Jeni Britton Bauer on Waffles and Her Chicago Dream

By Matt Kirouac  |  January 5, 2017
Credit: Jeni's Art and Design

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is an institution in the Midwest. Based in Columbus, Ohio, with locations in Chicago, the company is beloved for flavors both classic and innovative. Now with the opening last month of its third Chicago scoop shop, inside Lincoln Park’s Foxtrot store, founder Jeni Britton Bauer is further realizing her childhood dream, trying her hand at a brand-new menu item, and rolling out an ice cream collection that packs a heart-warming message. 

On her love of Chicago

A Peoria native, Britton Bauer always viewed Chicago as her "big city," and it's even played a part in her creations. “All my yogurts are inspired by this guy who made frozen yogurt at O’Hare," she says, so when she opened her first business, Scream, in 1996, "I started making real yogurts to mimic that.” After launching Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in 2002, she began selling to several stores in Chicago, and the city also became one of her biggest markets for shipping to customers. Says Britton Bauer, "For me, wanting to be here is just that sort of childhood dream." Since her first Chicago shop opened in Lakeview in 2013, she says the reception has been wonderful, and she practically feels like a local. "Being from the Midwest, you have this perspective that you fit in everywhere. You feel more like a human of America nowadays."

Courtesy of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams

On adding waffles to the menu

The opening of her third Chicago shop also marked the debut of a new menu item: waffles. Sure, she’s been making waffle cones for a while, but yeast-raised waffles (what she’s calling "street waffles" for convenient grab-and-go purposes) are a new venture for the company. Made with a classic American recipe honed over several years in Britton Bauer’s home kitchen, they're impossibly light and fluffy, with either vanilla or salted maple glaze. 

"It was completely an evolution over several years," she explains. "When I started my second company, Jeni’s, we had to be open at 7 AM on Saturdays, so I knew that people wouldn’t want ice cream at that time.” She first used a recipe from the 1965 World’s Fair Belgian pavilion, before she discovered the Fannie Farmer recipe for a yeast-raised waffle. "So I switched to that in our market shop, and it became very popular. But when a Belgian waffle place opened across the way, we decided not to do them anymore," she adds. And so she shelved the waffles for years, until now, since going into business with Foxtrot has entailed opening at 8 AM. "And that brought us back to waffles," she says. "So that set off months of training to get the recipe down and teach how to proof them."

The waffles are wrapped in paper and ready to go. And with beautiful place settings at the new shop, she’s also rolled out waffle sundaes for customers to sit down and enjoy. “They’re almost like a cruller donut on the inside,” she explains. "A waffle with ice cream and sauce and nuts and whipped cream, sometimes fruit to top it off. It’s a knife-and-fork sundae."

On her newest ice cream collection

Every couple months, Britton Bauer and co. offer a new flavor collection. For winter, that means fragrant ice creams like Bangkok Peanut, Queen City Cayenne and Juniper Lemon Curd. But what she has slated for spring is even more exciting. Due in April, it's called "We’re Not From Here," with a subheading that reads "You Belong Here." It’s an uplifting message, especially considering the political climate, Britton Bauer says. She describes the ice creams as two-in-one, with a flavor outside that's unexpected, and another inside that's much better known. Genmaicha tea with marshmallow is one of her combinations. "Inside, it tastes like a Rice Krispie treat," she says. "The whole thing is extraordinarily familiar and unfamiliar at the same time — the idea of peeling back the first layer and finding out how much we have in common." Another one: osmanthus with blackberry. Since the flower tastes like peaches, it’s basically peaches and blackberries, a summertime American staple. 

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams: 900 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-799-8809