How the Owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Quit Art School and Devoted Her Life to Dessert

Six questions for Jeni Britton Bauer, who is opening her first Chicago storefront in Lake View this summer.

photo: Kelsey mcclellan/Jeni’s splendid art & design

Spoons full of Jeni’s come in more than two dozen flavors. Get them topped with gravel and too much whipped cream. 

Jeni Britton Bauer plans to open the first Chicago storefront for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (3404 N. Southport Ave., phone not available) in August. She talked to Chicago about how the whole ice cream thing came about.

Dish: How did you get into making gourmet ice cream?

Jeni Britton Bauer: I was studying art history and fine arts at Ohio State University. I was also dabbling in natural perfuming, thinking I might go into that, blending expensive and inexpensive oils. All of those things came together when I mashed cayenne essential oil into chocolate ice cream. The first bite was just amazing. First it tasted like chocolate, and then it just burst into flames and was the best thing I ever tasted.

D: What was the next step?

JBB: I quit art school almost immediately. All I could think about was ice cream. I left all of my art materials in a figure drawing class. I opened my first business six months later. That was 1996. It was called Scream Ice Cream. It was a little shop in our public market in Columbus, Ohio. Everything about that business was a huge failure, except the ice cream.

D: When did you get back into it?

JBB: I started again in 2002 with my partner and boyfriend, Charlie, who’s now my husband. It was right next door to where I had my old business, in the same public market. In 2006, we opened our first shop outside of the market. We had to open a kitchen. The department of agriculture said we could no longer produce ice cream at the facility at the market. We were forced to make the decision to close or expand.

D: Will you do anything special for the Chicago store?

JBB: We are working on lots of different flavors for Chicago. I’m taking ideas. We have a tamarind whole-milk yogurt, sort of in honor of Rick Bayless.

D: What kinds of choices do customers have on a given day?

JBB: About 25 to 30 flavors. We change the flavors regularly. We have four sauces: roasted strawberry, honey butterscotch, salty caramel sauce, and extra bitter hot fudge. And we have gravel as another option. It’s crunchy. Six gravels: doughnut, chocolate, everything bagel, corn chip, hot benne (it’s sesame seeds, a little spicy), salty graham cracker. Feel free to ask for “too much” whipped cream. That’s how I order it.

D: Is the cream whipped in-house?

JBB: The whipped cream is house-made with a whisk and muscle.

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