Ben and Jerry: Ice cream’s sweetest pair

April 11, 2013, 10:39 AM UTC
Ben Cohen (left) and Jerry Greenfield in their original Burlington, Vt., Scoop Shop
Photo: Patrick James Miller

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield met in junior high school in Merrick, N.Y., running around the track during gym class. “We were the two slowest and fattest kids in the class,” Greenfield says.

A few years after graduating, Greenfield struggled to get into medical school, and Cohen (after “dropping out of a lot of colleges”) failed to make a living as a potter in upstate New York. “We were flailing,” says Cohen. “We said, Man, we’re not getting anywhere in the world. Maybe if we started our own business we would be able to make it.”

They both liked to eat, so they decided to open a restaurant and settled on the idea of an ice cream shop when a friend warned them against opening a full-service dining operation. Cohen and Greenfield looked for a rural college town with year-round warm weather that didn’t have an ice cream parlor that made its own ice cream. Only, they all did. So, “we kind of threw out the criteria of ‘warm,'” Cohen says. They each put up $4,000 and got a $4,000 loan from the bank to open their first scoop shop in Burlington, Vt., in 1978. The store also served crepes because the bank required they reduce the seasonality of the business. When they couldn’t move enough ice cream in the winter, they sold to local restaurants and mom-and-pop grocery stores.

Cohen was the front man — the salesman and flavor creator — while Greenfield worked on making the ice cream. Neither had any desire to do what the other one was doing. “Ben is really entrepreneurial and creative, and I do well within the box, as they say,” Greenfield explains. Greenfield got to be the company’s first president, only because Cohen’s name came first.

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They rarely fought. “Our basic agreement was that the person who felt more strongly about the particular issue got their way,” Greenfield says. One memorable disagreement came over the size of chunks in their ice cream. Cohen wanted bigger; Greenfield wanted smaller, and more of them — it was easier to produce, he said. Greenfield didn’t like big chunks because they clogged the filler head on the ice cream machine, and he had to first sanitize his arm and then stick it down through the ice cream and clear the clog. Nevertheless, big chunks won out.

In 2000, Unilever (UL) bought Ben & Jerry’s for $326 million, and today the business is part of its $9.75 billion refreshment arm. Greenfield and Cohen are still full-time employees, but they aren’t involved in day-to-day management or operations.

“It turns out we still do both work together,” Greenfield says. Last year Cohen started Stamp Stampede, which is his attempt to help get money out of politics. His organization sells rubber stamps at cost, so people can mark paper currency with the messages STAMP MONEY OUT OF POLITICS or NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS. “Every time you put a stamped dollar into circulation, 800 people see it as it gets passed around,” Cohen explains. “And it’s legal!” adds Greenfield, who has been helping out with the project. He worked closely with Cohen on the development of the Amend-O-Matic — a 10-foot-high, 14-foot-long money-stamping machine mounted on a flatbed van. It’s currently on a national tour.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the April 29, 2103 issue of Fortune.

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