Brand building through storytelling

When Ben and Jerry still had their screen door

My family and I had never heard of Ben & Jerry’s when we drove into Burlington, Vermont one hot night in the late 70s and spotted the happy throng outside an ice cream parlour that looked like a throwback to the summer of love. Housed in a converted gas station, it had a giant coffee cup on the roof, as if the future emperors of ice cream hadn’t quite nailed what marketers would call their “unique selling proposition.” It had a weathered screen door that each customer in turn held open and leaned against while approaching butterfat nirvana at the front (to touch that door was to know you were almost there). It even had an upright piano on which, had I only known how to play, I might have improvised a tune in praise of the most gleefully decadent ice cream I’d yet seen.

Each flavour in the case positively burst with so much embellishment—nuts, chocolate, caramel, gooey chunks of cookie dough or marshmallow— that choosing just one was painful. (That song I couldn’t compose? It would have been a blues.) I don’t remember which creation I tucked into that night; I just know that it made me a convert then and there.

I wasn’t going to riff about ice cream today. So soon after my previous post on the subject, I thought it would be a tad excessive, like ambling up to the dairy case for a double scoop of peanut butter chocolate right after polishing off a bowl of rocky road with crumbled Oreo on top. But my husband points out that the previous post gave short shrift to our ice cream bona fides. It didn’t capture our commitment to ice cream tourism. I’ve told you all about seeing the Holy Tunic of Trier even though I don’t believe in relics. I do believe in ice cream made with reverence. So surely I am honour-bound to tell you we have touched the screen door at the very first Ben & Jerry’s.

The last time I tasted Ben & Jerry’s, it came in a tub from my local supermarket and tasted of a corporate freezer. But New England, where the brand got started, is serious ice cream country and we will soon be there. In New England every little hamlet with colonial houses and a photogenic church spire is bound to have an ice cream parlour worthy of a stop. More often than not, a village that knows its ice cream will also have an arts festival and at least one independent bookstore. For instance, Woodstock, Vermont, home of the enticing  Mountain Creamery, where they make the waffle cones before your eyes and have never heard of small servings. You’ll think you can’t possibly eat the whole thing—until you start getting your licks in at the Creamery’s riverside picnic table.

For us Woodstock is just a warmup (excuse me: a chill-down) for Cambridge, Mass., which boasts not one but two ferociously creative and ecstatically good ice creameries. Local students of the scoop debate the merits of Christina’s (Ginger Molasses, Chocolate Chinese Five Spice) and Toscanini’s (Guinness, Earl Grey Tea) like literati holding forth on the future of the novel. Steps away from Harvard Yard, the flavours have an intellectual edge (on offer at Christina’s: Nietzsche’s Chocolate Ascension). But as far as I’ve been able to determine, it all tastes sublime. If there’s a town that deserves to be crowned ice cream capital of America, I nominate Cambridge.

We’re not so fanatically loyal to the ice creams of New England that we can’t entertain the possibility of even better ice creams elsewhere. In State College, Pennsylvania, we made a beeline for the famous Penn State Creamery. Our verdict: worthy but not a world beater. And while driving home from Sarasota last winter, we took a detour to Athens, Tennessee, where the Mayfield Dairy promises “America’s best ice cream”—this in the judgment of none other than Timemagazine. We found the ice cream perfectly fine. But not quite up to the standard set here in Toronto at Greg’s and Ed’s.

So what’s with the Time encomium? A Google search took me to a cover storyfrom—could it be?—1981. The opening flourish:

“What you must understand at the outset is that Ben & Jerry’s, in Burlington, Vt., makes the best ice cream in the world.

“That Mayfield’s, in Athens, Tennessee, makes the world’s best ice cream. That the absolute best ice cream in the universe, without argument (although the partisans who urge these passionate and contradictory views are happy to argue all night), is stirred and cranked and lovingly scooped by Lickety Split in Denver, by Bob’s Famous in Washington, D.C. or by Gelato in San Francisco….”

Oh, well. I wonder if anyone from Time ever leaned against the screen door at the original Ben & Jerry’s. Thank goodness I got the chance—and that I have many an ice cream mile to go before I sleep.

Click here to read another favourite post about eating on the road.

Posted by Rona

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