At Ben & Jerry’s, ice cream innovation persevered through the pandemic

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At Ben & Jerry’s, ice cream innovation persevered through the pandemic

In 2020, even with all the challenges posed by a global pandemic, Ben & Jerry’s created nearly 40 new products, making it their most innovative year ever.

Last spring, the Ben & Jerry’s research and development team was working on launching their latest ice cream. The new Topped line has seven flavors, each capped with a thick disc of chocolate ganache that you burrow through with a spoon to dig out chunks of fudge brownies or mint cookies or peanut butter cups.

It’s one thing to dream up these new flavors and mix a prototype in the lab, but it’s another thing to produce them on a mass scale. At least one team member, or flavor guru as they’re known at the company, is present in the factory for a new product’s first run. They scoop through the finished ice cream, making sure all of the swirls and chunks are where they’re supposed to be. With Topped, there was also the new ceiling of ganache to consider. How would it flow? When the warm chocolate hit the ice cream, what temperature should each be?

The brand has high standards—not only does the ice cream have to taste as delicious as every other spoonful of Ben & Jerry’s you’ve eaten, but it has to look flawless too. When it’s finally filled, the pint is cut in half lengthwise with a cheese knife, giving the gurus a clear cross section to examine the two smooth canvases. Was there enough variation of swirls and chunks? Were there any swaths of empty space, barren of even the slightest hunk of fudge brownie or whirl of salted caramel?

“It’s a piece of art, when you look at the cut pint, a kind of magical moment,” says research and development director Ran Harel, with the kind of dead serious reverence for ice cream you would expect from someone who’s worked at Unilever since 1993 and spent the past four years at Ben & Jerry’s.

Ben & Jerry’s new Topped collection is meant to evoke an ice cream sundae in a pint. COURTESY OF BEN & JERRY'S
Ben & Jerry’s new Topped collection is meant to evoke an ice cream sundae in a pint. COURTESY OF BEN & JERRY’S

There was one difference with this first run, though. For the first time, the flavor guru wasn’t actually in the factory. In this case, Chris Rivard was at home, miles away, while production coordinator Keith Tiedemann—who acts as a liaison between the R&D team and the company’s St. Albans and Waterbury manufacturing facilities—stood in the factory wearing HoloLens. The mixed-reality smart glasses made by Microsoft meant Rivard could experience the factory floor as if he were actually there.

Eric Fredette, a flavor guru who has been at the company for 25 years, also used the technology recently, for three new scoop shop–exclusive flavors—Berry Lemon Sherbrrrt, Marshmallow Sky, and Sticky Toffee Cookie. (The purple, blue, and yellow ice creams get their bright hues from blueberry puree, blackberry juice, spirulina, and curcumin, part of the turmeric plant—a vibrant departure from the brand’s typical shades of beige and brown.)

“I see what Keith sees,” says Fredette. “It’s literally like you’re standing on the line and looking through his eyes, which is super important given the new colorful flavors we were working on.”

Virtually attending first productions means the team can still have conversations with the coordinator and make sure that things are right the first time the ice cream comes off the line. It’s one of the many new technologies and innovations that have allowed the company to continue to invent and launch new flavors and products in the midst of a global pandemic.

A sampling of new Ben & Jerry’s flavors: Berry Lemon Sherbrrrt, Sticky Toffee Cookie, and Marshmallow Sky.
A sampling of new Ben & Jerry’s flavors: Berry Lemon Sherbrrrt, Sticky Toffee Cookie, and Marshmallow Sky.

At the 43-year-old ice cream company, the innovation team of flavor gurus—made up of chefs, pastry chefs, food scientists, and supertasters—conceive new products. They have access to a state-of-the-art laboratory, stocked with cutting-edge equipment they use to mix up test batches—baking pie crusts or mint chocolate cookie balls, whipping up vegan marshmallows, and even brewing beer and kombucha, all in the name of dreaming up the next great ice cream flavor. But since last spring, when the Burlington-based factory shuttered to all but a handful of essential workers, the team had to get a little more creative. And they did. Typical years see about 20 to 24 new innovations. In 2020, Ben & Jerry’s created closer to 40—including the Topped line, five dairy-free flavors, five scoop shop flavors, and two dog treats—making it their most innovative year ever.

While ice cream might come to mind first, Ben & Jerry’s classifies its products into platforms that include dairy, plant-based products, and anything beyond the pint—Snackable Dough, Peace Pops, the new Doggy Desserts, to name a few. The process to create new flavors and products for these platforms usually takes 18 to 24 months. Ideation is done at the end of the year, concepts are presented and accepted, and the following spring is spent locking down samples and prototypes. In one sense, the innovation team was lucky they had already done the difficult (albeit delicious) part of new flavor creation, which usually happens in the R&D Lab, a.k.a. the kitchen. When the building shuttered last March, though, they were left to figure out how to tackle the logistics of finalizing the recipes and perfecting the production process.

For technical project lead Natalia Butler, who was suddenly without childcare for her toddler, this meant rising at four a.m. to work on the recipes for the lineup of dairy-free flavors she had developed. One was vegan Phish Food, which led Butler to focus on nailing down the perfect egg-free marshmallow swirl from her home kitchen, sometimes while her son was running around and her husband was on a work call. But, she says, “we embraced the chaos.”

Though every member of the R&D team is a bona fide foodie—home kitchens well-stocked with plenty of appliances and gadgets—accessing ingredients was a hurdle. “What is available in the middle of a pandemic, when everybody decided that they wanted to bake?” says Butler. Another drawback of being home: scarce freezer space. Research & development specialist Sarah Fidler spent the early weeks of lockdown with her in-laws in rural Vermont, where she annexed freezer space to experiment with mix-ins, testing different chunks to see which softened and which stayed crispy. Soon after, the company offered to send R&D team members a freezer to help alleviate the burden their experiments were putting on home freezer space. (While many team members took them up on the offer, Fredette declined a new freezer. He already had three at home.)

The R&D team uses cutting-edge equipment in a state-of-the-art laboratory to invent and innovate, regularly delivering new flavors and products, such as the new doggie dessert line, and the forthcoming line of ganache-topped pints.
The R&D team uses cutting-edge equipment in a state-of-the-art laboratory to invent and innovate, regularly delivering new flavors and products, such as the new doggie dessert line, and the forthcoming line of ganache-topped pints.

When the innovation team had finalized recipes and perfected the production for the flavors and products already in the works pre-pandemic, they had to start thinking about the next year’s innovations. Here they faced a new challenge. “We asked ourselves, how do we keep the magic?” Harel recalls. “The magic is all of us together.” Could they use technology and digital tools to maintain that link?

“Pre-COVID there was a lot of camaraderie in the kitchen, sharing and tasting and riffing off of each other,” says Fidler. “There was a lot of collaboration—‘I think I might want to add a little bit more vanilla, or I’m trying this chunk, what do you think?’” Fredette says. “We’re missing that and the ideation that happens in the R&D group,” he says, noting that many times an ordinary conversation will “blow up into something really cool.”

The first idea—set in motion in those first few weeks amid the whirlwind of navigating new daily patterns, a sudden dearth of childcare, and panic-buying toilet paper—was the morning meeting. Also referred to as the best meeting of the day, or the happy meeting, according to the team. For 30 minutes each weekday morning, the group gathers on Microsoft Teams (something Unilever started using in February 2020, just weeks before the outset of the pandemic) to discuss strictly nonwork things. Over banter, new home projects updates, and sharing recipes for stews and made-from-scratch pirogies, they can continue to connect even while they’re apart. “It’s not about work, it’s just about us,” Fredette says. “It gives you energy, it inspires you for the rest of the day. Because when you don’t see each other every day, a lot of things fall through that connection.”

Last September, the flavor gurus were also shipped new Cuisinart home ice cream makers, allowing them to continue chefmanship challenges. Each member creates a flavor based on a prompt, like nostalgic childhood desserts, or holidays, with a goal of sparking ideas and creativity. Currently, the prompt is “flavors of the world.” Each guru picks the name of a country out of a hat and is tasked with mixing up a flavor that represents it. Fredette got Central African Republic and is making a bouillie-inspired flavor, using a rice ice cream base and adding coarsely ground, skin-on Spanish peanuts to recall the sweet peanut butter porridge dish. Along with the new flavor, the creator writes up a one-sheet description and presents the work to the rest of the team. Though none of these flavors will probably make it to the freezer of your local grocery store anytime soon, the process is serving its purpose to keep the R&D team connected and creating.

“If you’re in a room with people, you’re swayed by everybody else,” Fredette says. “At home, filling out a form, you don’t have anyone prompting you.” It’s a recipe for getting the most honest and thoughtful feedback. “I think we found a very good way to make decisions on innovation, despite the fact that we are doing it remotely,” adds Harel.

When the pandemic emerged and the Burlington-based headquarters temporarily shuttered, the innovation team had to, well, innovate. They used smart glasses and other technologies to create and test new flavors in their home kitchens, often while doing what the rest of the world was doing— navigating new challenges like homeschooling kids and/or general existential dread. COURTESY OF BEN & JERRY'S
When the pandemic emerged and the Burlington-based headquarters temporarily shuttered, the innovation team had to, well, innovate. They used smart glasses and other technologies to create and test new flavors in their home kitchens, often while doing what the rest of the world was doing— navigating new challenges like homeschooling kids and/or general existential dread. COURTESY OF BEN & JERRY’S

The HoloLens has also been a huge boon, not only using it in the Vermont factories to cut down on having extra people on the factory floor for test runs that sometimes happen late into the night. The virtual technology will likely continue to be used after the manufacturing facilities fully reopen. Some products are manufactured in a Ben & Jerry’s plant in Sikeston, Mo., and someone would have to fly there to oversee a product’s first run. Now, Fredette explains, they put the HoloLens in a box and ship it to Missouri.

While technologies like HoloLens and Microsoft Teams were certainly integral in propelling the R&D team to its most innovative year yet, some intangible elements also contributed. One, for parents on the team, was the understanding and support extended from managers, and from the company as a whole. “Unilever did an amazing job keeping us sane, says Butler. “[My manager] Ran said, ‘Focus on your families and the work will get done whatever needs to get done.”

For Fidler, who spent the first few months of the pandemic trading off caring for her daughter with her husband, her biggest challenge was making sure the 2-year-old was getting everything she needed, while also doing work Fidler felt proud of. “But throughout all of that, I felt so supported to make that decision to say to my manager, ‘I’m going to focus on my daughter,’” she says. “I never had any pressure from anyone.” (Meanwhile, Fidler’s daughter is well on her way to being a supertaster, frequently requesting the blueberry kombucha sorbet paired with sweet corn ice cream and a tortilla chips swirl the duo whipped up during one of the flavor guru’s home ice cream making sessions last summer.)

Another intangible element was institutional knowledge—a deep familiarity with the brand and a trust in coworkers that comes with team members who have spent five, 10, 25 years with the company.

“We are a family,” says Butler. “Through the years we have been building that trust, and this past year we really embraced it. We’ve become stronger and more agile. It’s been our biggest year of innovation overall, in all of our platforms. We showed up to make the best ice cream there is out there.”

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