When you're the Product Developer (a.k.a. Flavor Alchemist or Primal Ice Cream Therapist or Mixologist) at Ben & Jerry's, you're bound to hit a few rough spots. At such times - at all times - a good sense of humor helps. Just ask Peter Lind '75, the guy behind the development of Chubby Hubby, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Rain Forest Crunch and other popular Ben and Jerry's
flavors - and, sometimes, behind not so popular ones. . . like the rose-flavored ice cream.
"Ben (Ben Cohen, one of Ben & Jerry's co-founders) had been working with an unwed mothers group in India that produced rose extract," explains Peter. "To help them out, he wanted to develop a flavor that used the extract and tasted like a rose. So I'd create a batch and take it to him, and he'd say, 'I can't taste the rose!' So I'd put more rose extract in, and he'd say, 'Still not enough rose!' Actually, I thought the rose flavor was so strong that you could almost taste the thorns.
Anyway, I finally cheated a little and added some cherry sauce coloring. He still didn't think it tasted enough like a rose but agreed to test it. So we tested it at the Scoop Shop in Burlington and got lots of interesting comments, my favorite of which was: 'This stuff takes just like my grandmother's armpit!' Finally, Ben dropped the rose ice cream idea."
How does a once-shy lad brought up in Philadelphia's Main Line end up in a high profile job at one of America's most colorful, out-there companies? Why does a Bowdoin romance languages major experience fulfillment concocting wonderful, if sometimes off-the-wall, flavors of what is, some might argue, a frivolous food product?
To find out, I went to the source: the Ben & Jerry's corporate office in South Burlington, Vermont, the one with the blue awning in front and the sign that reads, "All Natural. Ben & Jerry's. Vermont's Finest." Peter Lind and I spent a few hours chatting in his small cubicle while Jack, his loyal corgi, slept at his feet.
"I cooked a lot in my room at Bowdoin; that was my main extracurricular activity," he explained, confessing that hot plates were illegal at the time. "My specialties were banana bread, minestrone soup, and chocolate chip cookies, but I also made egg rolls and did a lot of stir frying."
One summer, Peter lived in the Delta Sigma House with Brian Moody '75, whose family ran the popular Moody's Diner in Waldoboro. "My parents had given me an ice cream maker, so Brian and I decided to make different flavors of ice cream. The other guys in the house loved the ice cream - they really pounded it down - and they said that we should try selling it. So we started going down to the mall in Brunwick, where we'd chain our freezer to a tree, near the hot dog stand. We'd bring down two or three flavors - the best was Peanut Butter Banana Chocolate Chip - and everything was going just fine. But Deering's Ice Cream, right across the mall, got mad and reported us to the authorities. Some food inspector guy came, and we got kicked off the mall, because we had no permit or anything. I didn't really care, as I was already so busy that summer working as a waiter and a dishwasher at the Stowe House."
During his senior year, Peter lived in a yurt in Bowdoinham, Maine, one of six yurts on a site that had once served as a free school and, later, as rustic digs for a motorcycle gang. Peter quickly assumed cooking duties for his fellow yurters.
While living in the yurt, Peter learned that the Theater at Monmouth was seeking someone to cook for the summer theater apprentices. Peter applied for the job, although his "experience" was rather limited, and he landed the job. "The first summer I cooked for 20 actors, and by the third summer I was cooking for 50 actors! Believe me, that was the most interactive audience one could ever want - great training for my current job. I also learned to be creative with food, as I was on a very tight budget.
At the Theater at Monmouth, Peter developed an additional, heretofore hidden, talent: acting. "They were looking for someone to play a part in Othello, and I thought, 'What? I can't even talk!'" They promised Peter that he'd have only one line to memorize, so he took the part and went on to play in 23 performances. "That was something," he laughs, "I would be cooking on the first floor; then I'd have to drop everything to run upstairs and go through a scene; then run back downstairs to continue cooking."
Peter acted well enough, it turned out, to be granted later roles in Measure for Measure and Toad of Toad Hall. For a three-year period, when not cooking or acting at Monmouth, Peter took a variety of cooking jobs: at the Bakery Project and The Stowe House in Brunswick and at The Last Unicorn in Waterville.
Armed with a more experienced-laden resume, he moved to Boston in 1980, where he worked for The Black Forest of Cambridge ("my first real full-time cooking job") and, later, for Rebecca's on Charles Street. The grapevine then led him to Montpelier, Vermont, in 1984, where he worked for three years as a chef instructor and bakery manager at the New England Culinary Institute.
And then, serendipity struck. Several friends told Peter about an ad for a job at Ben & Jerry's. "They thought the job sounded perfect for me. The ad said that they were looking for someone who liked to play with their food and was good at keeping records. I loved playing with my food, and I figured I could learn to keep good records."
So Peter applied, along with more than 100 others who liked to play with their food, and he made the cut to five finalists. "We then had to write what we'd do if we were put in charge of R & D. I wrote that I'd get an RV outfitted with a kitchen and travel around the country to ethnic restaurants, tasting great foods and getting ideas that would translate back to ice cream. I also suggested that I wanted a chauffeur and a new pair of sneakers."
And...he didn't get the job. Ben & Jerry's hired an internal candidate. Six months later, though, Peter got a call, as the internal candidate hadn't worked out. So Peter was hired in 1988 to be the first formal head of product development in Ben & Jerry's proud, if then still short, history.
"It was confusing at first. I had no lab. All I had was a little ice cream machine that made only two pints at a time. I kept samples in this little freezer, which kept shorting out, and all the samples would melt."
Peter had an additional problem: fear of working himself out of a job. "Because of my work with other restaurants, I had 20 or 30 flavors in my bag of tricks. I figured it would only take an hour or so to recreate a particular flavor and then, in no time, I'd be out of a job."
Peter thought wrong. "I soon realized that a new flavor idea is only as good as your ability to make it in large quantities consistently. I had to translate all the information in very specific ways to suppliers and manufacturers."
And yet another problem existed that Peter had not anticipated: the management style of Ben Cohen, his perfectionist and sometimes-mercurial boss. "I remember when Ben came back from San Francisco with this idea to make Wavy Gravy, a flavor named after the guy who served as the master of ceremonies at Woodstock. He gave me just two guidelines: (one) Make it contain two swirls, and (two) Make it taste delicious. I created over 200 iterations of Wavy Gravy for Ben's consideration, some of which became other flavors (e.g., Chubby Hubby, composed of chocolate-covered peanut butter filled pretzels in a light vanilla, malt ice cream with a chocolate fudge swirl)."
Peter recalls the making of another flavor, Rain Forest Crunch, which tested his patience for working with Ben Cohen. "I kept telling Ben that the cashew/Brazil nut mixed pieces were too big, some even as big as a fist. He said they were fine. I insisted, and I finally went back to the lab and got this big bucket of the pieces of nut mixture and went back to Ben's office and poured them all out on his desk. Luckily for me, one of them was as big as a basketball. So, we made some changes to the process."
In his first stint at Ben & Jerry's, which lasted from 1988 to 1996, Peter had other duties besides creating tasty ice cream flavors: he led focus groups; presented new concepts at "the world's largest Cherries Jubilee extravaganza"; represented Ben & Jerry's at One World, One Heart festivals; gave talks about new lines of products, such as low-fat yogurts and sorbets; visited Mexico to help select fair trade coffee; and traveled across the pond to help promote a new flavor particular to Britain (The name Cream Victoria eventually lost out to Cool Britannia.) He even appeared on Oprah Winfrey in a best-jobs-in-the-world show, along with a guy who rates beaches and other lucky people.
Peter also got to tap his acting talent, as he and Jerry Greenfield, the firm's co-founder, started up the Joy Gang, a group dedicated to making Ben & Jerry's a more enjoyable working environment. "We'd create special events, such as an Elvis Day or a Mismatch Day. Sometimes we'd race toy cars." The Joy Gang, incidentally, remains a Ben & Jerry's fixture.
In 1996, Peter decided to it was time to make another move and strike out on his own. So he launched his own consulting company, Palate Jazz, which, "provided the food industry with new concepts, including small batch prototypes, specifications and formulas, scale ups, consumer research, and facilitation of company ideation sessions."
Palate Jazz served several good clients during the six years he was on his own, such as Smuckers, Nestlé, Cascadian Farm, the American Seafoods Company and Ben & Jerry's. "But," Peter laments, "I wasn't a very good salesman, so at the end I had only one client, which was a block away." With only 20 hours a week required for his work, Peter turned to a new endeavor: writing plays. In fact, he completed six plays, none of which has yet been published.
Spurred on by the need for a steady income and the prospect of higher expenses (his daughter Vanessa entered Bowdoin in 2002), Peter then took a position as Senior Food Technologist at Rhino Foods in Burlington, where he developed new bakery goods and frozen dessert products. Then he went back to the New England Culinary Institute to work as a chef and instructor for three years before returning to Ben & Jerry's early in 2008.
Our conversation occurred just a few weeks after Peter had returned to the site of some of his biggest culinary accomplishments, so he was still finding his footing at the firm, which had been taken over by Unilever in 2000. "I was prepared for Ben & Jerry's to be less quirky, but happily it's still quirky. When I returned, someone played the harmonica (Peter's own musical instrument of choice) over the intercom to herald my arrival. And they sent e-mails around with pictures of me from the early Joy Gang days."
Peter was also pleased to learn that Ben & Jerry's remains a socially conscious firm. (Product Mission: "To make, distribute & sell the finest quality all natural ice cream & euphoric concoctions with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the Environment.")
As we toured the kitchen laboratory where Peter performs his magic, he acknowledged the challenges of trying to create the most scrumptious possible ice cream flavors at the lowest possible cost. How do you cut down on the size of expensive ingredients like the chocolate fudge brownie chunks or reduce the percentage of butter content without sacrificing the flavor?
Best of all, from Peter's perspective, the R & D group at Ben & Jerry's can hold the line on taste standards. At the end of the day, economics never trumps quality. "They do listen to us," he notes, "Quality still matters."
Like all Ben & Jerry's employees, Peter is entitled to take home three pints of ice cream a day. "I often forget, but my wife bugs me about it because the ice cream makes a great gift. So I've taped a note on my computer not to forget the three pints."
The rewards for this ice cream guru extend well beyond the three-pints-a-day perk. "I love to put stuff together and watch what happens," he says. "But people tend to romanticize this job. They think we just sit around stirring ice cream and throwing things into it. But there's lots more involved, like quantitatively testing all of the possible mixtures and, of course, minimizing the cost of mass production."
The challenges aside, Peter finds that, "It's very rewarding to work alongside good people to develop something that makes people happy." And - the cherry on the top - he's never had to give up one of his primary passions: playing with his food.