When two pints of Jeni Britton Bauer’s now-famous ice cream tested positive for Listeria in April, her small eponymous ice cream company was thrown headlong into its first recall. The ensuing mayhem would take months to correct, turn her small Columbus, Ohio, team of 40 into a triage center, and cost more than 265 tons in lost ice cream.
But falling back on the close relationships her team maintains with regional and national dairy and produce growers–as well as relying on a motivated, tightly knit staff–has allowed Britton Bauer’s team to emerge from the recall while staying true to the Jeni’s Splendid brand. Last week, the 22 Jeni’s scoop shops finally reopened, and the company hopes to ship pints from its e-commerce store (which account for much of the brand’s business) soon.
Here’s what Britton Bauer learned about leading through a crisis:
Within the first 12 hours of the crisis, Jeni’s had set up a separate page on its website dedicated to the recall. The brand has a fiercely loyal fan base and an active social media presence, so all channels of communication were turned towards educating Jeni’s customers about the recall’s effects. A call center was set up to field queries from supermarket buyers and online customers. Britton Bauer says her team learned that “just owning it, even if it sucks,” was the way to go. “It goes back to your values,” Britton Bauer says. “Values exist in the great times, but they also exist during the shitty times. If you abandon those during the worst times, then they’re not yours, really.” And customers responded to the approach. “We were getting messages from people who weren’t customers of ours, who hadn’t had our ice cream before, but now wanted to have our ice cream because of the way we handled the recall,” says Jeni’s digital director Ryan Morgan.
The moment they received news that traces of Listeria had been detected in a Lincoln, Nebraska, testing facility, the Jeni’s team threw its Columbus kitchen into triage mode. Kitchen and finance staffers alike were answering the phones. A core team was delegated to keep plugging away at their regular tasks. And Jeni’s was able to secure ice cream-making space almost immediately inside the facilities of one of their dairy suppliers in Ohio to begin making up for the dearth of inventory. “We always talk about our team having talent. We hire all these amazing people. But now it’s been proven,” Britton Bauer says. “So the lesson is, you build your team for everyday and doing awesome things. But you build awesome teams for this, too.”
Working in temporary digs inside another dairy means paring down the Jeni’s menu to nine ice creams (in fan-favorite, simple flavors like Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean and Brown Butter Almond Brittle). But the equipment is different in many cases, and Britton Bauer’s team has had to shave off time and effort where they can. So they turn to friends of the brand to see where it’s possible to outsource ingredients. One of those friends–American Spoon Foods in Traverse City, Michigan–is in talks now with Jeni’s to explore how they might make the jam for one of Jeni’s most beloved flavors, still absent from the menu: Brambleberry Crisp. Whereas Jeni’s had always made its own jam from fruit they sourced, cleaned, and cooked, American Spoon would help Jeni’s source the fruit and create the jam, all without reintroducing the risk of Listeria from the fresh produce. “We don’t make our own goat cheese, so maybe we don’t ever make our own jam anymore,” Britton Bauer says. “One of the things that happens in crisis, I think, is clarity. You figure out what you’re about, what your beliefs truly are. And then you figure out how to do that. And when somebody else can do it better, then you give it to them to do, and you focus on what you’re really good at.”
Britton Bauer is a fan of restrictions. A challenge or crisis is where there’s the most potential for a creative spark, she says. “There’s this idea that creativity is about blowing it up and having no boundaries and doing something and not thinking about it. But actually it’s about doing the most you can within the box. Doing what nobody’s ever done within that set of parameters. And that sort of classic creative thinking is what we’ve been doing–finding ways to make our ice cream even better. Not just the same, but even better.”
Update 7/7/2014 2:10 pm ET: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that the Brambleberry Crisp flavor was currently available and that American Spoon Foods had already created the jam for the flavor. Both are still in process. Ecommerce counts for much of Jeni’s sales, not most.