The Sweet Business Behind Ben & Jerry’s Iconic Cookie Dough

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This week, Yahoo Food is celebrating America’s favorite dessert with a series of profiles, recipes and photo galleries all dedicated to the creamy, delicious dessert. Check out our Ice Cream page for complete coverage!

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Cookie dough that will end up in pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. (Photo: Courtesy Rhino)

The company that figured out a way to mix in gooey cookie dough into pints of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has also come up with some sweet innovations about how to run a business.

Rhino, a Burlington, Vt.,-based company that makes ingredients to be added into ice cream, has also been a pioneer for their ideas on how to make life better for their 100-plus employees.

“I’m not a person who wants to grow a business to go public or sell it,” says Ted Castle, the owner of Rhino. “I’m trying to figure out how to run a great business. That’s where my focus is.”

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Before the cookie-dough craze, Rhino was a company of about 20 people making ice cream treats and inclusions to mix in. In the 1980s, Ben & Jerry’s was trying to figure out how to sell pints of a cult-favorite scoop shop flavor —vanilla ice cream with cookie dough. Keeping the dough soft was a technical challenge that Castle’s team was finally able to crack. It 1991, the ice cream maker debuted the flavor and it was an overnight success, at one point making up 25 percent of Ben & Jerry’s sales. It was about a year before any competitor could get a similar flavor on the market, Castle says.

“Cookie Dough helped Ben & Jerry’s get new distribution and get into new outlets,” Castle says. “And it was a big deal for us. We had to grow, grow, grow.”

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Ted Castle; Photo: Courtesy Rhino

That growing came with some pains. A few years after the flavor was introduced, Ben & Jerry’s didn’t need as much cookie dough as they had originally predicted. But rather than lay off workers, Rhino worked out an exchange with other local businesses to “temp” out their workers for three to six months at a time. It’s a program they’ve used repeatedly over the last 15 years during slow periods. Workers, who go to companies like Lake Champlain Chocolates, serve as ambassadors for Rhino, and come back with new ideas from the other places they’ve worked, Castle says.

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Another strategy for retaining employees is supporting them when life throws a curve ball. For employees living paycheck-to-paycheck, a broken car or water heater can spiral out of control, sometimes even leading to them loosing their jobs. Rhino set up a partnership with United Way and a local credit union so that employees who have been with the company for a year or longer can borrow $1,000 in one day, and then pay it back through a payroll deduction in their future paychecks over time.

In the six years Rhino has offered the program, employees have borrowed more than $300,000, and only 2 percent hasn’t been paid back, Castle says. After employees have paid back their loan, the credit union automatically opens up a savings account for them unless they opt out — and Castle says most employees choose to save. Now, five credit unions and 40 businesses in the area offer similar programs, he says.

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The motivation to make sure that every member of his team is supported outside of work can be traced back to Castle’s background — he was a star hockey player for the University of Vermont and coached in Vermont and Maine. When he didn’t get the head-coaching job for University of Vermont, he founded Rhino Foods with his wife. He says for the first several years, his employees would have considered him a “nice-guy boss” but he wasn’t really showing the same passion he had for coaching.

A few years in, a colleague asked him what he liked about coaching — like working together as a team, setting high expectations, celebrating victories — and Castle was surprised how few of those things he was bringing into his leadership role at Rhino.

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“I started to bring that into the business,” he says. “And things really took off when I started to think of it like my coaching.”

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Mmmmm … cookie dough ice cream. (Photo: Rhino)

And while the company is privately owned, he subscribes to open-book management, so everyone in the company can see how the company is performing financially. Employees are given educational opportunities in financial data and business concepts to encourage participation and debate about decisions the company made for the future.

When other companies hear about these ideas, they often call Rhino to ask for advice on how to implement them.

“Good ideas spread,” Castle says. “We guide them a little bit, and show them this is what this is all about. A lot of these initiatives are so simple to start.”

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