Columbus' Ice Cream Queen Got Rich Off Treating Workers Like Shit
"[Jeni is] a chain smoker, coke fiend, sex addict, clinical narcissist and pathological liar. It ABSOLUTELY translates into how she directs the company."
In April 2020, with the novel coronavirus bearing down on America, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Francisco) appeared on CNN to showcase her $24,000 freezer stuffed with her favorite treat: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, an operation out of Columbus, Ohio.
It was a classically tone-deaf moment from Pelosi. Still, it showed the upper crusts of society in which Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams had found itself after 25 years after starting as at a stall in Downtown Columbus’ North Market.
Jeni’s paints itself as a humble midwestern company founded by a whimsical art student. Its official website says Jeni’s is a “creative-led, community-spirited company on a mission to make better ice creams to bring people together.”
It’s certainly a story that has worked for the company, as seen in this puff piece from CNBC in 2019:
Britton Bauer vividly recalls when her grandmother put her on the path to becoming an ice cream entrepreneur at just 10 years old. “She was standing in the kitchen stirring a pot, and she stopped me in my tracks and said: ‘Jeni, you’re so lucky because you can be whatever you want to be. You can be a doctor, lawyer, an astronaut. It wasn’t like that for me.’” At the time, Britton Bauer simply responded with a “Thanks, Grandma,” and darted off.
“But I remember, when I when I ran outside — in that moment — I thought, Well if that’s true then I’ll be an ice cream maker,” she recalls. “Ice cream has always been a part of my life, and I think it was meant to be.”
Even if Britton Bauer was destined to create ice cream — and selling a stunning 2 million pints last year alone suggests she was — that doesn’t mean building her business from the ground up was easy.
If it wasn’t easy for Jeni, who has dropped the Bauer from her name after a divorce in 2021, it’s certainly easy for her now. She has spent the last month jet-setting across Europe and posting Instagram Stories that make you wonder how a woman so untethered from reality got that much money in the first place.
You can learn a lot about somebody through their social media posts, especially the lens through which they view the world.
With Jeni, it becomes very clear very early that she sees the world as a reflection of herself in the same way as Narcissus did.
The saga starts in France, where Jeni claimed to have divine power:
She continued the divine theme by labeling herself “an ice cream goddess” with a “smokin’ hot bod” in South France:
In this post, you will notice that she mentions her bags being lost before the overturning of Roe vs. Wade:
The next day, she showed just how rich she was when she suggested that people should read Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a proponent of the overturn of Roe vs. Wade, as an answer to our nation’s current crisis:
When it came time to leave France, Jeni noted that she was suffering from multiple blood clots… which seems like it would be a recipe for disaster on long international flights.
But hey, who can’t relate to a fine chicken club with tarragon cream and boiled eggs?
Instead of taking the train from Paris to Berlin, Jeni chose to take a commercial flight while letting you know that she has enough money to prolong an eight-day European vacation into an “open-ended adventure.”
She also claimed she would rather die than not be free, which was a curious choice of words for a multimillionaire about to board a flight to Berlin:
Once in Berlin, she let us know that she was finally able to find a place to get a manicure—no small feat for a rich woman in Berlin!—before admitting that she thinks we should reintroduce invasive currants back into Ohio—as if we already don’t have enough problems to deal with:
In the next post, she referred to “East Berlin.” She stressed her desire to “live in accordance with nature and community” as if she hadn’t spent the last month jet-setting across Europe and demanding the reintroduction of an invasive plant back into Ohio:
Usually, I think it’s cool when rich people use social media to show they’re untethered from reality and exist in a fairy tale.
Jeni Britton has more money than 99% of the world, yet she can’t produce a consistent political worldview.
It would be funny to me, except for a straightforward problem. The ethos of Jeni and her ice cream company is a fabrication. A myth. A lie. A total fiction. They made it all up!
The Rooster spoke with over 40 current and former employees at all levels of the organization who consistently painted a picture that Jeni is like most people with “spend a month in Europe” money: She earned it through underpaying and exploiting the workers who did the labor that made her fortune possible.
Let’s start with this page in the employee handbook:
It should be a massive red flag whenever your employer tries to tell you that they are “cool,” let alone “American cool.”
But the handbook makes clear what the company actually wants from its employees. They want their workers to “kick-ass” (read: make their bosses money) without making excuses like calling off their shift because they have the novel coronavirus.
The truth is, her employees didn’t see their job as "American Cool.” They commonly referred to their place of employment—in multiple cities—as “The Ice Cream Gulag.”
The true origin story of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is that her now ex-husband, Charly Bauer, bought Jeni her first ice cream machine, and his family financed her start-up costs for that first booth at North Market.
From there, where she routinely skimmed employee tips, the company expanded too quickly. It was on the brink of financial ruin before Jeni, and her husband appointed Columbus-based lawyer John Lowe as CEO.
Lowe took the company from the precipice of financial ruin, navigated the two Listeria crises, and expanded the business into $100 million annual profits.
Yet, in June 2022, Lowe announced that he was leaving the company.
Why would a successful business executive leave such a position?
Well, the testimonials of current and former Jeni’s employees might offer a clue.
Former Warehouse Employee
I worked at Jeni’s on the production side in the listeria era, roughly between 2014-2017. The whole operation seemed like it was designed to demoralize the staff, beginning with the starting wage of $11 an hour.
Filling a single milk crate with a product that retails for your entire week’s take-home pay starts to sting pretty quickly. No freebies either, though we did get a whopping 20% discount in the scoop shops if I remember correctly.
What really made the job hell was the absolute disorganization and apparent lack of concern from management.
One thing we produced were these bougie macarons that were used to make ice cream sandwiches. At some point, someone switched up the supplier on one or more of the key ingredients, and the recipe simply stopped working properly.
If you know anything about macarons, they are a very delicate confection that simply can’t be slopped together by a team of underpaid 20-somethings in an un-air conditioned room—even with a functional recipe.
So each day began with the chill task of throwing away most of our work from the previous day due to cookies that didn’t set up correctly—an average of 90% waste (this isn’t an exaggeration, we did the math).
Knowing that we were working for a place that could survive those kinds of margins really drove home how little we were making, and no one wants to waste their time and energy making something they’re just going to toss the next day.
It felt like some insanely Sisyphean bullshit.
Perhaps worst of all though, was the facility itself. I wonder what percentage of Jeni’s clientele would gladly devour this stuff, knowing that some of it were produced just 10 feet away from something we called “the poop closet.”
This referred to a hallway adjacent to the production space housing a mop sink that emitted a constant foul sewage odor and was always buzzing with fruit flies. Thankfully, it was at least behind a closed door.
The plumbing issues extended to the single toilet in the facility, which would frequently stop working. Since OSHA standards require at least one functional toilet on the premises for employee use, production would halt for the day each time the thing crapped out, and we’d all just stand around for hours waiting for the plumber.
I could not begin to guess how many hours we wasted this way.
Proper climate control was also woefully lacking, especially in the summer months. Standing in front of a bank of commercial ovens in the summer heat was brutal. People began collapsing from heat exhaustion, which was sadly predictable.
After a couple of incidents like this, the staff ramped up our complaints to management about the working conditions. They did eventually bring in a couple of mobile AC units, which offered little relief but were better than nothing, I guess.
Former Scoop Shop Employee
Her entire life story is made up to appeal to some sort of hard working midwestern girl vibe. She’s an artist, a pastry chef, she started making ice cream and it went well because yuppies nationwide live for that shit. I know this because a professor of mine at Cincinnati told me that she went to high school with Jeni at Upper Arlington and the story that she grew up in Peoria Illinois or whatever she says is completely false.
Like she’s a pathological liar. Same way she lies about employees making $15 or $17 or 19 an hour when they make $9.
She’s a chain smoker, coke fiend, sex addict, clinical narcissist and pathological liar. It ABSOLUTELY translates in to how she directs the company.
We went to all shops meetings every few months with all the Columbus stores basically to hear her brag. I asked her if we would have any chance to talk about our daily life as scoopers and she didn’t give a shit so I spoke up and said we don’t get paid what is advertised and the company would be nothing without us. I was removed from the schedule after that but when I followed up and asked why they put me back on.
Oh, and we weren’t ice cream scoopers, we were “ambassadors”
Former Warehouse Worker
When I started back in 2011 the starting wage was around $9.00. We weren't scoop shop employees and most of the people who worked in the warehouse (Bakery/Logistics/Test Kitchen) were in their twenties and scraping by with the meager wages. When I asked for a raise after a year I believe I was offered $9.50. I left shortly thereafter.
Logistics warehouse employees were responsible for bringing the ice cream from the warehouse to all of the Columbus scoop shops in panel trucks. No one that I worked with, that I know of, were qualified to drive these panel trucks and no training was offered. If you had your drivers license and you worked in logistics of the warehouse, guess what? You would drive a panel truck. I was 26 at the time so there may have been an age requirement, but I was not aware of it.
The logistics and the bakery folks were wild as fuck. We had a fun work hard/play hard mentality, but in retrospect it was kinda troubling.
For example: one of the first Sundays I had working in the warehouse we had to deliver to the scoop shops. The team lead at the time was so hungover and still tripping on acid from the night before that he made me drive the truck to the different locations even though I had never driven a truck before. If memory serves correctly, I had to change out of the passenger seat to the driver seat with the team lead while we were on 315.
Like I said, wild as fuck.
There was a day in the summer in which myself and other warehouse employees had to use a company panel truck to move a luxury Italian leather chair from our warehouse to Jeni's personal office.
I think the sticker price of the chair was in the thousands of dollars. Again, we were mostly college educated, people in our twenties STARVING and made ~$9.00.
I felt like Jeni was spitting on us.
Jeni never toured, visited, inspected her own warehouse or bakery. I'm not sure if she was fully involved in the test kitchen at the time either where a lot of the recipes were being made.
I think it was the chefs in the test kitchen at the time who were actually putting the flavors and recipes together which would eventually get the sign off from Jeni. All the grass-roots, hard working, collaborative marketing/self promoting bullshit wasn't true. It was just a bunch of hard working kids, making no money, keeping this ramshackle operation together.
It felt like Jeni was afraid to visit or talk to her own staff or take any type of leadership responsibilities on how the organization was being run. She was more interested in her cookbook and being on The View at the time.
The CEO would sometimes come around but it very much felt like there was the main office (marketing/writing/sales business) clique, then the grunt work of logistics/the tireless bakery staff/procurement/test bakery group who did all the meaningful work. Very much a starbelly sneetches approach where you had the cool group and then the labor group that didn't feel like they were part of the team.
There were truck accidents that were never accounted for. I ripped off my friends/colleagues bumper with a truck. I got a truck stuck in a ditch in Cleveland. I feel like this was kept off the record because I'm not sure that we were legally allowed to drive these trucks.
People could have gotten really hurt.
Former Assistant Manager (Chicago)
I immediately found myself making concessions - sacrificing my personal life and health for the goddamn ice cream. This shop is seated on Restaurant Row, Randolph Street. The pipes on this road are notoriously shitty. It was pretty frequent that these pipes would get clogged or somehow break, so we pretty frequently had to close [the store] to get our pipes cleaned out because black shitwater would come up through the drains.
The first time this happened to me, I just laughed. It was kinda funny and it still is. The staff became used to this happening and got used to avoiding using our cleaning materials (and destroying them) when the shitwater came up. The company would close up shop to clean it but never even asked or considered any long-term fixes.
There's also the dark realities of just working at this shop. This is where "The Ice Cream Gulag" comes from. It's what we called it sometimes. You're basically a scooping automaton, and you're taught to just put up with the abuse that rude customers would throw at you (or to throw free ice cream toward the customer, because they simply know best).
COVID realities also started kicking in here, as my time at West Loop aligned with the first summer after COVID began and the city decided to pull back on safety.
Even when Chicago still required masks, we were trained to NEVER explicitly tell people to mask up — we had to opt for a very Midwestern-polite, "Hi! Can you please put a mask on?"
Former Scoop Shop Employee
My time at Jeni’s (scooper for a few summers 2016-2018) was fine beyond being demanding and underpaid, but I remember employees were told from jump that wrist soreness from scooping was normal at first and would go away (one suggestion: learn to scoop with your other hand!)
Former Home Office Employee
I worked in the home office prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Generally speaking, the home office thrived off of a culture of politics, gossip, intimidation, and micromanagement in all departments. Leadership was often too caught up in misalignment on strategic goals and interpersonal drama (that more often than not stemmed from the C-suites downwards) to worry about the professional development or even well-being of their lower-level employees.
Leadership was often operating their departments in silos, so communication was nothing short of garbage—whenever we learned about a new process/plan from another department that would implicate our own, it would be too late to pivot and before we knew it we had weekly dumpster fires on our hands.
Gossip traveled frequently and quickly throughout the office and everyone had to have a "watch your back" attitude. In fact, I once got called into HR's office because it had "accidentally" been slipped to them that I occasionally got high after work because of how exhausting and stressful this job was.
Compensation was far below average (most lower-level folks were making 30-35k annually if you were lucky, others were making less than that) and we were told to be "grateful" for the ~1.5-2% raise that we may or may not receive annually.
Leadership came across as approachable but would gossip about you behind closed doors. Additionally, it was abundantly clear that leadership at the home office had a snobbish attitude towards shop employees and were completely removed from their day-to-day experiences.
None of the lower level employees were ever allowed to take their work home, which sounds great in theory, but in my case, this meant that I had to drive three hours through a blizzard the morning after Christmas to show up to the office after the holidays instead of being offered the opportunity to work from home--which I was required to do because we were forced to ration our PTO between vacation and sick time.
Trust was "earned," meaning you were guilty until proven otherwise.
Favoritism was palpable in the office, whether that means you were "randomly" allowed to get your headshot taken, partake in creative photoshoots, or offered other miscellaneous professional opportunities. If you weren't in the "in-crowd," you were left to fend for yourself or your fellow lover-levels. I know some of that sounds silly to lament about when it's nothing compared to the excruciating conditions that the fulfillment center/kitchen/bakery folks have been enduring for decades, but when you're a kid fresh out of college just hoping to get your feet wet, it all can add up to make you feel like shit.
Besides Jeni, [Communications Leader] Ryan Morgan and [Human Resources Leader] Zoe Switzer are by far the two most problematic individuals in leadership at the home office.
Human Resources, Zoe in particular, would receive consistent reports of mismanagement and incompetence about Ryan (amongst others) only to do absolutely nothing to hold him accountable (see his Twitter spat with Helen Rosner about that shitty Joe Biden ice cream flavor that he somehow hasn't pulled down with the exception of a few exceptionally ridiculous tweets).
Most of these people manage like a chicken with their heads cut off, and some of the biggest bullies at the company have been there the longest.
Former Home Office Employee
Something that felt pervasive and gross was the obsession with image a lot of higher-up people had (Jeni being at the center). I heard Jeni comment on when a new person gained weight, presumably because of the in-office ice cream.
A woman in leadership once walked around with a pair of jean shorts and held them up to each person in the department to see if they would fit them; she wanted to give them away but it was such a gross way to determine someone’s size
Some folks were hourly when I started—like $12-$15 an hour range—and higher ups would debate the merits of $75 white tees
And the rumor was, [which] I believed to be true, is that Jeni had a $50,000 yearly clothing budget since she was the face of the brand. Those hourly folks didn’t make that in a year. I heard she doesn’t have that anymore.
After the ‘08 Recession, Jeni’s was still run by Jeni and her husband, but was about to fail. They were personal friends with John Lowe, who is a smart, extremely ambitious person who had climbed up very fast to be in a leadership position with General Electric’s legal counsel, which he left to run Jeni’s, which at that time had four shops and was failing.
His vision for Jeni’s is pretty much what happened: to grow extremely fast, to abandon whatever was needed for that growth, and I’m not sure what the end stage is but many people think it’s to sell and get out.
In 2015 Listeria almost killed that project, but a lot of private investment was taken on. This saved the company but it completely ended any remnant of Jeni’s personal influence on the company beyond becoming an influencer basically; Lowe and private investors control everything.
John Lowe, Charlie (Jeni’s ex-husband), and apparently now Jeni have all stepped away in the last few months so whatever comes next is coming, and everyone can feel it. I say this because my broad point is that Jeni’s isn’t a real business, in the sense that there’s an idea of a permanent place where people work, it’s like a speculative asset being cultivated. And that permeates every aspect of the business.
Unionization isn’t possible because no one really cares if the shops aren’t functional, they often aren’t, they would only care about the damage it could do to the brand, but the real brand they’ve cultivated is in the maximally profitable (white, rich) parts of large cities in the South.
Jeni’s is very afraid of being associated with anything progressive, it was an embarrassing struggle for them to decide to put a Black Lives Matter sticker on the window in 2020, for example. So I don’t think their brand would be that damaged by a union effort.
There actually was a unionization effort in summer/fall 2020 among the Columbus market shops but it failed and everyone very involved either quit or was fired.
A couple other points:
John Lowe’s wife is a powerful Columbus lawyer specializing in helping businesses crush labor, so every part of Jeni’s was built with that advice in mind. Also, the constant disfunction and other structural issues of the company create extreme turnover; of the maybe 30 people who work in my shop, 26 have worked there for two months or less, and most of them will probably cycle out even before the end of summer reduces that to less than 10.
I don’t know who my coworkers are, and even though everyone knows they’re being screwed over I think pretty much everyone including me would quit if there was any pushback from the company.
The math for whether working there is worth it is very fragile, and entirely dependent on tips (which make up over half of people’s pay), which themselves are kind of dependent on the shop being understaffed.
Former Scoop Shop Employee
I worked at the Powell location, where I, as a Black woman, faced a few racial aggressions. At that time, we could work at different locations to get more hours. I worked at the Grandview location and felt really at home. They also told me they were understaffed.
I spoke with my boss about my experiences with the people of Powell and my desire to move to the Grandview store because I liked it better and it would be closer to the place I moved to.
[Jeni] told me that what I experienced never happened… which... it did. She then denied my request to transfer to another store… so I quit.
Former Home Shop Employee
Jeni and CEO John Lowe hated each other. She talked about looking to buy back the company, get rid of John, and install a new CEO. The company was concerned about Jeni disrupting business as usual—and especially about her personal ventures interfering with company business. There were a lot of egos at play within the leadership team, which led to a lot of infighting.
Jeni often wasn’t present at many of the all-hands company team meetings—sometimes only sending in an impersonal iPhone selfie video to show face—nor was she seen much in the office, even prior to the pandemic.
The company, as a whole, has become increasingly impersonal over the years. Sure this is bound to happen at some level as a company grows, but Jeni’s has still tried to maintain that they’re a small neighborhood business and pay employees small neighborhood salaries. They refer to “Team Jeni’s” as a “family,” and some managers will say, “I love you,” to their direct reports with the assumption that direct reports and lower-level employees feel the same.
On another note: during the summer of 2020, the former CEO’s plan to make Jeni’s more anti-racist was to create a bunch of in-house committees team members were expected to join (in addition to the jobs we were hired for) without providing us any anti-racism training or additional time/money to participate.
TL;DR: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Will Likely Be Forced to Sell Because No Competent Businessperson Wants to Deal with Jeni’s Unhinged Bullshit.
Don’t fall for the mirage peddled by this local business. They exploit and are designed to prevent any unionization efforts.
If you want fancy ice cream, go to Cincinnati-based Graeter’s.
It tastes better and it’s cheaper.
THOSE WMDs. Teaching myself calculus at age 65… The rise of dog-napping… The haves and the have-yachts… The expensive, awkward, and sometimes romantic matchmaking of D.C.’s elite… How to survive three days in the wilderness… What does. it really mean to live beyond your means?
Interesting DJ. A few years ago my wife and I bought tickets to see Food Author and Chef Samin Nosrat speak at an event put on the by the Upper Arlington Library Foundation. After her talk (which was great) there was an interview/Q&A session which was moderated by Jeni. We were dismayed that instead of letting the featured speaker (who we paid to see) do most of the talking, Jeni continued to interrupt and interject things about herself and her business into the "conversation". As my wife said later - "I didn't pay to hear someone talk about f*king Salty Carmel".
This is one of the insane and interesting reads. Keep it up! You’re getting noticed on the r/Columbus subreddit.