Food has always been our binding tie - food and our girth; We were the slowest, fattest kids in gym class

Rosanna Greenstreet
Sunday 28 May 1995 00:02 BST

Ben Cohen, 44, was born on Long Island. He went to university in New York, but dropped out in 1972. After a string of jobs, including being a cab driver, he opened Ben & Jerry's first ice-cream shop with Jerry Greenfield in 1978. Separated with one daughter, he lives alone in Vermont. Jerry Greenfield, 44, was also born and brought up on Long Island. Having graduated from college in Ohio, he failed to get into medical school. He worked as a lab technician in New York before co-founding Ben & Jerry's. Married with one son, he lives near Ben Cohen in Vermont.

BEN COHEN: I met Jerry running around the track in seventh grade gym class. We were the two slowest, fattest kids in the class. I liked him because he was funny and smart, and you could count on him. One of the first things we did together was go on a long bike trip. We took a tent and camped out, which was lots of fun.

When we were seniors in high school, we used to drive around in our cars and listen to our stereos. As we were both fat kids, we didn't have too many girlfriends. We used to eat a lot, and dreamed of cruising Sunrise Highway - the big street in Long Island - and eating at all the fast food places along it.

After Jerry graduated from college he came to live with me in New York. He is good to live with, except that he always maintains that I'm the sloppy guy, and that he just lowers his level of cleanliness to meet mine. He also snores and tends to go to bed early, but has the consideration to sleep with his pillow over his head.

In New York Jerry and I were the two ne'er-do-wells of our crowd - all our friends had real jobs. Jerry wanted to be a doctor but was rejected by all the medical schools he applied to. I wanted to be a potter, but, after going to a lot of craft shows and trying to sell my pottery, I realised that nobody was ever going to buy it. In the past we had talked about opening a restaurant, but never seriously. Appreciating that we needed to do something, we started considering the idea for real.

We talked to people who knew about the business and they said that restaurants were always going out of business, and we would have a better chance of success with a limited menu. So we looked around for something that was popular. Bagels and home-made ice-cream were starting to happen in the big cities, but we couldn't decide which to go into. One day we went into a place selling used restaurant equipment, and we worked out that it would cost $40,000 to get into the bagel business. We figured ice- cream had to be cheaper, so we took a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream technology and started making ice-cream in our kitchen.

Jerry and I were living together in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the time, and originally that's where we planned to open our ice-cream shop. Somebody beat us to it, so we left town and ended up in Vermont. There we started our first ice-cream parlour with $6,000. We were each supposed to have saved up $4,000. Jerry saved up his but I only got to $2,000.

We bought a dilapidated gas station with holes in the roof and renovated it ourselves. Every afternoon the local newspaper sold off sheets of aluminium used in the printing process for 10 cents each. We tacked the sheets over the holes and then smeared roofing tar over the cracks. For the first spring, summer and winter the roof was fine but the following spring - with all the freezing and thawing - the roof started leaking. Because there was still snow on the roof we couldn't fix it, so we rigged up this big sheet of plastic under the ceiling. The drips formed a big pool and then drained through a hole in the plastic into a tray on top of a ladder. A hose took the water from the tray to a sink at the back of the gas station. That's kind of how the whole place worked.

Jerry was the chief ice-cream maker and I was the chief crepe and soup maker. As you can see, the soups and crepes were a lot less successful than the ice-cream. I wanted to have really big chunks of cookies and candies in our ice-cream, which meant we couldn't have many chunks. Jerry wanted to have a lot of smaller chunks. Finally, we compromised on a lot of very big chunks, to the joy of our customers and the consternation of our accountants.

When we first started, it was just a lark. We never expected to have anything more than that one home-made ice-cream shop, but now Jerry and I are millionaires - on paper. Our relationship hasn't changed at all: we still hang out at each other's houses and we still like to eat. Food has always been our binding tie - food and our girth. Two or three times a week we go out - anywhere from trendy restaurants to Papaya King, which is a stand in New York where you can get two hot dogs and a papaya drink for a $1.95. We are both still chubby, although I think lately Jerry is the more rotund.

To me Jerry personifies the company. He has an incredibly warm, caring personal style, and he spends a lot of time with our employees. He came up with the idea for the "joy gang", a group of employees who think of ways for people to have fun while they are working. We have had clash- dressing day and Elvis Day, when everyone dressed as Elvis and Elvis impersonators showed up. Barbecues are organised, and a massage programme has been instituted whereby professional massagers come by and rub people. Jerry is more involved in the joy gang than I; but I eat as much as I can and get rubbed as often as I can.

JERRY GREENFIELD: Ben and I met when we were 13 years old. We were the slowest, fattest kids in gym class. Everybody else was running around the track, way in front of us. The coach was yelling at us and Ben was yelling back; I thought that was extremely entertaining. Ben and I grew up in the same town and had similar backgrounds: my father was a stockbroker, Ben's was an accountant. The main difference between us was that I always followed the rules and did what I was supposed to - Ben was the kind of guy who didn't do his homework and didn't even offer an excuse.

When we got to high school Ben organised his own religion, which was pretty interesting. It was called "Cruxism", because we had a history teacher who kept talking about the "crux" of everything. Ben was chief of this tribe which consisted of two people, him and another guy. They used to make sacrifices to the great god Crux - burnt offerings of pork chops and things. I wasn't actually a member of the tribe, but, as a friend of the tribe, I went along.

After high school I went to college in Ohio and Ben went to college in upstate New York, but he dropped out. He came to visit me in Ohio and never went back. He lived in my room and sold sandwiches in the dormitories at night. After a month Ben went back to New York and enrolled in a programme called "University Without Walls", which was very unstructured and progressive. He didn't actually have to go to class, the world was his campus - but he dropped out of that, too - too much structure for old Ben.

After I got out of college, I went to live with Ben in New York. We have lived together several times and the one thing that annoys me about him is that he likes to take off his shoes and rub his feet together. Another thing about Ben is that he can't smell that well. We had a toaster which didn't pop up automatically and he could never smell when things were burning.

Ben had various jobs in New York - he was a cab driver, a short-order cook and a craft teacher. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, but he had no interest in that whatsoever - he wanted to be a potter. I wanted to go to medical school but, after I was rejected, I became a lab technician.

When we were 25 we realised that we'd like to do something where we could work together. Since we'd always liked to eat, we thought we'd do something with food. We took a correspondence course in ice-cream technology. They sent you a text book and at the end of each chapter there was a test. You were allowed to look up your answers in the chapter and then you mailed them to your professor who graded them. Naturally we got 100 per cent in all the tests - at last we had found a type of education that we really excelled at.

In 1978 we bought the gas station in Vermont which became our first ice- cream parlour. It was a wreck: we fixed it up ourselves and did it very inexpensively. We had tables inside and out, a self-playing piano, and we made the ice-cream in an old rock salt freezer in the front window.

We liked to think the place had a lot of character, which is a nice way of saying that it wasn't much to look at.

When we started the business it was a lark. We used to say we'd do it for a few years and then become cross-country truck drivers. Neither of us had much interest in accounting and we didn't make any money for the first three years. One day we took a day off to see if we could discover why we could barely pay our bills. We figured out that we were scooping too much into the cones. If you over-scoop by just half an ounce your profit is gone.

The business started growing one winter, when nobody was buying ice- cream cones because it was minus 20 degrees. We bought an old ice-cream truck and started to deliver to local restaurants. Then Ben had the idea that we should package our ice-cream in pint containers and sell it to the grocery stores we passed on the way to the restaurants. That's how we got into manufacturing and distribution.

Ben is the creative driving-force of the company, and I am in the supportive role. A classic entrepreneur, Ben is a real risk-taker - and he is never satisfied, which is great for the business. I am pretty cautious, and without Ben as a partner I would never have started the ice-cream business and experienced all this great stuff. 8

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