Binghamton University alumnus is Ben & Jerry’s flavor guru
He's always on the hunt for new ice cream flavors
John Shaffer ’75 was out to dinner one night, enjoying a crème brûlée, when he had an epiphany: This would make a great ice cream flavor. Why turn crème brûlée into ice cream when you can eat it as nature — and chefs — intend it? Because that’s his job: Shaffer is global manager for research and development at Ben & Jerry’s, and he creates ice cream flavors for a living.
Referred to as a “flavor guru” on the Ben & Jerry’s website, Shaffer keeps his palate open to inspiration.
“A lot of the ideas come from wanting to reengineer something or take something that’s trendy and make it work in ice cream, which is not always possible. But when you see something that’s going to translate well, all you need is the flavor idea or the inclusion, and you can build a nice flavor around it,” he says.
The crème brûlée was re-created as a sweet custard ice cream with a caramelized-sugar swirl. What was difficult was figuring out how to replicate the crackle on top of the dessert.
“I thought about it and thought about it, and talked to people who make ingredients like that, and they confirmed my concerns, that it would not be possible to keep the hard-candy caramel hard because the candy is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture and gets soft,” Shaffer says. “What we wanted to replicate was the typical crème brûlée experience provided by that hard-candy surface that you crack with your spoon in order to reveal the custard below. We put our heads together and were able to figure out that we could combat the hygroscopic nature of the caramel candy shards by giving them a light coconut-oil coating and turning them into a swirl that we distributed throughout the ice cream.”
Shaffer spends a lot of time in Ben & Jerry’s R&D test kitchen doing what he calls “auditioning new ingredients,” trying those ingredients in different combinations and in different ice cream bases. He might test an ingredient by making something from scratch in the kitchen (e.g., cake pieces) or picking up an item from the supermarket. The next step involves bringing vendors into the process to produce prototypical ingredients in order to kick off a more formal development process.
“For me to create a successful flavor, I only need a ‘hero’ ingredient around which to create the flavor,” Shaffer says. For example, an irresistible caramel-coated cashew piece became the hero ingredient in Uncanny Cashew, sweet-cream ice cream with caramel-coated cashews and swirls of dark caramel.
Once he’s got the ingredients he needs, he and his R&D team build on and improve the concept until they’ve got a flavor that holds up to Ben & Jerry’s standards.
“At that point, I’ll call marketing in and say, ‘I’ve got a flavor for you to try,’ then try not to get stampeded, because they love to try flavors,” Shaffer says. “You don’t necessarily want to show it to everybody until you think it has some legs and you have the ability to commercialize it, [which might mean finding] somebody who could make that ingredient in maybe as much as 20,000 pounds at a time.”
Once his colleagues are won over and the flavor is chosen for commercialization, the company builds a recipe for it and goes through an extensive plant-testing regimen before it reaches consumers. On average, it takes a new flavor about 18 months to go from concept to freezer case. Luckily for Shaffer, he isn’t the only one creating new flavors; he works alongside a team of talented people.
“We get to play with food and come up with these great flavors, and we’re very supportive of one another ... We’re all happy for each other’s success,” he says.
Dave Stever, chief marketing officer at Ben & Jerry’s, has worked with Shaffer for 20 years. He says that Shaffer is constantly scanning for trends, ingredients and new ideas to bring to the team. Stever has traveled with Shaffer and seen him skip dinner and go right to the dessert menu.
“When we created our Greek Frozen Yogurt line, John was the driving force. He knew it was the right time to create this product for our business, given the explosion of refrigerated Greek yogurt in the marketplace,” Stever says. “Watching a few of us eating Greek yogurt for breakfast one morning, John said, with a smirk and in a soft voice, ‘Dave, do you think this is something we should try to deliver to our fans?’ He, of course, knew the answer was yes. When he grins like that, you know it’s going to be good!”
Ice cream can be controversial
The flavor gurus at Ben & Jerry’s do have creative freedom, but they often take direction from marketing. Case in point: Schweddy Balls. When Shaffer was asked to develop a flavor based on the popular, double-entendre-laden Saturday Night Live skit in which Alec Baldwin appears on a radio show hawking Christmas desserts, he was uncomfortable at first. But being a professional, Shaffer got to work, watching the skit over and over, and in the end developing a vanilla ice cream loaded with fudge-covered rum and malt balls.
“When it launched, I didn’t tell my mother, my mother-in-law or people I didn’t think would get it,” he says. “It was controversial. We got more than half a billion media impressions. For a number of years, the skit was rebroadcast by SNL at Christmas time. That particular year, in a host role, Alec Baldwin mentioned the ice cream flavor because it had stirred up a controversy by offending a conservative group that did not like the flavor name. They were probably not aware that it was part of this classic SNL skit, nor, I imagine, were they SNL fans.”
Schweddy Balls may have been Shaffer’s most-discussed flavor, but he’s created flavors for several iconic personalities and brands over the years, including the John Lennon Foundation (Imagine Whirled Peace), Elton John (Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road) and Jimmy Fallon (Late Night Snack).
“I made Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night Snack flavor, which he insisted had to have potato chips,” Shaffer says. “I said it wouldn’t be possible, but he held firm, so I got creative and made potato chips into potato chip balls and coated them with chocolate to make them more impenetrable to moisture and sogginess. One of my prized possessions is the pint Jimmy signed, where he called me an ice cream genius.”
An ice cream genius? Well, it helps that Shaffer came to Ben & Jerry’s with decades of food experience under his belt (which, he admits, has gone up a few sizes since taking the job.) After graduating from Binghamton University with a degree in English literature and creative writing, he went to the Culinary Institute of America, then spent 12 years as a chef, including a stint at the famous Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. He was supporting himself as a food writer and food stylist when he heard that Ben & Jerry’s was hiring. He’s been with the company since 1998.
“I spent 30 years working full time before I got here, so the 20 years doesn’t seem like a lot,” Shaffer says.
Life of the party
When people find out what Shaffer does for a living, the response is often one of surprise and excitement. Ears perk up. Mouths water. People are amazed.
“I think the first time that really sunk in, I was at a party and there were a couple of doctors there. People were talking to them — I don’t know if they were trying to get free medical advice. But then somebody said, ‘Oh, John works at Ben & Jerry’s,’ and suddenly everyone stopped talking to the doctors and wanted to talk to me. And I thought, ‘Wow.’”
Then there was the time he was playing blackjack in Las Vegas after a national sales meeting and someone noticed the bow ties he and his co-workers were sporting, which featured the iconic Woody Jackson cow artwork seen on Ben & Jerry’s products.
“Somebody noticed the tie, and the next thing you know, the whole table is talking about their favorite flavors and their flavor ideas,” Shaffer says. “The pit boss came over and put another dealer on. The people sitting with us were so excited about telling us the flavors they wanted to see that the pit boss told them if they didn’t pay attention to their cards, the whole table was going to be cleared.”
Shaffer isn’t a braggart; he just loves his job, and he still thinks it’s neat being able to go to a store pretty much anywhere in the United States and find his own flavors.
“Sometimes, on occasion, you’re standing in a grocery store and the person in front of you or behind you has one of your flavors,” he says. “You want to say, ‘Hey, that’s my flavor.’ But then, of course, they’d probably think you’re going to steal their pint.”