Ben & Jerry's Factory Tour and Flavor Graveyard
Ice cream, the munchies, hippies. Where else could a place like Ben & Jerry's be except in Vermont?
The Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory is one of the few tourist attractions in Vermont that stays open after 5 pm, and for that we are grateful. It is chunk-packed with visitors when we arrive at 6:30 and it has much to offer: a tour, a gift shop stacked high with everything from tie-dye t-shirts to moose-turd chocolate patties, the "Flavor Graveyard" (more about that in a minute), even satellite attractions set up in tents along the sidewalk: one offering temporary tattoos, another extolling the virtues of composting. A giant Chocolate Chip Cookie ice cream flavor lid on its side, with Ben & Jerry head holes, beckons as a disturbing photo op. You be the counter-culture entrepreneur!
The tour begins with a video in the "Cow Over The Moon Theater," which tells the story of Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield: how they met in 7th grade gym class, took a $5 dollar correspondence course about ice-cream making, renovated an old gas station in Burlington for their first store and, most importantly, sold stock to Vermonters in 1984 to pay for their factory. Eventually one in every 100 Vermont families owned shares, ensuring that the ice cream factory would remain a popular vacation stop for decades to come.
The tour itself is brief, giving visitors an elevated view of the factory floor and ending with a "taste test" of samples from whatever ice cream flavors the plant produced that day. Along the way they are bombarded with an odd mix of Ben & Jerry's manufacturing statistics and hippie propaganda:
The plant churns out 110 pints a minute, 190,000 pints a day; all of the milk and cream comes from Vermont family farm cows with no rBGH growth hormones; the Spiral Hardener conveyor chills every pint for two hours at -40 degrees (-70 with the wind chill); the ice cream is packed in unbleached paperboard containers to spare the environment from "nasty toxic dioxins;" and each Ben & Jerry's employee gets three pints of free ice cream a day.
Three pints a day? Older tour members swiftly calculate how such a perk might have changed their own pitiful lives; kids are ready to cut grade school and run away to the Spiral Hardener. But those crazy thoughts pass by the time every one reaches the Tasting Room -- free samples are dispensed in little paper dispensers. The crowd is satiated. After all, how much ice cream can one person eat?
The most playfully gruesome aspect of the factory is its Flavor Graveyard, on a hill in back of the plant, beyond the bulk milk tanks.
The Graveyard exists because of Ben & Jerry's never-ending experimentation with odd ice cream flavors; some are just too odd for their own good. Each year eight to twelve -- those with the lowest sales -- are "killed" and become candidates for this fatland Boot Hill. The company has eliminated over 200 flavors, but the Graveyard hosts 27 graves so far, perhaps enough to get the point across.
It is a tranquil place,surrounded by a plastic white picket fence, and people walk among the fake tombstone placards in quiet reverence. Some look for some past favorite flavor that faltered in the mass market.
Over here is interred Peanut Butter & Jelly (1998-1999). Over there lies Miz Jelena's Sweet Potato Pie (1992-1993). We can only hazard poor guesses about what went awry for Bovinity Divinity(1998-2001). And way over yonder is Coffee! Coffee! Buzz Buzz Buzz (1996-1999), a casualty that, in hindsight, should have been ample warning preceding the dot.com meltdown. The gravestones feature illustrated lids for each fallen flavor, a scoop and cone ascending on little angel wings.
Why is an ice cream company so popular in a state as frigid as Vermont?
Sure, it keeps 40,000 Vermont dairy cows employed, but Vermonters don't just support the industry of ice cream. They LOVE ice cream. Does the product make them reassuringly cold? Does it have any correlation to the astonishing number of pregnant women that one sees up here?
Another marker that should be added adjacent to Ben & Jerry's Flavor Graveyard: a mass burial pit, to remember B&J shareowners. The company was scooped up by a giant corporation and is no longer publicly traded.