Forty years ago, when Ben & Jerry’s opened for their first day on May 5, 1978, the ice cream scene in the United States didn’t look quite like it does today.
In fact, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who had grown up together on Long Island, N.Y., were at the forefront of a superpremium ice cream trend that was still small but gaining steam. And, though they seemed to have stumbled onto ice cream by accident, their timing was remarkable. In the years that followed, they and their fellows would change the taste of American ice cream.
The market for superpremium ice cream — which often uses natural ingredients, has less air churned in (making the ice cream more dense) and has higher butterfat content — was at the time led by Häagen-Dazs, which was already a leader in the field, having started in 1961 and opened their first scoop shop in 1976.
But leading the luxury ice creams wasn’t leading the whole market, as TIME wrote in a 1981 cover story about ice cream. In 1980, Häagen-Dazs produced 40 million pints (about 5 million gallons), which was just a small fraction of the total American production of more than 829 million gallons of ice cream. Stats from 1979 also gave some context: in a $1.6 billion industry, the single biggest market share went to Dart & Kraft (maker of Sealtest and Breyers) at 12.2%, followed by Borden’s 9.3%. Lever Bros. (Good Humor) was Number 7 with 2.3% of the market. Put together, the most expensive brands of ice creams only comprised a total 11% of the market.
But those better-tasting, more costly brands were gaining ground: though ice cream sales overall had increased only 1% in a year, the luxury sector had increased 17%.
Cohen and Greenfield initially weren’t planning to become major leaders in superpremium ice cream. But Cohen wasn’t having much luck selling his pottery and Greenfield had been rejected by medical schools, so they agreed to open some kind of store together. They incorporated their business in 1977, initially thinking of opening a bagel shop. When the machinery costs for bagels were too high, they instead invested in a $5 course in ice cream making at Penn State (famously attended by ice cream makers of all sizes). With $4,000 from each — including help from Cohen’s father, who paid half his share — and another $4,000 from a bank loan, they got to work converting a gas station in Burlington to suit their needs.
Both were 27 years old when they opened in May 1978, at the start of the summer season. But, because Vermont isn’t always weather-suited to frozen dessert shops, Ben also made crêpes, soups and other food while Jerry was in charge of the ice cream. In 1979 they dropped the other food—the ice cream was a success, the crêpes not so much.
From the start they were focused on intensely flavored, chunky and creative ice creams, because, as Cohen told the New York Times in 1994, “I’ve never had a very good sense of smell, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have a good sense of taste. When we began, the game was for Jerry to make a flavor I could taste with my eyes closed. To do that he had to make ice creams that were intensely flavored.” Not all of their early ice creams were successful, as Cohen told LIFE in 1987: “We tried and failed with our first batch of Rum Raisin in 1977. It was rubbery. You put a spoon in it and the spoon pulled back.” But they managed to fix that problem.
TIME opened that 1981 ice cream cover story like so: “What you must understand at the outset is that Ben & Jerry’s, in Burlington, Vt., makes the best ice cream in the world.” Ben & Jerry’s didn’t hesitate to push that marketing hit, though TIME went on to deliver equal superlatives to a handful of other ice cream scoopers. “Ice cream is our drug of choice, and butterfat—the word itself is dizzyingly lovely and globulous—is the occasion of our guiltiest and most delicious sin,” the story also declared.
Ben & Jerry’s also had an extra distinguishing factor. Where Häagen-Dazs’s faux-Scandinavian name added to their high-end image, as TIME noted in 1985, Cohen and Greenfield “tried to create an image of simple-down home wholesomeness.” That image went right down to the picture on the cartons, showing “a picture of the two bespectacled, bushy-haired owners, who look like refugees from a ’60s commune.” And it was working, the story explained:
For years they kept the top salary at their company no more than five times larger than the lowest paid worker’s salary. (Their highest salary is now somewhere between 11 and 15 time the lowest full-time employee’s, according to a 2017 B-corp assessment.)
Expanding from their scoop shop to wholesale deliveries in 1979, the pair quickly brought their frosty wares to the northeast and soon enough across the U.S. By 1987 they had a $30 million empire, with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in 35 states, and in 1994 — the year Cohen stepped down as CEO — they hit $150 million.
Today the market is changing again. Though rich, indulgent superpremium ice creams are still top sellers, consumers are also looking for “healthier” desserts. Last summer, low-calorie Halo Top beat both Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs as top seller among grocery store pints of ice cream.
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