By Linda McK. Stewart
As eruptions go, it doesn’t come close to Vesuvius or Mount Etna or even to the biggie at Mount St. Helens. But, the Great Chocolate Explosion at Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory certainly left a lifelong impression on all who were there.
It was early June in Waterbury, Vt., hometown of Ben & Jerry’s factory. As part of their school’s cultural enrichment program, 48 second-graders were on a field trip to view the facility. While the kids were peering down on the production line from a glass-enclosed viewing platform, it happened. Suddenly, with no prior warning, a gasket blew on a 1,000-gallon blending tank. There was a huge woosh and a tsunami of chocolate ice cream swept the production area, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. At once every white-garbed worker was totally chocolate-coated from head-to-toe. It was a truly awesome, truly memorable sight. On the spot the kids, watching in delight, determined that as soon as they finished school, they would go right to work at Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory.
The Ben & Jerry’s factory, located 30 miles east of Burlington, attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. That makes it the state’s second most popular tourist site, just behind the Shelburne Museum. Perched just off the highway on the side of a hill, the place looks like a farm machinery outlet that hasn’t gotten around to paving its parking lots. In summer cars chug through the deep dust, which in late winter and all through the spring turns into a good Vermont mud wallow. But that doesn’t stop the visitors who pull in – on a good day, as many as 800 to 900, many of them with kids.
The Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory tour begins in a small lobby from which visitors are shepherded upstairs to a viewing room for a 10-minute Moovie. (Get it?) It’s a whacky, upbeat pitch that tells the tale of how a couple of Vermont hippies (born and raised on Long Island) turned a hand-cranked ice-cream freezer into a $30-million a year business in less than 10 years. It’s the kind of success story everybody loves to love. When the lights come up, everyone is grinning. The kids grin because they know ice-cream cones are only minutes away. The grown-ups grin because now they know that the road to riches is easily attained and that every mile is paved with guffaws.
With the cheery image of Ben and Jerry, a couple of good guys in beards, flannel shirts and baggy pants, fading on the screen, the tour moves out onto the glass-fronted walkway that overlooks the factory floor. Down below, a half-dozen workers in white coveralls hustle around through a Rube Goldberg landscape of stainless steel tanks, pipes and gauges, happily doing what’s necessary to turn out 1,500 gallons an hour of super premium ice cream. No one down there looks very hassled. In fact, they look as if they’re having a fine time, an effect that’s heightened as every once in a while one of them glances up and waves.
An engaging guide, who looks more like a high school cheerleader than an accessory to Vermont’s burgeoning tourist industry, divulges the facts: All heavy cream comes from a St. Albans dairy cooperative. No preservatives, no additives. No hormones. Happy, happy cows. Currently the three top favorite ice cream flavors are Heath Bar Crunch, New York Super Fudge Chunk and Cherry Garcia.
Departing the observation deck, the tour passes a life-size rag doll, bundled up in arctic gear, laid out atop one of the holding tanks with a hand-printed sign around its neck that says “Many Are Cold, Few Are Frozen.”
The tour ends in a lavishly stocked gift and souvenir shop, where mammoth ice-cream cones are sold at the “scoop window.”
In August 2006, Ben & Jerry’s was purchased by Unilever, a British–Dutch multinational consumer goods company. Despite being folded into a global corporate giant, Ben & Jerry’s has retained its unique identity as an all-Vermont enterprise. Quite a few employees have been with the company since its inception. Today it is estimated that one in every seven Vermonters has a financial share in it, either directly as a hands-on worker or indirectly in the form of investment. But thus far, no data as to how many of those Vermonters are chocolate-coated.
BEN & JERRY’S: The ice-cream factory is open 7 days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours run every 15 minutes during the summer, less often at other times of the year. From Exit 10 on I-89, head north on Rte. 100 toward Stowe. Ben & Jerry’s is 1 mile from the interstate on the left. For more information: Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, P.O. Box 240, Waterbury, Vt. 05676. The telephone number is 802-882-1240.