- Matthew Thorsen
- Sarah Fidler working with a new ice cream flavor
Name: Sarah Fidler
Town: South Burlington
Job: Flavor guru, Ben & Jerry's
If Sarah Fidler's parents warned her as a child not to play with her food, she's had the last laugh. She now plays with her food every day — and gets paid to do it.
Fidler, 29, is one of only five "flavor gurus" at Ben & Jerry's corporate headquarters in South Burlington. Her job is to develop new ice cream flavors for the pints sold in U.S. store freezers. Other flavor gurus work on Ben & Jerry's scoop shop flavors and products sold overseas.
How'd this Rochester, N.Y., native land what is arguably one of the most coveted jobs in food-product development? With impressive culinary credentials and a well-timed job application, sent via cellphone while Fidler was vacationing at a remote cabin, sans internet connection, in Maine.
Fidler got her bachelor's degree in nutrition, food science and dietetics at the University of Vermont in 2010, followed by a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. During college, she spent six months in Paris studying French pastries and food culture. Her thesis topic: petits fours.
After five years of working for Lake Champlain Chocolates, Fidler landed her "dream job" with Ben & Jerry's last year. She now spends nearly half her time in the test kitchen. On a good day, she'll create seven or eight "builds," or potential new flavors, making about eight pints apiece. A trial run in the factory means making at least 80,000 pints.
Fidler and her colleagues occasionally go on "trend treks" to other cities, where they spend days sampling the local cuisine. She pores over food magazines and blogs and visits local bakeries and restaurants in search of flavor ideas, then she jots them down in a notebook to try out later. Last summer, for instance, she whipped up a small batch of basil ice cream with strawberry and balsamic caramel and offered it to visitors touring Ben & Jerry's Waterbury factory.
"Those are the out-there ideas that are fun to play around with," Fidler said. "If you went back 10 or 15 years, people might have been like, 'Salted caramel? Why would you ever put salt in your caramel?' So we try to keep our eyes open, because maybe in 10 years strawberries and basil will be big. Who knows?"
SEVEN DAYS: How does developing pint flavors differ from developing those sold in scoop shops?
SARAH FIDLER: There's a little bit more flexibility with scoop shops. From our point of view, there's still a ton of work that goes into scoop shop flavor development, but you're not creating a whole new package. From the consumer's standpoint, you're only committing to one scoop, not a whole pint. So you might be more willing to try something new and different. Whereas, if you're in a supermarket, you're probably just going to buy one pint, so most people buy their "go-to" flavor.
SD: Do you try your competitors' ice cream?
SF: We eat a lot of different ice cream brands: brands from the Burlington area and brands you can only buy online. We're always trying to see what's out there and what other companies are doing. I have a brother in Switzerland, and, when I went to visit him, any chance I could I'd go into gelato shops and chocolate shops. My parents live in Charleston, [S.C.,] and the last time I visited them, I spent half a day eating ice cream. My mom was like, "This is your work? Really?"
SD: What's the most challenging part of your job?
SF: I'd say putting all this time and effort into a flavor that may never hit the shelf. When we start a project with 10 builds, we know it's going to get narrowed down. So, from 10, we may get one or two that eventually make it onto shelves. I learned a long time ago not to get too personally attached to any one flavor.
SD: Do you ever create flavors that you know Ben & Jerry's will never sell?
SF: We've done some really fun, just-for-us ice creams. One of the other [flavor] gurus was at Costco a few months ago, and figs were in season and on sale. So he bought some figs and some port, cooked them up, and then took that liquid and made ice cream. Then he made rosemary corn bread and put it into a food processor so it was like a graham cracker variegate. That was a delicious ice cream, but one we couldn't make in the factory.
SD: What's the best part of your job?
SF: It's an excellent company to work for. I've got my small polar bear here with me [a 115-pound Great Pyrenees named Boon]. When I was at UVM, I was involved with Habitat for Humanity and the [American] Red Cross. I wanted to feel like, aside from whatever paycheck I was getting, I was actually doing some good in the world. I'm not a grassroots-organizer kind of person, but it's great to support a company that has such a positive social mission. We get 40 hours of paid volunteer time. I spent four days this fall building houses down in Charleston.
Plus, who wouldn't want to play with ice cream all day?