The sweet smell of fresh waffle cones delightfully overwhelms the senses. Retro orange and white walls intersect fun, frilly streamers and twinkly Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling. Bright smiling faces greet each and every customer with unrivaled enthusiasm.
At nearly all hours of the day, long lines gather outside of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, as people wait anxiously for a taste of their favorite treats. Today — a rare warm and sunny Saturday — customers wait 20 minutes or more to finally reach the counter to sample one of Jeni’s fantastically unconventional flavors.
While a wait so long would typically result in angry patrons, Jeni’s is splendid.
“It’s just so different; their flavors are so unique and so good,” said local high school student and frequent Jeni’s customer Eleanor DeNunzio. “It just tastes different than other ice creams.”
Cocoa Curry Coco is made of smooth milk chocolate with curry and coconut flakes. Genmaicha and Marshmallows is described as tasting like a green tea rice crispy treat and Jeni’s newest flavor, Frosé Sorbet, is a refreshing combination of Peregrine’s rosé, strawberry, blackberry jam and lemon zest — the perfect summer treat.
The ice cream chain, which began as Scream Ice Cream in Columbus Ohio’s North Market in 1996, spread to cities across the U.S. and morphed into one of Nashville’s most beloved ice cream stores.
Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, chose Nashville as a lucky destination for her store after getting to know the city through family.
“I think of Nashville as my second home,” said Bauer. “And, what’s more, Nashville is a city where talented people converge. The city has such a reputation to uphold, so it still holds everyone to a high standard. That’s an attitude that really clicked with us.”
Bauer’s high standards are a cornerstone of her business. For example, her velvety, deliciously rich Darkest Chocolate ice cream — packed with real, fair trade cocoa — took Bauer over five years to get just right.
“It sounds anticlimactic, but the truth is, the work is never done,” said Bauer. “You can’t grow and get better if you constantly think you’ve hit perfection. The fun is the constant innovation and pushing and testing.”
Part of this attitude stems from Bauer’s unconventional route to success. At 21 she dropped out of Ohio State University, where she studied art, to start making ice cream and begin her own business.
“You can hire brilliant business minds, but great ideas come from knowing something better than others,” said Bauer. “It can come from art, medicine, history. The most important ideas for entrepreneurship almost never come from studying business.”
In fact one of the biggest secret to Jeni’s business is simply the attitude of kindness she fosters in her stores.
“We can source the best milk from small family farms, and strawberries from the same farmer we’ve worked with for 15 years, and painstakingly make the ice cream,” said Bauer. “But it’s the moment our customers have at the counter that makes or break the experience. We want to slow you down to be in the moment, and to truly enjoy the ice creams that can take hundreds of real people to grow, make and produce.”
This drew Belmont University sophomore Carlyn Kelly to apply to work at Jeni’s last July.
“The work environment is super positive,” said Kelly. “Everyone is so happy and passionate and everyone loves the ice cream, of course. But it’s just such a positive work environment that it really makes it great to work there.”
This is in part because Bauer values her employees or, as she calls them, ambassadors — the smiling faces on the front line of maintaining her legacy.
“I think it comes directly down from Jeni herself,” said Kelly. “She’s just very passionate about ice cream and coming up with these creative flavors and so I think that even comes down within the hiring process.”
Jeni’s ambassadors are known to be positive, gregarious individuals — an unwavering attitude bolstered by a healthy balance of work and play. For example, at the 12th Avenue South location, each freezer bears the name of a Parks and Recreation character. At the 21st Avenue location, each freezer is named after an Internet sensation: angry cat, Dwayne the Rock Johnson, Harambe and Charlie from the ‘Charlie bit my finger’ video.
“In the back it’s a lot of shenanigans and laughing, because everyone really does get along with each other,” said Kelly. “So it’s a lot more bonding and getting to know each other.”
Because the ambassadors love their jobs, they focus hard on their work, as the shop is nearly always packed. On particularly busy days, when the line reaches around the corner, the employees try to stay grounded in Jeni’s mission for their store – smiling wide and offering unlimited samples of their mouthwatering products: perhaps Brown Butter Almond Brittle, Supermoon or Rainbow BFY — Bauer’s current favorite flavor, which she describes as “tart and sunny.”
“What my boss reiterates is just to keep people moving down the line, keep showing them the ice cream, get people samples and most importantly keep showing people all this positivity,” said Kelly.
This culture — created by Bauer and fulfilled by ambassadors like Kelly — keeps loyal customers coming back week after week and sometimes even day after day.
The store holds particular value to local high school students Eleanor DeNunzio, Frances DeNunzio, Arden Jones and Elaine Ball. The four best friends grew up together but began to drift apart when they all attended different high schools in the city.
Now, Jeni’s is part of what keeps their friendship alive. In fact, they love it so much they even come visit the store on snow days.
“Now that we don’t get to see each other that often, Jeni’s really feels like a place that continues to connect our friendship,” said Jones.
“We just have good memories and it’s such a positive environment,” said Eleanor DeNunzio. “The atmosphere is a lot of fun to be around.”
And while Bauer knows her ice creams are delicious, stories like this one continue to keep her motivated.
“I’m most proud of setting out to make ice creams in a way that brings people together and celebrates community,” Bauer said.
Jeni’s now has locations across America, with shops in Chicago, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Atlanta and more. She wrote two books and even won a James Beard Award – the highest honor for a food author. But she still works just as hard as she did in 1996.
“I am still very active in every aspect of what we make and how we make it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bauer said. “I’m already thinking about 2019 flavors and there is a certain vanilla scent that is haunting me — I woke up the other night because I smelled it in my dream.”