Childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a correspondence course in ice cream-making from Penn State University-- Agriculture 5150-- and founded the company in 1978 in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Starting with a $12,000 investment ($4,000 of which was borrowed), the company built a devoted following, both for their products and business practices.
The company experienced difficulties with their distribution early on. Häagen-Dazs tried to force independent distributors to choose one of the brands, and Ben and Jerry's filed a law suit against the Pillsbury subsidiary saying that it had acted illegally in its operation and was trying to put Ben and Jerrys out of business. To coincide with the lawsuit Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield also began the “What is the Doughboy afraid of?” campaign to raise public awareness. They also encouraged a boycott of all Pillsbury subsidiaries, which included Burger King.
Pillsbury went to Ben and Jerry's with an out-of-court settlement and signed an agreement that stated it would not impose any such rules on the suppliers. The Ben and Jerry's brand grew tremendously, partly because of the success of the David and Goliath case and the publicity the brand received because if it.
As demand for their products grew, the friends decided to fund their growth by taking the company public. The capital raised from their IPO helped fuel rapid expansion, but also reduced the founders' control.In 1988, Ben and Jerry were named "U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year" by President Ronald Reagan.
After a failed attempt by Ben Cohen to retake the company private, Ben and Jerry's was purchased in August 2000 by the Unilever conglomerate for slightly over $170 million. Other Unilever brands of ice cream include Dove, Breyer's, Magnum, Wall's, and Solero.
The company is known for creating innovative flavors that emphasize the use of natural ingredients; for example, the farmers that provide their cream pledge that it comes from cows that are free from bovine growth hormone. However, in 2002, the Center for Science in the Public Interest accused Ben and Jerry's of abusing the "All Natural" label for using artificial flavors, hydrogenated oils, and other factory-made substances in their products. Ben and Jerry's official response was that they used a different definition of "all natural" than the CSPI. They have since removed the "All Natural" tag-line from below their logo.
The packaging for their pint containers is made from recycled, bleach-free papers. The company is supporting research into thermoacoustics to minimize the potential negative environmental impact from using ozone-depleting refrigerants. As a whole the company is very eco-friendly and encourages its users and consumers to be the same.
Some of their ice cream flavors are named after musicians, such as their most popular flavor Cherry Garcia, named after Jerry Garcia, and Phish Food, named after the Vermont-based band Phish, as well as Dave Matthews Band's One Sweet Whirled.Flavors from the company come and go, with seasonal "limited edition" ones appearing each year. Other types, such as Rainforest Crunch, have actually simply been retired as new ones are created. Retired flavors enter what is referred to as the "flavor graveyard".Their website offers a list of both new, older, and limited edition flavors.
For one day every April, Ben and Jerry's observes Free Cone Day as a "thank you" to its customers. On this day, over one million cones are given away.Despite their strong reputation in the GLBT community the Unilever ice cream subsidiary only scored a 71% on the 2004 Corporate Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign.
In 2005, Ben and Jerry's opened a store in Austin, Texas, which is operated by LifeWorks, a community organization that helps at-risk youth and families. The store provides job opportunities for LifeWorks clients. All profits from the store go directly to LifeWorks and Ben and Jerry's does not collect a franchise fee.