How John Lowe grew Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams from local booth to national brand

When Jeni Britton Bauer opened Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in the North Market in 2002, she didn’t set out to create a national brand. She just wanted to serve ice cream that got better with every batch.

Blending local and fair trade ingredients with laborious processes to invent flavors like Wildberry Lavender and Brown Butter Almond Brittle, quality became Jeni’s signature. There were no shortcuts, artificial flavors or pre-made mixes; just natural ingredients combined with care.

But growing from one shop to a national retailer and wholesaler required a new recipe for success. CEO John Lowe, who came onboard in 2009 to guide Jeni’s growth, calls it a quantum leap — a term borrowed from Seth Godin.

“It’s a quantum leap from mom-and-pop to chain,” he says. “To get to that chain, you need an entirely different set of skills. You need capital that mom-and-pops don’t have because everything is tied up into one location. You need managers and policies and procedures, and you need people who are fully in hock.”

In the midst of its leap, Jeni’s has 16 scoop shops throughout the Midwest and Southeast, as well as 1,300 retail locations nationwide. But the measure of Jeni’s growth isn’t quantity; it’s maintaining the quality that set it apart in the first place.

“The secret to our continued success will be our ability to maintain a culture of amazing customer service,” Lowe says. “If we’re able to do that, there’s no stopping this great little company. If we aren’t an amazing experience, then there’s no reason for this company to exist because there are lots of places to get good ice cream.”

 

Preparing for growth

Lowe’s first step was preparing the cornerstones to support growth — finances to fund multiple stores and talent capable of handling change.
Building upon a strong leadership team, Lowe promoted a director of operations to oversee the day-to-day so he could focus on production capacity. Everyone had a role to play, and part of Lowe’s job was communicating that.

“Helping people understand that their job has to be significantly different six months from now is a really challenging notion that we have to keep building underneath us,” Lowe says. “The head of sales has to have people on his team doing what he was doing two years ago. That can feel risky, but if we aren’t thinking like that, then we can’t grow.

“The more we can talk and be open and honest about where we’re going or what we need, the better we can deal head-on with issues.”