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June 12, 2007

Ben & Jerry's - The Early Years

The venerable Ben & Jerry's - the super-premium ice-cream company which alone is responsible for a 2.5% weight gainImg_0035 among American consumers in the last couple decades - opened for business in 1978 on the site of an old gas station located on the corner of College & St. Paul Street in downtown Burlington, Vermont.

In 1988, in celebration of their 10th anniversary, a plaque was embedded into the sidewalk of the famous corner. Img_0033 I take tourists to see this all the time; it's like our own Shroud of Turin. They also made up thousands of T-shirts imprinted, "BE 10 AGAIN."

I arrived in B-town in 1979, one year after the opening of Ben & Jerry's. They had made it through their first winter (no walk in the park for a Vermont ice cream store), and already had begun to garner the reputation that would slowly lead to success on the national stage:  Delicious ice cream with wild toppings combined with the good-time vibe of a couple of jolly ex-hippies. (Well, maybe not even "ex.")

Early onImg_0034, they began showing movies against the looming brick wall on the side of their property. If I remember correctly, they would hang a huge white sheet for better projection.  Many a night I spent slurping a cone and watching a flick under the stars.

In the summer of 1980, my friend, the lawyer David Watts, invited me to be a member of the Ben & Jerry's-sponsored volleyball team in the Burlington Parks & Recreation League. We ultimately won the tournament and arrived triumphantly, trophy in hand, at the store. Ben said, "Boys - you done good. Anything you want, it's on the house!"

You've never seen a pack of grown men revert so quickly to their boyhood selves. All of us over-ordered sundaes, shakes, sodas, cones - you name it. It's extra-tasty when it's free.

For one of their many celebrations - this one might have been the Mother's Day free cone day - Ben & Jerry (the actual men, not the company) would stage an elaborate act in front of the store. First, Jerry would come out and explain that we would be treated to a rare visit from a "mystic from the east." This learned sage, according to Jerry, had studied the esoteric yogic arts, or something like that, and would now demonstrate his spiritual powers. After about five minutes of stuff like this, Jerry would announce, "Presenting - ladies, gentlemen and kids - Benhini ben Coheni!"

A sound system would blast "Rubberband Man" by the Spinners, and out would come Ben Cohen, barefoot, draped in layers of white sheets, a turban upon his head. There followed another round of "explanation" from Jerry, until finally Benhini would lay supine upon a wooden bench, undraping to expose his prodigious stomach. Jerry would then balance a cinder block upon said stomach. Another five minutes of explanation, warnings, etc. The coup de grace would be Jerry hoisting a sledgehammer into the air, coming down on the cinder block, cracking it to pieces. "Rubberband Man" blasting, the crowd going nuts, Benhini ben Coheni would slowly exit the premises, his hands up in "Namaste" to everyone.

Three more cool things about B & J:

My friend, Arnie Carbone, worked in flavor development at the company, and his office was visible to the factory tour-goers up above in the catwalk. Whenever a group passed above him, he held up a sign which read, "It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it!"

Once when I drove a family of tourists to the factory, I wandered around the back and found a "flavor graveyard." Each of the retired flavors had its own gravestone, like "White Russian."

How could you not love an ice cream company that names a flavor, ""Chubby Hubby?"

June 12, 2007 at 04:27 PM in Just Shoot Me | Permalink


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We call it "Chubby Partner" at my house. Because, you know, there are no hubbies.

Posted by: cresmer | Jun 12, 2007 6:32:58 PM

That last comment made me smile! I LOVE this little City by the Lake!!! :)

Posted by: Burlingtonian | Jun 12, 2007 9:45:16 PM

Cresmer: Well, then - how about: Portly Partner?

Posted by: Jernigan Pontiac | Jun 13, 2007 11:45:12 AM

My personal favorite flavor memory of the old B&J's in the gas station was Hot Fudge Crepes. They ran a grill, and the server would ladle out the batter, then use a special wooden stovetop hoe-shaped utensile (very zen-sand-garden-looking, but with a foot-long blade) to spread and thin the batter. When it was almost done, he'd (it was usually a he in those days) flip it, quickly scoop your requested flavor of ice cream on it, use a long, skinny spatula (like a sandwich spreader but about a foot long) to crease each side of the crepe and flip it over the ice cream into a neat square package, scoop it onto a plate and drizzle hot fudge sauce over the top.

What a combo of texture and temperature and taste! Hot crispy crepe, cold, smooth ice cream, deep chocolate fudge sauce that you had to eat fast before the ice cream all melted and sogged out the crepe. I tried making it at home once, after B&J's shut down the grill and later moved, but the crepe just wasn't as good, thin and crispy.

Posted by: Nanuq | Jun 14, 2007 9:21:47 AM

Nanuq - I had forgotten about the Hot Fudge Crepes. Can we go back together 25 years in time, order a couple and eat them in City Hall Park? : )

Posted by: Jernigan Pontiac | Jun 14, 2007 10:50:06 AM

The last couple of times I looked, I couldn't find that plaque on the corner of College and St. Paul.

I thought that they'd removed it ... but perhaps it was just that I'd had a few too many at the brew pub ?? Geez. I guess shoulda called a cab.

Posted by: Dental Plaque | Jun 14, 2007 1:12:18 PM

Well, Dental Plaque - first things first. Of course, you should have called a cab. That's a given. And, the plaque is there, all right. Next time you stumble out of the Vermont Pub & Brewery have a looksee.

Posted by: Jernigan Pontiac | Jun 14, 2007 1:30:01 PM

SOSO: Slightly Overweight Significant Other.

Hmm. I guess that's not very catchy.

Posted by: Molly | Jun 15, 2007 1:28:11 PM

Thanks for these memories Hackie. We used to frequent this original store when we first moved to VT as well. In fact, I fondly recall their giant sundae eating events. Just picture a sundae as big as a bulldozer and many spoons and wide-eyed kids - and I was one of 'em!

Just imagine though, what if you had become a shareholder back in the day!?!? Oooh, you would be rich enough to have an entire fridge of B&J! Yums!

PS I am currently addicted to their Creme Brulee...mmmm...just one more bite...

Posted by: Eva | Jun 15, 2007 6:57:13 PM

Eva, I well remember the giant sundaes. And, Creme Brulee is indeed felicitous. But I'm still waiting for them to come up with shrimp-flavored ice cream!

Only kidding! (Nobody wants shrimp-flavored ice cream.)

Posted by: Jernigan Pontiac | Jun 16, 2007 1:42:18 PM

I remember my very first pint of B&J frozen yogurt, it was coffee almond fudge. When I pulled off the top of the pint, one half was totally fudge, I'd thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I've been a huge fan since, every time I'm down town I stop in and get a cup of half baked, simply irresistable

Posted by: Lizzy | Jun 20, 2007 1:11:58 PM

Lizzy: Did you say, "one half was totally fudge?" That's it - I'm headed downtown right now. (I want to go to heaven, too.)

Posted by: Jernigan Pontiac | Jun 21, 2007 11:52:36 AM

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