Calling all foodies out there who have devoured mouth-watering, chunk-hunting, swirled-swiveling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tubs growing up. Yes, you know who you are and today is your lucky day because you get to meet the food scientist behind your favorite flavors – Cherry Garcia anyone?!
A New Yorker from Long Island, Kirsten Schimoler, was brought up in a family of restaurateurs. Her father, the proud owner of four restaurants in Cleveland, was her greatest source of inspiration and motivated her to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science Operations and Management from Cornell University. Instead of joining the family business right away, Kirsten decided to pave her own path, one of immense deliciousness and creativity in the culinary arts.
In 2008, she joined Unilever and worked as a product developer for their frozen "Dinner For Two" products. After a year and a half of experiencing corporate life, Kirsten realized that it wasn’t for her (welcome to the club). Serendipitously, she came across a vacant position at Ben & Jerry’s and landed her “dream job” in Product Development.
“I love food and science so realizing that I could have a career in the food industry without working at a restaurant till 2 am…that was tempting to me.”
Moving to a progressive office in Burlington wasn’t too hard for Kirsten considering she grew up in Waterbury, Vermont and visited the Ben & Jerry’s factory quite often. “I remember going to the quality assurance lab, and they would use this giant knife to break chunks and generously add them to the ice cream tubs. I loved the brand and what it stood for so working there was a dream come true.” At Cornell, Kirsten worked within The Food & Brand Lab, performing research on food psychology and consumer behavior. Understanding what we eat, how we eat it and how we can make changes to our lifestyle and our everyday habits was the underlying theme during her time there. In addition, she learned how food presentation impacts how much a consumer would pay for it. This eventually helped her during her seven years at Ben & Jerry’s where her responsibilities ranged from tasting new flavors with the marketing team to brainstorming with consumer insights team to dealing with the design, PR, supply chain, finance, and procurement teams. Kirsten can basically run a company on her own at this point!
What made her more valuable to the company was her decision to pursue an M.B.A in Marketing and Management from the University of Vermont in 2011. “I remember my father saying on the night of my graduation from Cornell, ‘If you have this culinary background along with an M.B.A, you will be very distinctive in the industry.’ And it has definitely helped me because I am in a more managerial role now but I understand the technicalities of creating a product from start to finish and can make smarter decisions.”
“Some people still think we are packing ice cream in a garage somewhere in Burlington.”
Ben & Jerry’s has been around since 1978 with over 500 Million Euros in sales just last year and it was the first major player in the industry to go to market with a line of vegan ice cream. Kirsten, whose first outside-the-box project was launching Greek frozen yogurt in 2012, was the tastemaker behind the non-dairy products that were introduced in February 2016. “This was huge for our brand because our branding has cows all over it and we are known for our dairy products. We knew we had to deliver an amazing product to differentiate ourselves from the smaller players in the industry."
With 900 media placements and 300 million impressions, the non-dairy products were the biggest launch the company had ever witnessed. “We wanted to give people options and along with our ice cream expertise and stance on non-GMO, we were able to capitalize on our brand equity to create this line. There was a petition that 35,000 people signed asking Ben & Jerry’s to make non-dairy products. That alone speaks volume of our brand reputation and customer loyalty. From a sustainability perspective, moving to all plant based ingredients was a massive shift and we met with many vegan bloggers and influencers to understand the market.”
From Creation to Distribution
Clearly, she is smart and incredibly creative with great taste in food, but where does she fit in as a Flavor Guru for Ben & Jerry’s? Kirsten gave us a quick rundown of the new product development process and it sounds like a career made out of the movies, no joke. “It’s funny because I always think of those memes where my mom thinks I do this; my friends think I do that but this is what I really do. I don’t eat ice cream all day but that’s what everyone thinks I do. My role changes based on seasons. From September to December, we are coming up with new ideas, making 30-40 new flavors, and testing them with the brand and consumer insights teams. In early spring, I go to plants and run mass production trials with the new flavors while working with our vendors, those who make our brownies, cookie dough, etc. and 75% of my job is basically paperwork!”
“The most important thing to me is being a really gracious host and giving people the opportunity to come together over good food, drinks, and merriment.”
With the vegan line, Kirsten spent seven months at the production facilities and nine months in the technical development center. “We needed to do a lot of trial and error to make sure that the vegan products felt and scooped like true ice cream. It was very technical and science-based development so my background came in play early on.” The RADICHE team was lucky to taste the new vegan flavors and although we shouldn’t pick a favorite, P.B. & Cookies may just be the yummiest thing our taste buds have ever experienced. Meanwhile, Kirsten’s all-time-favorite continues to be Chocolate Peppermint Crunch, mostly because she turned her childhood love for Girl Scout’s thin mint cookies into an ice cream flavor (Oh, the perks!).
Inside the Food Industry
We couldn’t resist the foodie tendencies in us and asked Kirsten to comment on some trends that were bothering her in the food industry at the moment. “There is a lot of talk and a lot of poorly grounded research out there. People don’t know why they are reacting to certain things in a certain way and have started self-diagnosing their diets. The difference between desire, allergy and intolerance has become muddled these days. My father gets the most ridiculous requests at the restaurant and it’s mostly because people are confused about lactose intolerance or being 'vegan' or going on a paleo diet. There is a lot of education that still needs to be put out in the industry for people to make smarter decisions and I am hoping to be a tastemaker and drive that change in the way people eat.”
Is there a flavor you’ve been dreaming of that you would love for Kirsten to create? Email us at email@example.com and we’ll make your sweetest wishes come true.