like you guys were really depressed about this.
COHEN: Yeah. You know, if the goal was to make a bunch of money, then I guess, you know, it would've been a different reaction. But that wasn't really the goal.
RAZ: Right. You guys were very vocal about your positions on guns and on - you know, obviously, you're socially liberal. The company still does that today, I mean, even though you're not - you know, you're not owners of it. Is that - does it surprise you that they still do that?
COHEN: Well, it became intertwined with the brand. And you know, if Unilever bought a brand and bought the goodwill that goes along with that brand and bought the reputation that goes along with that brand, they need to continue those activities in order to keep that brand strong.
GREENFIELD: I'm very pleasantly surprised and proud of what the company does. I mean, the company came out in support of Occupy Wall Street a few years ago, which, you know, is amazing because that was, essentially, an anti-corporate movement.
RAZ: You're talking about Ben & Jerry's, not Unilever.
GREENFIELD: And within the last year, the company came out with a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. I mean, the company does not shy away from controversial issues. And that is a really difficult thing for a business to do, which is why you don't see businesses doing it. And yet, Ben & Jerry's is courageous enough to wade into those areas.
RAZ: Do you guys see each other pretty regularly?
COHEN: Pretty regularly.
RAZ: You still hang out? Like, you hang out a lot?
COHEN: Yeah, a lot.
RAZ: Is - I mean, if there's one thing about your story that, to me, is more interesting than anything else, it's your friendship. I just - it's just - it really is a powerful part of - I know it sort of sounds sort of sappy. And I don't mean to, like, make you guys feel uncomfortable. It's just - it is amazing. It's really impressive that you really like to hang out with each other. You're good friends.
COHEN: You know, people say that, and I don't really understand it that much. I mean, you know, lots of people have friends that they've had for most of their life.
GREENFIELD: Well, I do appreciate it more and more the older I get, I must say. You know, and sometimes, recently, Ben and I have been talking about how we're a little bit like Fred and Barney on "The Flintstones" - you know?- that, like - because we drive places together a lot. And I think we just relate like that.
RAZ: Yeah. Is it strange to think that this little ice cream shop you started is a $500-million company?
GREENFIELD: Well, it's strange to - I mean, to me, it doesn't feel like the same thing. I mean, they're just not the same. The company has taken on a life of its own.
GREENFIELD: You know, the ice cream shop will always, to me, be Ben and me in the store, making ice cream, scooping ice cream, Ben behind the stove cooking up food. I mean, that's what the ice cream shop was.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, your name, Ben and Jerry - I mean, that name, Ben and Jerry, like, it's you and will be forever. It's like Lea & Perrins, you know, Worcestershire sauce. Like, who's Lea? Who's Perrin, right? Like, some day...
COHEN: (Laughter) Who's Haagen? Who's Dazs?
RAZ: ...someday, like, in 50 or 100 years, people are going to say - they're just going to call it Ben & Jerry's. Like, you're not going to think about the people behind it, right? I mean, you know I mean?
COHEN: Yeah. I know what you mean. I mean, half the people think we're dead.
COHEN: You know, and we get credit for it. I mean, think about the guy who invented vanilla.
RAZ: Yeah. Who was that?
COHEN: He don't get credit for shit.
RAZ: No. (Laughter) not at all.
GREENFIELD: Well, you know, so to me, it's amazing to the degree that the company continues to be outspoken about progressive issues and progressive values. It's not - it's of no interest to me to have Ben & Jerry's be thriving and whatever if it's just selling ice cream. I mean, who wants to be part of that?
RAZ: When you guys think about this incredible thing that you built, how much of it was because of all your hard work and your talent and your intelligence? And how much of it was just because you were lucky?
GREENFIELD: There is a very big part of good fortune involved. I think there's a lot of people who work really hard, who have really good ideas, who are really committed, and they don't have the same level of success that Ben & Jerry's had.
COHEN: Yeah. I mean, I guess, originally, we were going to open our ice cream shop in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. And, you know, some other ice cream shop opened up before us. And we didn't want to compete, so that's what brought us to Vermont. I think if we had started in New York, we never would have gained the local following that we gained in Vermont. In Vermont, we could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
RAZ: Did your - did either of your parents - did either of them ever get to see what Ben & Jerry's became?
COHEN: Yeah, mine were still alive, you know, probably through the 1980s.
GREENFIELD: Yeah, same for my parents.
RAZ: Were they proud of you?
COHEN: They were a whole lot prouder than when I was trying to be a potter.
RAZ: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. By the way, there was a study done earlier this year by the International Dairy Foods Association, and they asked people to name their favorite ice cream. And as you can imagine, the usual suspects turned up - chocolate, vanilla, mint chip.
But right there, right near the top, was cookie dough - chocolate chip cookie dough, which, OK, may not be all that surprising because everybody makes cookie dough, right? But it wasn't always a classic flavor because, in fact, it was invented by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in that tiny little shop in Burlington in the 1980s. And to this day, it's one of their most popular flavors.
What - at what point did Cherry Garcia enter into the Ben & Jerry's oeuvre?
COHEN: We got a postcard - an anonymous postcard - that said, we're both Deadheads and we're also Ben & Jerry's fans, and we think you ought to come out with a flavor called Cherry Garcia because...
COHEN: It would be a real hoot for the fans, and Dead paraphernalia always sells.
RAZ: What did Jerry Garcia think of it?
COHEN: Well, there was one quote that was reported saying, well, at least they didn't name a motor oil after me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And I'm just going to say one word right now. It may bring back a warm memory for some of you. The word is plastics. And as we know, the future of plastics is not particularly great. I mean, think of all those tiny pellets from plastic cups, and straws and plastic bags, and all of it swirling around in this giant vortex and washing up on our beaches. And that's where David Stover and his friend Ben come in. They're avid surfers, and they just hate seeing all of that pollution.
DAVID STOVER: So we started researching all the types of plastic that are getting into the ocean, and we kind of stumbled across this issue of discarded fishing nets.
RAZ: So it turns out that most commercial fishing nets are made of this really thick plastic. And when those nets get old, they just get thrown away.
STOVER: The nets can be left illegally in a landfill. They can be burnt on beaches, which happens quite often. And unfortunately, in many cases, the nets can be left in the ocean.
RAZ: David and Ben both had backgrounds in engineering. So a few years ago, they decided to run an experiment. And what they did was they collected a bunch of old nets from fishermen in Massachusetts. And then they found a plastics lab where they could melt the nets down, you know, maybe repurpose them.
STOVER: And the nets are melted into - it's kind of like a spaghetti string. It's chopped up - like, the end of the spaghetti is chopped up by a little blade and put into these little pellets. You know, it's very similar to, like, putting your hand into a bag of rice when you put your hand in the bag of pellets.
RAZ: OK. So the question is, what can you actually do with a bunch of plastic pellets? Well, David and Ben actually figured that out when Ben was working on a project in Santiago, Chile. He was at a park watching a bunch of skateboarders.
STOVER: And kids kept riding by on these cruiser skateboards. And he called me, like, that day and was like, I got it. Like, why don't we just make skateboard decks from the plastic? Like, it's durable. It's strong. And we kind of turned that idea over to Kevin on our team, who was - had worked for Boeing. And he started playing around with designs of a skateboard deck from the fishing nets.
RAZ: OK. So a total stroke of luck - it turns out that at that very same time, the government of Chile was giving out grants to fund all these different kinds of startups. So David packed up, moved to Chile, started collecting fishing nets and found a factory in Santiago to work on turning those old nets into skateboard decks.
STOVER: The first couple of times we made boards, they were not pretty and not rideable. And we had to kind of adjust the temperature of the mold and how the material was processed. And that took, you know, the better part of six to eight months of going back and forth.
RAZ: Finally, though, they settled on a design that held its shape and actually looked pretty good.
STOVER: We designed the board like a fish, which is a shape of a skateboard. It has kind of a fish tail, and we put a fish eye on it and fish scales. And, you know, it was just something that, you know, grabbed people's attention.
RAZ: David's company is called Bureo. And since its launch three years ago, it's repurposed more than 300,000 pounds of old fishing nets and sold about 8,000 skateboards. And David says they hope to turn a profit by next year.
STOVER: The biggest question we get asked from everyone is, you know, what are you guys going to do when you run out of nets? But our kind of clever response has always been, well, if we run out of fishing nets, then I guess our job is done, and we can sleep easy at night.
RAZ: That's David Stover, co-founder of Bureo. To learn more about it, head to our Facebook page. And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're up to. And thanks for listening to our show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts.
You can also write us. That's email@example.com. You can tweet us - @howibuiltthis. Our show was produced this week by Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breen and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Dayana Mustak. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.