I was at a business conference today where someone swore to me that the Ben and Jerry's ice cream in Burlington, VT was better than Ben and Jerry's anywhere else in the country. This reminded me of something I wanted to write about for a while - my trip to the company's factory in Vermont for a guided tour. Seems like something you guys would appreciate.
Obviously, the company's image is very hippie, very enviro-friendly, and very much about jovial, chubby Ben and Jerry and their ethics. What's not to love.
So we went into the factory with high expectations on this account. The first problem was the tour guide who rounded us up like cattle to start the tour. "Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time to look at the merchandise later, and you will get free samples of ice cream, so please just come along now!" she called patronizingly, then mumbling to me, "it's my last tour of the day." We spent the first 15 minutes not in the factory but in a TV room, watching a video about the history of the company and its cutie pie origins. Some odd things began to come up, though.
It became clear that B and J no longer have anything to do with the ice cream they created, and in fact went through a buy out situation that was far nastier than I would have thought. This wasn't spelled out in the video, but came through in the fact that the absolutely only picture of B and J used in the video - and there were no interviews or video footage of them -- was the one picture that is on the package of every ice cream. The poor propaganda-film maker probably had to go through and scan the label for himself - it seemed that B and J had not only refused to offer comment for the video but would not allow a single other image of either of them -- whether from 1975 or 2005 -- to be used for their company's propaganda flick.
The other odd thing about the video was that it was clearly made to be hippie-crunchy styled, but its perspective was actually that of the businessmen who took over the company FROM B and J. In some way this was inevitable - since nobody who was actually a friend of B or J was legally allowed/willing to participate in the movie. But the narrator would say things like (I don't remember htis well, so I am recreating the quotes here): "Ben and Jerry were into ice cream, but they didn't know a balance sheet from a hole in the wall." He would say this in the jovial, growly narrator voice, inviting you to laugh. And our obedient audience, for the most part, laughed. But the issue kept coming up in the movie. As if Ben and Jerry were just about the stupidest people you could ever meet. There were numerous excerpts from an interview with the new CEO of Ben and Jerry's who made comments like, "Ben and Jerry loved what they were doing, but their business just kept running into trouble due to some of their business practices!" And then there'd be some more narrative, and then it would be back to the CEO. "Boy, Ben and Jerry loved ice cream, but they sure didn't know how to run a business!" One of these loony business practices was their habit of putting too many large chunks of toppings into the ice cream. This apparently gummed up the machines and was a pain in the ass. The narrator delicately implied they were total morons for insisting on large chunks of toppings.
The big turning point of the propaganda movie, of course, was that things immediately improved when Ben and Jerry hired a bunch of bookkeepers and business men to run things for them. ("Finally, Ben and Jerry's began to be a big, serious business!") These guys were the heroes, and as Unilever-friendly guys, they were happy to yak on film about the improved business practices of the factory. The movie ended there, with Ben and Jerry's becoming a big and of course a socially conscious business.
But it never mentioned what *happened* to the two founders. I was hoping there'd be something like, "finally, Unilever waved enough money in front of Ben and Jerry." Or perhaps, "At long last, B and J's sensible business manager was able to wedge them out of a controlling stake in the promising company they had created. Ben and Jerry now spend their time golfing in Arizona, watch cholesterol, and try to never, ever think about ice cream."
Actually, didn't one of them die a few years ago? We realized this about half way through the movie and were waiting for some kind of memorial, but there was none. Apparently nobody told them - or maybe B and J's family still have lawyers on payroll that don't even let the new owners mention the death. ("It was Ben's last wish that nobody from Unilever ever be allowed to mention his name without getting the shit sued out of him.")
But of course there was no enlightening ending like this in the movie. It just kept showing the same ancient picture of the two guys, filmed about five different ways: zooming in on their faces; spiraling in from the far distance, panning from left to right, etc. Eventually it became this icon, or like the faces painted on the front of mummies. You think maybe this was what the guys looked like -- but it sure was obviously stylized -- but was there any way to be *really* sure? The true feelings, and the true business story of Ben and Jerry's, lost to time like the real face of Tutankhamen.... Hmmm...
At any rate, they walked us through the factory (which is really quite small), then wearily scooped out ice cream for us, and quizzed us about the spiel they'd just given us about the factory. Anyone who could answer the quiz question would get more free ice cream or something. But nobody could answer - none of us had been listening that closely - and after the tour guide openly mocked us for our inattention, they shooed us out of the factory.
So that was my experience in Burlington, Vermont. The ice cream was good, but the overall experience was - to say the least - unsettling. Rest in peace, hippie ice cream dudes.