Ten important questions for a Ben & Jerry’s “flavor guru”

At the office.
At the office.
Image: AP Photo/Toby Talbot
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It’s basically everyone’s dream job: Think about ice cream, make ice cream, eat ice cream—and take home three pints a day if you want.

At Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s, between 10 and 12 “flavor gurus” are at any given time helping to invent the irreverent new flavors with which the company has become synonymous. They “boldly go where no ice cream makers have gone before,” jokes the Ben & Jerry’s website. But what do flavor gurus actually do?

One such guru, 31-year-old Chris Rivard (official title: global product development manager) has been working at the company for five years, after studying nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. Rivard sat down with Quartz to explain his unique workday, a blend of culinary innovation, research & development logistics, and channeling the tastebuds of developing markets around the world.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Walk me through the creation of one of your flavors.

Probably the most recent was Save our Swirled, which we did around our climate justice campaign. That was our first global flavor in every region, all launched within the same year and the same campaign.

[First], I had to find ingredients and concepts that would work in any region, which is honestly the hardest part. So we had a lot of discussions between R&D and brand all around the world, [conversations like] “Will fudge work in your market?”

We finally locked in the flavor concept of what it would be. Then I went into the kitchen. I started making two or three iterations of the flavor, which was a raspberry ice cream with a raspberry-and-marshmallow swirl and chocolate-cone pieces that looked like the melting earth, which was our campaign image. Then I worked on what the flavor itself would look like, in terms of the design. I actually worked with a supplier on that to have a custom chocolate piece just for us.

Who weighs in on the process?

It’s never me just saying, “It’s good.” We’ll include brands or people from the supply chain and procurement groups to make sure they’re okay with ingredient sourcing. At some point, we’ll go to our R&D director and our chief marketing officer; they always have the final approvals. And then ultimately our CEO likes to be involved, but I think he just likes the ice cream. (laughs) 

If you’re lucky, everyone loves it after the first try. Almost never happens. There’s always discussions: It’s too sweet. The swirl needs to change. The texture. Or it’s too crunchy. For any flavor, there’s usually at least three to five iterations that are presented to a group. And I might make something two or three times on my own before I’m ready to present it to a team.

Ben & Jerry’s is famous for its ice cream names. Who decides those?

So, I name all the flavors. (laughs) Just kidding. Sometimes we create flavors for a need. Like Save our Swirled—that name kind of came out of the campaign a bit.

Our normal pint flavors we tend to name through brainstorming. Marketing definitely leads that discussion; they own what the final name will be. But they always involve people of any function that want to participate, even finance and consumer services. We usually have snacks and stuff; it’s a fun half hour or hour and people can pop in and throw out weird, crazy names that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

How do you develop new flavors for the rest of the world?

It is tough because we’re in Vermont and we’re very sheltered from a lot of international foods. When it’s for a market that isn’t the US, I rely on people on the ground there. I have R&D counterparts that sit in each region. For example, in Japan, we have an R&D team that started with zero ice cream experience, and they’re now sending me flavor ideas for their local flavors six to eight times a year.

We did black tea sesame, we did a purple potato—that was one of my favorites that we did there. We’ve done yuzu fruit, a pear-y sort of fruit. We’ve tried to do some local fruits there. And then we did mini cups this year that weren’t too far from the normal Ben & Jerry’s flavors, trying to get the consumer used to inclusions. Things like peanut butter; that’s one we did this year for [Japan]. It’s not something they see in ice cream. (Editor’s note: Mini cups are single-serving 4-oz cups popular in snack bars and convenience stores. Inclusions are add-ins like chocolate chips.)

We’ve been in Japan four or five years now, and it is by far the toughest market to crack. It has challenges everywhere you look because the precision around products is unbelievable. Everything has to be perfect.

I read that sometimes you go on “trend treks”? What does that mean?

A lot of fun, a lot of eating. The R&D team, we basically go as a group to some city for a few days, a week, and we just eat. We wake up in the morning, we have a cup of coffee, and then we just start eating.

We’re eating ice cream, we’re eating sandwiches. Anything that has kind of a trending food culture around it, we try and go after it to see what it’s like. It’s not about finding an idea and replicating it; that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be inspired with trends or cocktails or things that we think we could translate into something else.

What’s an example of a flavor that came from a trend trek?

I think the last one we did was Portland, [Oregon]. We had Greek yogurts, and we did a blueberry lavender swirl in one of them. And that came from a group of us at a cocktail bar before dinner. We were just trying a bunch of drinks, and they had this drink that had some sort of blueberry lavender infusion in it, and it was absolutely fantastic. We literally just took that idea, came home to a supplier, and said, “Can you make this into a swirl? What can you do with this?”

On that trip we also saw a lot of burnt sugar, although we haven’t done much with it yet. Like everywhere, we were shocked that everything was burnt.

Taste is very subjective. Do you feel like you have to overcome your personal flavor preferences?

All the time. I hate green tea ice cream. I think it’s gross, but I can make a fantastic green tea ice cream. I know what it should taste like, I know what the attributes should be. When I had to work with Japan, we made a local green tea ice cream that is absolutely fantastic, but I won’t touch it more than I have to in development; it’s not my go-to. And I can’t stand banana. I think it’s gross, but I know what Chunky Monkey tastes like. I know what a good banana ice cream should taste like. 

We hear Ben & Jerry’s employees can take home up to three pints a day. Do you take advantage of that?

I wouldn’t say I take home three pints every single day, but my freezer is always filled with ice cream—as well as my neighbor’s, as well as my family’s, as well as anyone who wants to be friends with me. Within our community, it’s great to share that, and I’m lucky because I’m in R&D so I have my own secret stash of ice creams as well. 

Is there a flavor you wish could have gotten made but never did?

When I first started, I was all about making that flavor that everyone’s going to fall in love with. I think we’re still looking for the next cookie dough. But I was convinced that I was going to make a cheddar cheese apple pie flavor. Growing up with my family in New England, eating apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese was a very traditional thing.

So I made a really great apple pie ice cream with chunks of cinnamon apple in it, and I made this cheddar shortbread that was a chunk inside. And it was really great. People liked it, but I think once you get outside New England no one would ever think about that combination. I think we all have these fun, regional, or super crazy ideas that we know are not going to sell across the nation but are still fun to make and try.

What about flavors where you look back and think, “That was a terrible idea?”

We did a lot of work on savory things. We were trying everything. Ranch, I know was one that was tried once, and it was just gross.