For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
Pooja Bavishi was making ice cream in a shared kitchen space in Brooklyn in 2016 the first time she met Jeni Britton Bauer, who had arrived to mentor up-and-coming food entrepreneurs.
Ms. Bavishi was star-struck.
Ms. Bauer, now 49, was an art student who had begun to make perfume when she turned her attention to ice cream in 1996 and began selling innovative flavors at a farmers’ market in Columbus, Ohio. By 2002, she had started Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, which is now sold in grocery stores across the country and at more than 75 branded shops. In 2021, the company brought in $95.7 million.
At the time, her ice cream was game-changing in a field crowded with mass-produced pints. The texture was almost chewy; her milk and other ingredients were sourced from local farms; and flavors like salty caramel — one of her first — developed cultlike followings.
Ms. Bavashi, 38, had been an admirer long before the pair first met in the shared New York kitchen where she was trying to perfect the product for her Brooklyn shop, Malai. She incorporates South Asian spices, like masala chai, and ingredients like baklava and date caramel into ice cream made with dairy from New York. Some flavors are playful, like the Madam Vice President, flavored with coconut and mango and laced with candied lotus seeds. (“Kamala” means “lotus” in Sanskrit.)
Ms. Bavashi’s pints can be found in more than four dozen retail locations in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area and are shipped nationally through the e-commerce food platform Goldbelly. She plans to expand the small shop she opened in 2015 in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn to a store in Manhattan next year.
On that first day they met, Ms. Bavashi had been trying to perfect a rose flavor but couldn’t quite nail it. Ms. Bauer gave her advice on how to use essential oils to enhance the flavor.
“I remember that so well,” Ms. Bauer said during a recent conversation. “I’ve followed you ever since. I’m so proud of you for everything that you’ve been able to do. Ice cream is actually a really hard business. I know you know how hard it is.”
“It was so important for me as such a young business owner to have that validation from someone who has been through it,” Ms. Bavishi said.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Why ice cream?
JENI BRITTON BAUER In a way, ice cream just picked me. I know that sounds silly, but I was in a very creative time in my life, and I was 22 years old. I had barely gotten into Ohio State University. I was also working at a French bakery that made everything from scratch. The entire kitchen was French-speaking. I was really inspired by that. I was dating this guy who was into perfumery and chemistry. I got really excited about scent and pastry and telling stories through art. It suddenly dawned on me one night that ice cream was all about scent and that butterfat is actually a perfect carrier of scent. Once I figured that out, I knew I would start a business and that it would occupy my whole life.
POOJA BAVISHI There are two real parallels in my life. I had this passion for desserts, and I always was super curious about my heritage. I’m first-generation Indian American, and I always felt this longing for knowing as much as possible how my parents grew up and what it was like in India. I almost felt a little like I missed out on something. Those are the identity issues a lot of first-generation kids go through. So the way I learned about my heritage was through food.
I never made ice cream until I came to New York. To completely echo Jeni, dairy and butterfat carry flavors so well, and that includes any kind of spice infusion. And so I flavored these ice creams with Indian spices and experimented a little bit and realized that I was honestly just craving to tell my story. It really feels like Malai is me in a product.
Is ice cream … sexy?
BAVISHI Jeni, what do you say when people are like: “Frozen foods don’t have scent. Ice cream melts in your mouth, and that’s when you get the scent, and that’s what affects flavor.”
BAUER Yeah, I love to talk about it, because it actually is so sexy. Sexy isn’t the right word — sensual. You can’t smell it when it’s completely frozen. It has to start relaxing on your tongue, and then it starts to bloom — and it blooms in your face, and it blooms through the back of your nose, and then you can kind of breathe, and then you’re smelling that. And that’s how ice cream works.
How do you break into the market?
KIM SEVERSON Jeni, when you first came out with your ice cream, it seemed revolutionary. And it is not an inexpensive product. How do you put a product like that into a world of Baskin-Robbins ice cream cakes and bodega bars?
BAUER We grew right alongside our customers, very slowly. It was a two-way conversation with them, starting at the North Market, which is our farmer’s market — indoor public market here in Columbus. I was there for 10 years on the front line. I would listen to their feedback, and then I would tweak. It’s just constant tweaking. But then our customer becomes the buyer at Whole Foods. And back then, there were multiple buyers in multiple regions, and you had to really drill into each one of them. And so — listening, listening, listening and tweaking.
BAVISHI Jeni’s completely recalibrated the ice cream market by introducing an artisanal product. She changed the entire category. We followed that same model — that ice cream can be really delicious if you put really good quality ingredients in there.
We want to make sure that we’re sourcing all of our spices as ethically as possible, but that does mean that the cost goes up. And so, even though it might be a $12 pint when everyone was used to a $4 pint, the quality that you’re getting is far exceeding what we were used to before.
To change customers’ perception of that, of course, is difficult. But because there’s so many good companies out there doing the same exact thing, I think customers are understanding that for the quality, and for that value that you’re getting as well, it’s worth it.
How do you go from niche to mainstream?
BAVASHI We are at a juncture in the business that is a really tough one. The people know who we are. We are able to provide livelihoods, which is really kind of amazing, and we have a good-sized business. But to grow past that is something I and Malai have ambitions for. But how do you get over that hump, right? That first hump of growth seems to be the toughest. So how do you make that decision to go from one store to five, one store to 10, and keep putting capital into that?
BAUER It’s really hard, and that is where I began to not trust myself. I had two babies, and I thought that I need to bring in a C.E.O. I look back now, and what I really needed was three things: a really good coach who understood what it is to be a founder running a company; an incredible attorney who would be on my side for me, not the company; and a business adviser, somebody who’s been through all of it and who can support me.
I especially want female founders to know that you can trust yourself, that you’re making good decisions. If it feels right in your body, like in your heart, it is probably right. I look back now, and I see that I lost my ability to trust me. There were a lot of good reasons for it. Being a mom and being a founder is really complicated. But I see that a lot of my instinct was right. I’m far enough away from it now that I that I see that.
And there will be all those mistakes. You’re not going to avoid them, but you will just make them work, and so will everyone else you bring in — especially when you have a company that is so tied to who you are, as I do with my company, and the stories that we are telling the world.
BAVISHI That’s really good to know.
How do you find good people?
BAUER Sometimes it is instinct, and other times I’m wrong about that. I definitely look at their history, what other people are saying about them, their successes. We’re at a point now that we’re getting top talent in our company. So then it really is about, Is this person going to either fit into this culture and/or challenge it in the right way or not? It becomes more of a personality thing.
The hardest thing — you try to please too many people, and at some point you just have to put your foot down, and you have to say, “It’s going to be my way.” People get really upset about that. They do. At some point, you have to let people go and realize you need people who will step behind you, not in front of you. That’s everything.
How do you survive a huge challenge?
SEVERSON What do you do when you have a really big problem? Jeni, in 2015 when the Nebraska Department of Agriculture inspector found listeria in a pint of your ice cream, that could have taken you down.
BAUER It did take us down, and then we got back up. It ended up being a hairline fracture in the floor. We have multiple third parties inspecting our kitchen just to make sure that we’re doing everything right. We’re not microbiologists; we’re ice cream makers.
Well, after this event, we decided that if this ever happens again, we will not get a second chance. We became really strict about all of this. We learned that you never bring fresh strawberries from a farm into your kitchen where you’re making ice creams. You have to have them processed somewhere else.
You’ve got to survive your recall, which was 265 tons of ice cream in March when we were going into summer. As a company, we couldn’t open stores. We have employees we didn’t want to have to lay off. Then we had to restructure all of our ice cream so that we could get help, which was awesome. I hadn’t considered it until all the ice cream companies started calling me and they’re like: “Let us help you. Let us make your ice cream for you.” It was amazing.
Then there was the whole coming back from that as company and as a brand. I will say, being further out, when I look back, I think of it as a time when we were kind of clarified by fire and we learned about ourselves. I learned about myself as a human being, but also as a company in a way that we never would if we hadn’t had to burn it down that far down to the ground. Now, we can choose what we bring back to life. We pretty much thought we were done, and that gave us the freedom, the permission, to fight harder.
BAVISHI Ice cream is hard. The customer shouldn’t feel that when they walk into an ice cream shop. It should feel really fun and magical and like a really great experience at all times. But the ice cream industry is not for the faint of heart. Like, just the fact that it’s a frozen product — it’s a game changer. We have to use third parties all the time. Any change in temperature can change the entire quality of your product.
But I think the thing that makes Malia and Jeni’s so similar is that we’re telling stories through ice cream, one of the most nostalgic foods that are out there. And I think that that’s what really makes this industry really special.
BAUER I’m so glad that you said that. I have really loved this adventure, of course, but it is brutal. Ice cream is so infinitely complicated and complex, and that’s probably what keeps us in it. But it is also about storytelling. We can tell our stories, and then we can go experience other people’s stories through their ice creams as we travel around the world. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.