Mike Peabody knows it’s no big scoop that the Plainfield Co-op isn’t the biggest seller of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Vermont. The 500-member food cooperative on Main Street is so small it doesn’t even have a walk-in freezer or space for a stand-alone B&J cooler.
But Peabody, who’s worked as the store’s coordinator for five years, says he never imagined “Vermont’s Finest” would turn its back on a food co-op in the very state that defines the ice cream company. A few weeks ago, a delivery guy informed co-op staffers that Ben & Jerry’s would no longer supply its ice cream, as it has done for the last 15 years. He informed them that deliveries had been outsourced to an out-of-state distribution company, which has enacted stricter purchasing rules on stores in Vermont and elsewhere that sell Ben & Jerry’s products.
According to Peabody, the new distributor, Thibodeau’s Ice Cream of Saco, Maine, has upped the minimum purchase to 64 pints every two weeks. That’s not a lot of ice cream for a big supermarket or convenience store, but it’s way more than the Plainfield Co-op can sell in that time frame. If the co-op can’t move that much product, Peabody says, Thibodeau’s won’t service the account.
That’s a big shift in marketing strategy, according to Peabody, who notes Ben & Jerry’s used to aim to get its product “into small stores in the middle of nowhere, which describes about 85 percent of the state of Vermont. Now, in doing this, they’re saying, ‘If you’re not a large-sized gas station or a big co-op or grocery vendor, we don’t have the time for you.’”
The Plainfield Co-op isn’t the only small retailer that feels like it’s getting the cold shoulder from Ben & Jerry’s. A number of independent grocers and convenience-store owners have called the Vermont Grocers’ Association to complain, according to VGA President Jim Harrison.
Among them: Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), who’s owned and operated Dick Mazza’s General Store in Colchester since 1954. He says he started selling Ben & Jerry’s products when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield personally delivered a freezer full of product to his store. Today, South Burlington-based Ben & Jerry’s has 700 scoop shops in 35 countries around the world.
Mazza has already arranged to get pints of Ben & Jerry’s from another wholesaler, Associated Grocers of New England. But he’ll have to live without the company’s “novelty items,” such as single-serving cups and Peace Pops, because he won’t have a relationship with Thibodeau’s.
“I was surprised when that happened. We’re a pretty big account, especially in the summer,” says Mazza, whose 4000-square-foot market is directly across the street from a popular boat ramp on Malletts Bay.
In place of Ben & Jerry’s “novelties,” Mazza is adding products and flavors from an ice cream maker closer to home: Grand Isle-manufactured Island Homemade Ice Cream.
Like Mazza, the Plainfield Co-op could get Ben & Jerry’s products through another distributor, but it would be prohibitively expensive, according to Nancy Ellen, the store’s frozen-foods buyer. She’s replaced Ben & Jerry’s with another locally made frozen treat: Barre-made Leonardo’s Italian Gelato & Sorbet.
A spokesperson for Thibodeau’s didn’t return phone calls, but Sean Greenwood, Ben & Jerry’s director of communications, confirms that Vermont’s Finest has closed down its in-house distribution network and turned “the majority of Ben & Jerry’s product distribution in Vermont” over to Thibodeau’s.
As Greenwood explains, Ben & Jerry’s has always been a manufacturing company first. For the last 15 years, the company has handled its own wholesale distribution within Vermont and some surrounding areas.
“But it’s like every other business,” he says. “It continues to grow and evolve and change.”
Thibodeau’s is a family-run company that’s been around since 1909, Greenwood says, with all the necessary warehouse space, trucks and staff to do the job. Thibodeau’s already handles New England distribution for other ice cream brands made by Unilever — the Anglo-Dutch multinational that purchased Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 — including Breyer’s, Good Humor, Klondike, Popsicle and Starbucks.
Greenwood downplays the significance of the recent change and predicts Thibodeau’s will eventually address all its retailers’ concerns. “We definitely expect they are going to be some wrinkles, and it’ll take some time to iron out those issues,” he says. “But we definitely will work with any of our customers ... We still want to take care of our home state of Vermont.”
It may be too late for some Vermont grocers.
When Rep. Ron Hubert (R-Milton) isn’t in Montpelier, he runs a small, independent grocery store in Milton called the Middle Road Market. He’s displayed the Ben & Jerry’s cooler “prominently” for years.
“The sad part is when they started, they wanted guys like me. Now that they’ve overfilled their britches, as it were, they don’t need us anymore,” Hubert says. “Does it leave a bitter taste in my mouth? Yes it does.”
Asked if he’ll try to buy Ben & Jerry’s products through a different wholesaler, Hubert said he’s no longer interested. In an industry based on margins of “nickels and dimes,” the new rules mean the difference between making a profit or not.
“This is from a company that [talks about] small business and buy local,” he says. “They’re no longer a small business. They’re no longer local. They’re owned by Unilever and their true colors are coming forward.”
The people at the Plainfield Co-op agree. “It seemed like a slap in the face to small stores,” says Ellen. “If that’s how they’re going to do business, I don’t really want to carry them anymore.”