Ice cream with a mission: Ben Cohen, half of famed duo, shmoozes in Berkeley

Ben Cohen isn’t all about the ice cream.

That may be hard to believe, considering he’s the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, half of the creative duo that invented the creamy treat known for its unusual flavors.

Cohen’s open to talking politics, too, specifically his biggest concern for the Jewish people: peace between Israelis and Arabs.

Ben Cohen tries a smoothie photo/cathleen maclearie

“I feel pretty strongly that the majority of the populations of both countries want peace,” said Cohen, adding that Ben & Jerry’s has several shops in Israel. He even entertained the idea of creating an ice cream for the cause, with proceeds going to organizations that work for peace in the region.

“I think a ‘Peace in the Middle East’ flavor would be a great idea,” Cohen said, adding with a smile, “If I ran the zoo, that’s something I would do.”

Cohen was in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 11 to greet ice cream lovers who stopped by the grand opening of a Ben & Jerry’s “scoop shop,” located in the historic Ennor’s Restaurant Building on Center Street.

Roughly 300 people wandered in to grab a scoop, check out the space — complete with Ben & Jerry’s signature cows, bright blue sky and mint green pastures on its walls — and chat with Cohen.

He posed for pictures and mingled with customers, barely taking time to sip from the frozen orange concoction he was holding. But he didn’t seem to mind.

“It’s beautiful to be back in Berkeley,” said Cohen, a self-described hippie. “In the Bay Area in general, it’s my favorite city. It’s nice to be around kindred spirits.”

Cohen, 59, was also present to talk about the company’s transition to using all fair-trade ingredients by 2013, and the impact fair trade and other socially conscious endeavors have on the world. Fair trade certified products meet strict criteria for economic, social and environmental sustainability, providing fair payment to producers for goods.

“I love bringing Ben & Jerry’s social mission to the local Berkeley community,” said shop owner Parisa Samimi, “and giving ice cream fans high-quality, responsibly sourced ingredients.”

Fair trade goes along with the company’s social activism component, which has been a trademark of the brand since its inception. The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation receives approximately 7 percent of the company’s pre-tax profits and distributes funds to charitable organizations. Last year’s contributions were around $1.7 million.

“I grew up understanding that the Jewish people were oppressed and discriminated against,” Cohen said. “I have become sensitive to others in our country who are treated the same way.”

Raised in the town of Merrick on Long Island, N.Y., Cohen grew up attending the Reform Jewish Congregation of Merrick, where he had his bar mitzvah.

Around the same time, he met and befriended his future business partner, Jerry Greenfield, in a junior high gym class in 1963. During his senior year, Cohen drove an ice cream truck before attending Colgate University in upstate New York.

Over the next decade, Cohen held several jobs, including as a deliverer of pottery wheels, an ER clerk and a taxi driver. He started experimenting with making his own ice cream while working as a crafts teacher.

Cohen reunited with Greenfield, and the pair decided to go into the food business together. They settled on ice cream and, after enrolling in a $5 course on ice cream making, opened Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in Burlington, Vt.

Their ice cream was an instant hit, thanks to flavors Cohen said were “channeled from the collective flavor unconscious.”

Cohen resigned as CEO more than 10 years ago and holds a spot on the advisory board. The company is owned by Unilever, a British-Dutch conglomerate.

Today, he noted, creating flavors is a more research-based process. Ben & Jerry’s has a team of flavor developers that comes up with ideas and tests them with the public to gauge popularity.

It’s safe to say Cohen could dig his spoon into any Ben & Jerry’s flavor out there, but he prefers to stick with one of the originals.

“Cherry Garcia,” Cohen said without hesitation. “The cherries and chocolate is a great combination. I also happen to like chocolate-covered strawberries, but that flavor doesn’t translate well to ice cream.”