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Nestled on a rolling pasture amid the lush flora and fauna of Vermont's Green Mountains, the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury at first appears incongruous with its stunning surroundings.
But after touring the facility and tasting the ice cream, the fit becomes clear. Not only do visitors learn on the tour about the extent to which the company goes to preserve the surrounding environment, but the taste test at the end reveals natural perfection that rivals only the beauty of the factory's picturesque backdrop.
The weight I gained during the extended taste test granted to a privileged member of the media did not diminish my joy or wipe the smile off my sticky face.
The Ben & Jerry's factory is located about a half-hour drive from the small Burlington, Vermont, airport, a scenic hour-and-a-half ride from the larger airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, and about three hours away from Boston. Although the guided tour is conducted in English, a Hebrew script is available.
The half-hour factory tour teaches Ben & Jerry's unique philosophy, explains the process of making ice cream, and recounts the history of the company that was founded in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two fat Jewish kids born four days apart who became best friends as 12-year-olds in seventh grade gym class in the Long Island town of Merrick, New York.
Cohen and Greenfield originally wanted to open up a bagel factory, but the equipment was too expensive. So they took a 10-day correspondence course in ice cream-making that cost just $5 - and the rest is delicious history.
Ben and Jerry opened their first scoop shop in a dilapidated gas station in Burlington in 1978 with a $12,000 investment ($4,000 of it borrowed). Five years later, they opened up their first out-of-state franchise in nearby Maine, started selling pints in stores in Boston, and built the world's largest sundae, weighing 12,293 kg.
The company has since expanded to 26 countries, arriving in Israel with its flagship Dizengoff Street branch in 1988. While the company was forced to close its 15 countrywide stores after the Palestinian violence of the second intifada scared away its primary clientele - tourists - it is now making a comeback.
The first Ben and Jerry's store in Israel opened with great fanfare on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street in 1988. It was followed by another 15 branches, including three in Jerusalem and one that Jerry Greenfield arrived to open personally in Netanya.
But the Palestinian wave of violence that broke out in 2000 scared away the tourists that were the ice cream stores' primary clientele and frightened the parents of the young people who scooped the ice cream. The branches gradually closed - the last one just two years ago, leaving only the outlet store at the company's factory in Yavneh.
"We closed the stores when the tourists stopped coming at the height of the Intifada," said Avi Zinger, CEO of American Quality Products Ltd., the brand's marketer in Israel. "Instead we focused on production for supermarkets. But now the retail market has come back and so have the tourists, so we have been thinking for a while that the time has arrived for a comeback."
The first new branch opened in Tel Aviv's Cinema City earlier this year. Another will soon open in the new Cinema City in Rishon Letzion, and Zinger is searching for the right location in Jerusalem.
While Israeli supermarkets sell some 15 flavors of Ben and Jerry's in pints, the ice cream stores have 22 flavors that will constantly change. Zinger said that whenever a flavor is removed he gets angry calls and emails.
There is no factory tour in Yanveh like there is in Vermont, but Zinger said there likely would be when the factory eventually moves to facilitate the expansion.
The Israeli branch of Ben and Jerry's also participates in the social action of the parent company. For instance, it recently ran an entrepreneurial project for young people in Sderot. But Zinger said that unlike Ben and Jerry, he is cautious not to do anything too political that could harm sales.
Zinger learned his lesson in 1998 when as a marketing gimmick to sell sorbet, he issued a press release saying that he would make it with Eden Mineral Water. After the story ran in Ha'aretz, it led to international protests against Ben and Jerry's using occupied Syrian water from the Golan Heights.
When the press contacted the Vermont headquarters of the company, it responded that that it would tell its Israeli licensee to stop using the water. This led to headlines that Ben and Jerry's was "boycotting Israeli settlements," a charge Zinger vehemently denied.
"There are people who still don't buy Ben and Jerry's because of those incorrect reports," Zinger said. "What Ben and Jerry can allow themselves, I can't. I have to be super-careful. It's a different world over here."
BEN & JERRY'S sales reached $237 million in 1999, before Ben and Jerry's shareholders voted in 2000 to accept a $326m. offer from Dutch food giant Unilever, the world's largest ice cream maker, to buy the company.
Despite the sale, the company has continued promoting its social message. Cohen and Greenfield are still involved with the company and periodically attend its special events.
"They are such cool guys and so down-to-earth," said company spokeswoman Liz Brenna, who goes by the title PR Chick. "When you speak to them, you wouldn't know that these are the guys who founded the company."
Yet don't expect to meet either Ben or Jerry on the factory tour. It's not Disney World.
When the tour begins, the sound of mooing cows serves as background noise on the way into what is called the "mooovie" in the factory's Cow Over the Moon Theater. The company is proud that they produce 250,000 pints of ice cream a day, using 5.5 million gallons of milk a year, which they receive from a local cooperative of 500 Vermont family farms. They pay the farmers more in return for a commitment not to use synthetic bovine growth hormones.
The factory has down to a science the right temperatures and times for adding chunks of chocolate, fruit, nuts and cookie dough to ice cream so that they mix properly and evenly. They brag about using more than 200 million pounds (90.7 million kg.) of cookie dough since they started making it.
There's a separate machine for adding swirls of fudge, caramel and marshmallow. Ice cream deemed sub-par by quality control people is given away to workers, who get to take home three pints a day, every day that they work.
New flavors are constantly being developed and contests are held for innovative suggestions. The latest include Chocolate Macadamia, Mission to Marzipan, Triple Caramel Chunk and Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road.
More than 350 flavors have been retired, 26 of which have tombstones in the factory's flavor graveyard, which is a nice place for a picnic where you can have your main course and side dishes after eating your dessert on the tour.
Everyone on the tour gets a free scoop at the end in the Flavoroom, which has 37 flavors that periodically change. The staff member behind the counter said she had already tried all of them in the few weeks she had worked there.
The tour emphasizes the company's mission statement: "We seek and support nonviolent ways to achieve peace and justice. We believe government resources are more productively used in meeting human needs than in building and maintaining weapons systems."
To that end, Ben & Jerry's has been involved in efforts to encourage Middle East peace. For instance, in 1988 the company started selling what it called peace pops. One percent of the proceeds from sales of the pops went to peace initiatives.
To further its peace-focused campaign, Ben & Jerry's recently held a nationwide search in the US to identify modern-day peace activists who embody the values set forth by John Lennon through their work to create positive change in the world.
One of the people who won the "peace pioneer prize" of $10,000 and a huge amount of ice cream was Robert Kent, founder of the Peace Camp Initiative - a program that provides summer camp experiences for Israeli and Palestinian children at Camp Susquehannock in Atherton, California.
Byron Murray, who runs the Israel Center of Vermont and is the state's top Israel advocate, said he was not aware of Cohen and Greenfield's involvement in local Jewish life but that he has had a positive experience with the latter.
"Greenfield is a warm, easy-going person with a very personable demeanor," Murray said. "I am proud that Ben & Jerry's comes from the great state of Vermont."