Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the owners and founders of the well known American ice cream chain, Ben and Jerry’s, aren’t solely successful business owners. Their inventive, playfully named ice cream flavors are popular sweet treats, but they are also emblematic of significant trends and events in American culture. After junior congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a photo of herself sitting on her couch, eating Americone Dream out of a pint container, Stephen Colbert and she enjoyed their respective pints when she was a guest on his late night talk show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Colbert himself provided the inspiration for Americone Dream–vanilla ice cream, fudge covered cones, and caramel swirls–when he debuted his satire of a neoconservative talk radio show, The Colbert Report, in 2007. Due to the popularity of the pompous pundit Colbert portrayed, the company debuted the flavor in his honor that year. All of the proceeds from its sales benefit various charities. As of this year, over two million dollars have been raised.
Owners Ben and Jerry serve others through their activism, but their primary purpose is to improve any individual’s day by providing that person with the ideal ice cream flavor. How does the company handle this grave responsibility? Retired fan favorites, which the company calls, “the dearly depinted,” are commemorated in a Flavor Graveyard outside the ice cream factory’s headquarters in Waterbury, Vermont. Visitors who pass through the lavender archway will find a gravesite for each discontinued flavor, and each gravestone has a rhyming epitaph. The gravestones are made of resin, so the lettering of the epitaphs won’t fade with time, any more than each flavor’s taste will fade from the collective memory of its most devoted consumers. Each stone contains two illustrations, the lid design for the fallen flavor and a scoop and cone ascending on angels’ wings.
Ben and Jerry’s made a cheeky contribution to American tourism in 1997. That year, its Flavor Graveyard, which had previously only existed as a list of discontinued flavors on the company website, became an actual, physical place outside company headquarters, a tourist attraction ice cream aficionados could visit. Though the Flavor Graveyard now honors nearly forty flavors sent to an eternally sweet rest, it originally contained gravesites for only four flavors: Dastardly Mash, Tuskegee Chunk, Ethan Almond, and Economic Crunch. Dastardly Mash (1979 to 1991)–chocolate ice cream with pecans, raisins, almonds, and chocolate chips–wasn’t an immediate business failure, but the inclusion of raisins in the recipe prevented it from becoming a fan favorite. Tuskegee Chunk (1989 to 1990)–peanut butter with chocolate chunks–was retired to leave more room on grocery store shelves for new flavors.
Most of the inhabitants of the Flavor Graveyard simply outlived their shelf lives. Either they under sold, or they were overstocked in grocery stores. In some cases, though, consumers regarded the events that provided the inspiration for a flavor’s creation as more significant than the flavor itself. Ethan Almond (1987)–vanilla ice cream with chocolate covered almonds–had the shortest shelf life of any flavor in the graveyard. Never even sold by the pint, Ethan Almond was created to commemorate the 1987 opening of Burlington, Vermont’s, Ethan Allen Homestead Museum. The aptly named, Economic Crunch (1987)–vanilla ice cream with chocolate covered pecans, almonds, and walnuts–was the company’s public acknowledgment of America’s October 19, 1987 (sometimes called Black Monday) stock market crash. Ben and Jerry’s offered cold comfort to the unfortunate Wall Street brokers and bankers affected by the economic crisis. The driver of the company’s ice cream delivery truck parked illegally when he made his Wall Street deliveries. Every time he noticed a police car near the premises, he circled the block, then returned to the same parking spot.
The Flavor Graveyard is the company’s subtle admission of the adage coined by retail store manager, Harry Gordon Selfridge (who may have borrowed it from his former employer, retail store manager, Marshall Field): The customer is always right. Every “depinted” flavor is dear to someone, and Ben and Jerry’s cleverly turns consumers’ potential disappointments into opportunities for spectacle that demonstrate the creativity of Ben and Jerry’s brand. The website offers consumers who are pining for their favorite pints a guide to The Five Stages of Flavor Grief; all five stages are borrowed from the five stages of grief in Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ 1969 book, On Death and Dying, then playfully applied to consumers’ unsatisfied cravings. In 2015, tourists were invited to help consign a flavor to the Flavor Graveyard. When Ben and Jerry’s retired, What A Cluster (2011 to 2015)–peanut butter ice cream with caramel clusters, marshmallow, and peanut butter swirls–, the company staged a public funeral. Sometimes consumer demand makes the resurrection of a popular flavor feasible. White Russian (1979 to 1989)–a coffee flavored ice cream with Kahlua flavored syrup–is characterized as a zombie in its flavor graveyard epitaph. Originally retired due to its production cost, White Russian returned to scoop shops at customers’ request. Holy Cannoli (1997 to 1998)–ricotta and pistachio ice cream with chocolate covered cannolis and roasted pistachios was “reinCONEated” as the company marketing materials say, in 2012 as Cannoli, a new ice cream recipe without pistachios.
The Flavor Graveyard is an irreverent expression of Ben Cohen and Jerry’s Greenfield’s approach to running their business, a commitment to finding the courage to take calculated creative risks. The founders claim that, when they started their business in 1978, they had only twelve thousand dollars, a third of which was borrowed money. Together, they had taken one five dollar correspondence course offered by Pennsylvania State University. Then, they couldn’t imagine how much their loyal customers would admire their chunky ice cream recipes and their dedication to honoring humanist business ethics that aren’t determined primarily by a profit motive. Ben and Jerry’s Flavor Guru, Eric Fredette, says the Flavor Graveyard demonstrates Ben and Jerry’s willingness to accept marketing lessons as growth. “Like everything else, ice cream flavors have a beginning and an end.”