December 4, 2007 —
From its early days, Ben & Jerry's has been associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s and flavors such as Cherry Garcia have allowed the company to market itself as groovy and socially responsible. Yet, franchise owners have increasingly complained of unethical business dealings by the company that is no longer owned by Ben and/or Jerry.
The Ben & Jerry's story is well-known. Two former hippies started making ice cream and ended up with a multi-million dollar company. They gave pretax profits to various causes and the names of ice cream flavors reminded people of the idealism of the 1960s. But in 2000, they sold the company to Unilever, which according to some critics, was not surprising considering the duo's own capitalist leanings. For franchisees, Unilever's ownership changed the franchise-corporate relationship.
An article in Newsweek's December 3 issue discussed Ben & Jerry's less than savory reputation among some franchisees. The complaints include shipments that weigh less than they are supposed to, big box stores buy at wholesale prices that undercut ice cream stores, and the company does not acceptably promote or market franchises. Finally, franchisees complain that the marketing material that lured them into owning a Ben & Jerry's store was not entirely accurate. Most damning were estimates about the amount of gross sales, which was skewed by high-profile stores at casinos and airports.
Ben & Jerry's have responded to the charges by saying the franchises' experiences are isolated. Franchise owners need to understand the risk of the endeavor. Debra Heintz, director of retail operations for Ben & Jerry's said, "We want success for all of our franchises. Unfortunately, not all will succeed.
The Ben & Jerry's name lives on. But the spirit of the 1960s, however, may have left the company forever.