VERMONT’S FINEST? BEN AND JERRY TRIED TO START
THEIR ICE CREAM EMPIRE IN SARATOGA 40 YEARS AGO
By Jeff Durstewitz
Play the association game: What company or brand would you link with the word “Vermont”? Many would say “Ben & Jerry’s,” because that’s where two Long Island boys, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, opened their first store in a former Mobil station in Burlington in 1978. But although “Vermont’s Finest” ice cream is still made in the Green Mountain State, the company’s origins are a little more complex. In fact, the first Ben & Jerry’s store was meant to open in Saratoga Springs. (The existing Ben & Jerry’s on Phila Street opened as a franchise—the fourth overall and the first in New York state—in July 1983.)
In 1977, Ben and Jerry—old friends of mine from high school in Merrick, Nassau County—were would-be ice-cream partners in search of a location. Ben had gone to Colgate from 1969 to 1970 (an all-male college at the time), and he’d soon learned that one of the best routes to a rewarding social life led to Skidmore, an all-female institution until 1971. Years later he kept in mind that there was something really special about Saratoga. So special that he introduced Jerry to it, and the two decided to open their business—which ultimately blossomed in Burlington as “Ben & Jerry’s Amazing Crepes and Incredible Ice Cream”—on Broadway.
The two lived in an apartment on Saratoga Lake during the summer of ’77. To raise money for their business, they worked in town—Ben in the kitchen of Mrs. London’s (he was let go, he’s always maintained, for breaking eggs incorrectly) and then as a security guard for the track, Jerry as a night mopper at a restaurant south of town. They weren’t making a lot of money, but they weren’t spending much either. They were planning to put a lot of sweat equity into a storefront on Broadway, north of City Hall. Ben later said the location probably would have ruined them in six months because it didn’t have its own off-street parking. (Their first location in an ex-gas station in Burlington was on a public square and had several parking spots; Ben got really excited when the former Mobil station at Phila and Putnam in Saratoga became available five years later because it, too, had plenty of parking.)
Just as they were getting ready to secure the Saratoga location, someone else swooped in and got the lease. They were crestfallen, but had a “Plan B”: Burlington. Like Saratoga, it was a college town with a quirky vibe. It was far to the north, with a longer and harsher winter, but it was also bigger. As the summer of 1977 drew to a close, the two headed for South Hero on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain, a short drive from downtown Burlington, for their eventual apotheosis as Vermont superstars.
By 1981 the lads had a popular and successful business in downtown Burlington. Ben’s “amazing” crepes fell by the wayside as most of their customers were far more keen on Jerry’s ice cream, and restaurants were making inquiries about buying their unusual flavors—including White Russian, Heath Bar Crunch and Sweet Cream Oreo. Then an incredible thing happened: A Time magazine writer—looking for a summery feature and guided by his college-student daughter, a big fan of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream—used them to keynote the cover story in the Aug. 10, 1981 issue, the theme of which was that people tend to develop intense loyalties to local ice-cream makers. (It began with the immortal line: “What you must understand at the outset is that Ben & Jerry’s, in Burlington, Vt., makes the best ice cream in the world.”) With that bolt-from-the-blue publicity, a small Vermont business went national.
What you must understand at the outset is that Ben & Jerry’s, in Burlington, Vt., makes the best ice cream in the world.”
The opening line of the Time magazine cover story that put
Ben& Jerry’s on the map
Fast forward two years: Supermarkets (including the old Grand Union in Saratoga Springs) were carrying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in pints, and restaurants and non-franchised outlets (including one in downtown Saratoga) were selling it by the scoop. Would-be franchisees were clamoring for locations, and the company started to roll out scoop shops. How did a copy editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and his brother come to open an ice-cream parlor on Phila Street in Saratoga? That improbable story, and life in high school with Ben and Jerry, are included in my 2000 memoir, Younger Than That Now.
By July 1, 1983, the forlorn ex-Mobil station a block east of Broadway had metamorphosed into a gleaming white-and-blue outpost of “euphoric” ice cream and fun. (With a bookstore, no less. Montana Books, run by sisters Courtney and Abigail Reid, shared the location with the scoop shop until 1985.)
Saratoga was transitioning from a bedraggled upstate burg trading on fading glory as a “Gilded Age” hotspot to a destination touting “Health, History and Horses” that would become the envy of many a small city nationwide. The new City Center opened the following year to finally replace the 1892 Convention Center that had burned in 1965, and developers were beginning to realize what the trailblazers of the city’s renaissance believed: that the old gem could be re-cut, polished and repositioned in a dazzling new setting.
The street was bustling, with Caffè Lena (still owned by Lena Spencer) filling up on show nights and Mrs. London’s, Mother Goldsmith’s, Hattie’s, The Executive and the Golden Grill (all still run by their legendary founders or direct heirs) going strong. Palmetto Fruit Company operated a wholesale business next door.
Now owned by a global conglomerate, Ben & Jerry’s is one of the better-known brands in the world. But few know that it was almost “Saratoga’s Finest” rather than Vermont’s.
Jeff Durstewitz lives in Saratoga Springs and is the author, with Ruth Williams, of the award-winning Bantam memoir Younger Than That Now—A Shared Passage From the Sixties. Writing as Joe Fegan, he set his new novel, The Devil’s Room, in Ireland and a town that Saratogians may find familiar. It is available online and locally.