A luxury bus idled on Sargent’s Wharf in Boston earlier this month as a groggy group of 16 strangers boarded for a long ride to Vermont. But they weren’t going on a late-season ski trip — this was an ice cream-tasting expedition.
Some of the travelers had lodged complaints with premium ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s — quibbles about such things as unpleasant texture or uneven flavor. In response, the company decided to bring some of them to its manufacturing plant in Waterbury, Vt., where they could weigh in on what happened and whether their concerns had been addressed.
“I complained about a pint of Half Baked,” said Scott White, 24, a carpenter from Framingham. Six months ago, he dipped a spoon into a pint of the stuff — chocolate and vanilla ice cream studded with fudge brownies and chocolate chip cookie dough — and found the brownies “hard and powdery.”
White let the company know by e-mail, which prompted Ben & Jerry’s usual response to a dissatisfied customer: a coupon for more ice cream, plus a refund check. Six months later, however, he got something much better: an invitation to take a behind-the-scenes look at how his favorite ice cream is made.
“It’s like a Willy Wonka-type journey into a factory and I’ve got a golden ticket,” said White, who brought along a friend from Falmouth.
The journey and visit were an “attempt to say, ‘We heard you and you are right,’ ” said Kelly Mohr, a Ben & Jerry’s spokesman. “We didn’t want to just take the complaint; we wanted to move it further.”
Out of 25,000 e-mails, phone calls, and letters the company receives every year, 30 percent are negative, according to Wendy Steager, Ben & Jerry’s consumer affairs manager. In this case, because Boston is one of Ben & Jerry’s biggest markets, it decided to treat eight disgruntled customers and their guests to a day in Waterbury to meet company “flavor gurus,” tour the factory floor, and receive what most people who make the pilgrimage to the popular tourist destination here never get: a backstage pass to what Steager considers “sacred ground.”
“We are the kind of company that takes what customers say seriously,” she said.
And with some stores selling Ben & Jerry’s pints for more than $5 in a still-fragile economy, keeping core customers satisfied is especially crucial these days.
Though owned by global giant Unilever, which has 400 brands — including Lipton, Dove, and Hellmann’s — Ben & Jerry’s is willing to take risks, said Steager. “We take every piece of feedback to help improve our product.”
In Waterbury, the Boston-area visitors gathered in a colorful conference room where quality manager Melissa Corcia told them what went wrong with the pint of Pistachio Pistachio that Leslie Gerhat of Waltham bought last summer.
The nuts “were roasted a little too long; they were a little stale,” Corcia said. To correct that and ensure freshness, she said, the company has changed the way it roasts pistachios.
Like most of the consumers on the trip, the “terrible” pint Gerhat purchased did not sour her on a favorite treat.
“If you are a lifelong fan of something, instead of saying, ‘I got bad pistachios; I will never have that again,’ I’m more inclined to voice my opinions,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to influence a company that I care about.”
Part of the reason the company rolled out the red carpet for this group was to “help them understand how critically important it is for us to hear their feedback and do something with it,” said Steager.
Flavor guru Eric Fredette sliced pints in half to demonstrate what company inspectors look for in quality-control checks: pistachios that go all the way through and a harmonious marriage of ingredients.
After trying a fresh scoop of Pistachio Pistachio, Gerhat was all smiles. “This is night and day. Tastes like you are eating real pistachios,” she said.
Next, the visitors were given lab coats, hairnets, and safety vests so they could go on the manufacturing floor during production. As pints of Half Baked zipped by on conveyor belts, the rhythmic beat of ice cream being pumped into pints and lids fastened by machines filled the room. The group peered into blend tanks, saw homogenizers, and even tossed in a few ingredients.
As she dropped cookie dough into a chunk feeder, Alyce Delbridge of Somerville said her poor experience with banana peanut butter frozen Greek yogurt had become a distant memory. “It’s nice to know that someone will be eating the cookie dough that I dumped in,” she said.
To longtime employees like archivist Lisa Wernhoff, the event was “the odd kind of thing Ben and Jerry would do.”
Founded by childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in a gas station in Burlington, Vt., in 1978, the company still adheres to what it believes are progressive values. It is the only Unilever operation that still has its own board of directors, said Wernhoff.
“It’s a company within a company, instead of a brand owned by a company,” she said.
Wernhoff remembers the early days, when Greenfield would respond to each customer complaint in writing. “From the day we started, we’ve always been concerned about the complaints we got. Whether they like us or hate us,” she said.
Many hours later, as the bus pulled into Boston, there was nary a whiff of hate in the air.
“I’ve never seen a company do this type of thing,” said Gerhat. “It makes me even more inclined to buy their products.”
But potential future complainers out there should not expect similar treatment. Ben & Jerry’s does not plan to incorporate Vermont junkets into its business plan.
“It’s one time only,” Steager said.
Cream of the crop
- Boston is one of the top five markets for packaged super premium ice cream.
- In 1981, Boston became the first major city to sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
- In 2012, sales of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were up 13 percent in Boston grocery stores.