• Unilever said Tuesday that it will spin off its ice cream brands, including Ben & Jerry’s.

  • It’s the latest change for Ben & Jerry’s, which was founded by two childhood friends from Long Island.

  • Here’s the story of Ben & Jerry’s, from a gas station in Vermont to global distribution.

Consumer goods giant Unilever seems ready to unload its ice cream business. That includes Ben & Jerry’s, a brand known for its creatively named flavors – and for taking sides politically.

While many companies keep away from social issues, Ben & Jerry’s has made weighing in part of its strategy. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, for example, the brand released a statement declaring: “We must dismantle white supremacy.”

Ben & Jerry’s has also participated in campaigns around voting rights and environmental preservation. Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have either been behind or supported many of the stances that the brand has taken.

Now, Unilever is reportedly planning to spin off Ben & Jerry’s, plus other ice cream brands, such as Magnum. The company acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000.

Here is a look at how the ice cream empire came to be and the men behind it.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the cofounders of Ben & Jerry’s, met in middle school in Long Island, New York.

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A street in Long Island, New York.Business Insider/Jessica Tyler

Cohen told the Washington Post in 2014 that he and Greenfield met when Greenfield passed out in gym class.

In an Independent story from 1995, Greenfield shared that he and Cohen come from similar backgrounds. Greenfield’s father was a stockbroker, while Cohen’s was an accountant. He added that he follows rules while Cohen has been known to break them.

Greenfield went to Oberlin College in Ohio and studied pre-med. Cohen went to college in upstate New York but dropped out in 1972.

Greenfield moved in with Cohen in New York after graduating from college.

Cohen and Greenfield wanted to open a bagel shop, but the equipment was too expensive. Instead, they opened an ice cream shop in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978.

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Greenfield and Cohen at their ice cream stand in Burlington, Vermont.Photo by Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Moving away from their plans to open a bagel shop together, Cohen and Greenfield decided to attend a $5 ice cream making course at Pennsylvania State University in 1978.

That May, the duo opened their first ice cream shop in a converted gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Each pitched in $4,000, and they got an additional $4,000 bank loan to do so, as Time’s Merrill Farby wrote in 2018.

They also sold other food items like crêpes and soup towards the beginning. By the following year, ice cream was the only thing on their menu.

Cohen told the New York Times in 1994 that since he has a poor sense of smell and taste, Greenfield made the flavors, and he tasted them blindly. The goal was to make flavors intense enough for Cohen to taste with his eyes closed.

“Because of this disability, I have an excellent sense of mouthfeel. Creaminess and crunchiness are very important to people who can’t taste,” Cohen added.

By 1980, they were selling pints in grocery stores.

Whole Foods Market Daily Shop Ben & Jerrys phish food on sale yellow sale tagWhole Foods Market Daily Shop Ben & Jerrys phish food on sale yellow sale tag

A yellow sale tag.Irene Jiang / Business Insider

In 1980, Ben & Jerry’s expanded to grocery stores when Cohen and Greenfield started packing their ice cream into pint-sized containers. Seven years later, the company had grown to become worth  $30 million.

The first flavor they experimented with was vanilla, according to the company website.

“Cherry Garcia” is one of the ice cream empire’s oldest flavors. Named after Grateful Dead vocalist and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1987, it features generous portions of cherries and fudge. The flavor was the second-most sold Ben & Jerry’s pint of 2019.

Ben & Jerry’s has collaborated on flavors with famous entertainers like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Dave Matthews Band.

Since at least 2014 the company has published annual flavor rankings on its site. The flavor “Half Baked” has been a longtime winner. It combines chocolate and vanilla ice cream with chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough and fudge brownies.

Ben & Jerry’s was the top-selling ice cream brand of 2022, per Statista.

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Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Ben & Jerry’s now has hundreds of scoop shops across the country. The brand brought in $911 million in sales in 2022, according to Statista.

While expanding its business, the company was also getting steadily involved with social issues and charitable causes.

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Ben & Jerry’s made Baked Alaska for a protest in Washington, DC, against drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on April 22, 2005.Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The history of the company’s involvement in social causes stretches back decades. In 1992, the ice cream company helped the Children’s Defense Fund, a national non-profit, send 70,000 postcards to Congress about prioritizing children’s basic needs.

In 1999, Ben & Jerry’s raised money for Childline, a kid’s counseling service in the U.K.

In 2004, Ben & Jerry’s worked with Rock the Vote to register 11,000 voters.

The company teamed up with Greenpeace and Alaska Wilderness League in 2005 to protest oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Two years later, the company protested the FDA’s declaration that cloned animals are safe to milk and eat.

During Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in 2011, Ben & Jerry’s released a statement in solidarity with protesters and distributed ice cream to protesters in Zuccotti Park.

In 2016, the company released a statement called “Why Black Lives Matter” calling out systemic racism.

Laura Peterson, Ben & Jerry’s Public “Elations” Manager, told Business Insider that Greenfield and Cohen like to support the company’s social mission activities and sometimes they make appearances at events.

In 1994, Cohen stepped down from his role as CEO. Six years later, the Dutch multinational conglomerate Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s.

FILE PHOTO: Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam, Netherlands August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de WouwFILE PHOTO: Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam, Netherlands August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

Unilever headquarters in Rotterdam.Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

In 1994, Cohen stepped down from his role as CEO. Six years later, the multinational conglomerate Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s.

In 1994, Cohen, who was the company’s first CEO, stepped down from the role. The New York Times reported that the company brought in about $150 million a year selling ice cream at the time.

Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s for $326 million in 2000, the Washington Post reported. The company didn’t cut any jobs.

Cohen and Greenfield remained employees of the company, and Cohen remained on the board of directors, according to Dairy Network.

”While I would have preferred for Ben & Jerry’s to remain independent, I’m excited about this next chapter,” Cohen said in a statement published in the NYT. His statement also included lyrics from a Grateful Dead song.

Ben & Jerry’s told CNN Business that when Unilever bought the ice cream company in 2000, it didn’t affect the company’s voice in social issues. At the time, Unilever committed to creating a $5 million fund to help minority-owned businesses and poor neighborhoods.

Peterson told BI that as of June 2020, Cohen and Greenfield are still Ben & Jerry’s employees. While they have no daily managerial responsibilities, they work on company projects that they choose.

Through decades of working together, the duo has managed to maintain a close friendship. Cohen and Greenfield shared a glimpse into their relationship in a 2015 Reddit Ask Me Anything.

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Cohen and Greenfield during a press conference in 2005.Scott Gries/Getty Images

In a Reddit AMA in 2015, Cohen and Greenfield answered questions about their company and relationship.

Greenfield said that both he and Cohen believe “business should be using its power to help address social and environmental issues, and not just making money.” That belief, Greenfield says, helped define the mission of the company.

Greenfield added that Cohen bond over their love for food.

At the same time, the duo shared, they have very different strengths. Greenfield says Cohen is more creative and spontaneous, while Cohen says Greenfield is more diplomatic.

Cohen and Greenfield also personally have a history of supporting social justice movements.

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Greenfield and Cohen join about 20 people sitting in front of the White House as part a rally demonstrating climate change awareness in 2019.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 2016, both Cohen and Greenfield were arrested amid “Democracy Awakening” protests in Washington, DC, aimed at protecting voter’s rights, among other issues, per a police report obtained by CNN.

In a statement about the arrest, the company said, “if you care about something, you have to be willing to risk it all—your reputation, your values, your business—for the greater good.”

Cohen was arrested while demonstrating against bringing F-35 fighter planes to the Air Force base in Burlington, Vermont, in 2018, Lt. Matthew Sullivan, a police officer told USA Today. Peterson told BI that Cohen’s arrest had nothing to do with the company and that he attended the protest as a private citizen.

The company’s decision to take a stance on social justice issues has helped build its brand, a former CEO told BI.

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Matthew McCarthy is the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s.Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Matthew McCarthy said in 2020 that Ben & Jerry’s takes its social mission seriously, explicitly stating its values and taking actions according to them.

What sets Ben & Jerry’s apart, McCarthy said, is that it was built on explicitly stated values genuinely felt by its founders and employees.

McCarthy added that consumers and employees will likely not believe you if you take an insincere route to issue alignment.

The company has released ice cream flavors like “Save Our Swirled” and “Justice Remix’d” that lean into social issues.

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Cohen and Greenfield announce a new flavor, Justice Remix’d, during a press conference in 2019Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 2015, Ben & Jerry’s released “Save Our Swirled,” a flavor dedicated to climate change awareness, and it renamed their Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavor  “I Dough, I Dough” to celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage.

“Back in 1989, we were the first company in Vermont to offer full benefits to same-sex partners of our employees,” Ben & Jerry’s said in a statement about the change.

In 2018, the company came out with “Pecan Resist” an ice cream flavor dedicated to resisting the “discriminatory policies” of President Donald Trump’s administration.

In September 2019, the ice cream empire came out with a flavor dedicated to addressing racial inequity called “Justice Remix’d.”

In 2020, Ben & Jerry’s released a statement called “Silence is NOT an option” in response to the killing of George Floyd.

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A person walks past Ben & Jerry’s on May 11, 2020, in New York City.Rob Kim/Getty Images

Ben & Jerry’s response to the killing of George Floyd included a clear description of how Floyd died and called on then-President Trump to denounce white supremacy.

The statement supported the family of George Floyd’s request for a national task force that prioritizes ending racial violence and holding police accountable.

Lastly, it called on the Department of Justice to better defend the rights of Black people and other people of color.

In 2021, Ben & Jerry’s said it would stop selling its ice cream in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.

An Israeli flag is set atop a delivery truck outside US ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's factory in Be'er Tuvia, on July 21, 2021An Israeli flag is set atop a delivery truck outside US ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry's factory in Be'er Tuvia, on July 21, 2021

An Israeli flag is set atop a delivery truck outside US ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s factory in Be’er Tuvia, on July 21, 2021Emmanuel Dunand / AFP

“We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT),” the company said in a statement released in July that year. The statement was a boost to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which aims to change the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

The move prompted criticism from politicians, including both Democrats and Republicans. Israeli officials also reportedly pressured Ben & Jerry’s as well as Unilever to reverse the decision.

All the while, Ben & Jerry’s kept selling ice cream in Israel.

The effects of Ben & Jerry’s decision lasted over a year and included a legal battle between the brand and Unilever.

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Brendan McDermid/File Photo/Reuters

After pushback, Unilever sold Ben & Jerry’s operations in Israel and the West Bank to a local businessman. Ben & Jerry’s sued its parent company over the deal, but a settlement at the end of 2022 kept it intact — and the brand’s ice cream on store shelves in the region, Reuters reported.

The companies disclosed few details of the settlement, with Unilever issuing a short statement that the lawsuit had “been resolved.”

It was a test for the corporate structure of Ben & Jerry’s, whose board was granted independence to pursue the company’s social mission when Unilever acquired the brand two decades earlier.

 

A 2023 investigation found that Ben & Jerry’s was one of many food companies that used migrant children as laborers to make its products.

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Shutterstock

The investigation, published in February of that year by The New York Times, found that children who had come to the US by crossing the border with Mexico were working full-time jobs in food supply chains — including one that provides Ben & Jerry’s milk for the brand’s ice cream.

The Times summarized the response of Cheryl Pinto, Ben & Jerry’s head of values-led sourcing, by saying: “If migrant children needed to work full time, it was preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.”

 

In March, Unilever said it would spin off its ice cream business, including Ben & Jerry’s.

Ben & Jerry's co-founders Ben Cohen (R) and Jerry Greenfield (L) serve ice cream following a press conference announcing a new flavor, Justice Remix'd.Ben & Jerry's co-founders Ben Cohen (R) and Jerry Greenfield (L) serve ice cream following a press conference announcing a new flavor, Justice Remix'd.

Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen (R) and Jerry Greenfield (L).Win McNamee/Getty Images

Unilever said in March 2024 that the spin-off would be complete by the end of 2025 and involve cutting 7,500 jobs across its whole ice cream portfolio. It wasn’t immediately clear how Ben & Jerry’s would be affected by the job cuts.

While the details of the plan weren’t clear, a demerger “is the most likely separation route,” the company said in its statement.

Regardless of its final form, the decision is poised to cap a quarter-century of Unilever’s ownership of Ben & Jerry’s.

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