On May 5, 1978, area residents line up outside a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, for the grand opening of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade. Opened by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the store sells soups, crêpes and pottery, but it is their homemade ice cream, made with locally sourced cream and butterfat and flavorful chunks of nuts, cookies, fruit and candy, that become the main attraction.
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon, expanding the market for super premium ice cream made with natural ingredients and extra butterfat. Häagen-Dazs had already carved out a significant niche in this market, but Ben & Jerry’s brought renewed attention, attracting customers with its folksy image, fun mix of ingredients and imaginative flavor names like Chubby Hubby, Cherry Garcia and Wavy Gravy.
The ice cream’s origins can be traced back to a seventh-grade gym class in Merrick, Long Island in 1963, where Cohen and Greenfield became fast friends. By the time they were in their 20s, they were brainstorming business ideas. After scrapping a plan to open a bagel shop (the equipment was too expensive), Cohen and Greenfield decided to take a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making at the Pennsylvania State University’s Creamery. They then each invested $4,000 and took out a bank loan for another $4,000 to open the Burlington store.
Less than two years later, the duo started selling pints of ice cream in grocery stores. While many of the original flavors have not survived (retired flavors are buried in the Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard), many new ones followed, including Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough in 1984, the company’s most popular flavor worldwide.
As much as Ben & Jerry’s became known for its ice cream, it also became known for its activism. The company supports a number of issues, including sustainability, racial equity and social and environmental justice.
And when the company agreed to be bought by consumer giant Unilever for a reported $326 million in 2000,there were caveats to the deal, including the appointment of an independent board of directors to protect Ben & Jerry’s “brand equity and integrity.”
Another Ben & Jerry’s tradition that was preserved: Free Cone Day. Every spring, Ben & Jerry’s celebrates the anniversary of its first store opening by serving up roughly 1 million free scoops.