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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Running Diary: Attending the exotic team offsite, Part 3

This last installment of my exotic team offsite diary covers the best part of the trip in the form of a tour of the Ben & Jerry's factory. Part 1 introduced my loose definition of "exotic" when it comes to meeting locations and Part 2 discussed how our team chose to deal with its distributed nature.

Wednesday - Second Life, boring budgets, and Ben & Jerry
The morning session was my biggest contribution to the gathering as I presented some future
looking ideas for our online presence. The coolest part was telling everybody about Second Life. By far the most satisfying part of my job is getting to learn things all the time and be the guy people go to when they want to know about new stuff. I worked into the presentation the history of network gaming and briefly talked about my long gone two year addiction to Star Wars Galaxies in the process. When showing these kinds of things to the managers, though, it's never clear to me if they are impressed and excited or glassy-eyed and not comprehending what I'm talking about. This, despite utilizing my own oral delivery tips.

Along those lines came our late morning agenda: budgets. Given that my body was still on West Coast time and we started at 7:30 Eastern two days in a row, I literally almost fell asleep.

The afternoon picked up, though, with our second fun activity: a tour of the Ben & Jerry's factory. Maybe it’s because of my software background and we never build anything tangible, but just about any manufacturing floor is fascinating to me. The tour started with a short video about the genesis of the company. Two creative slackers paid $5 to take a correspondence course on ice cream making and turned it into a well-known international dessert empire. What did you do today? Me too.

The film chronicled the list of funny flavor names, the instance of quality ingredients, and giving back to the community. Great product, great company. Then we got to see the floor. The company actually has two factories. The one we were standing above in a special glass enclosure was the original factory, but there is a bigger one up the road that produces most Ben & Jerry’s products. It’s just the two facilities, but they ship worldwide, which was also pretty interesting.

The machines all do pretty much what you’d expect. There is a phase where he milk, cream, and sugar are chilled and then mixed. Flavor is added. Bulk ingredients are added and, if necessary, ribbons of caramel, fudge, marshmallow or whatever is inserted before the whole concoction is packaged in the familiar pints (including a special maneuver to prevent air pockets from forming) and given a “best used by” date. In a step I never would have thought of, they also freeze the pints immediately to something like -40 degrees F. That helps the preservation process and they have a special machine that uses wind chill techniques in order to achieve such low temperatures.

Then, the people with one of the greatest jobs on the planet takes over: the Ben & Jerry’s Quality Assurance Team. They randomly grab a few pints from each production run and first test them for consistent distribution of all the ingredients. Taking a huge machete, one container is dissected to form circular discs to inspect lateral consistency. Then, another container is sliced open length-wise to check the other direction. Finally, there’s the taste testing. Yes, there are people who get paid to taste test Ben & Jerry’s every day.

In fact, at the end of the tour where we got a free sample of a new flavor for St. Patrick’s day, the employee who led our tour told me about a key perk of working for Ben & Jerry’s. FOR EVERY DAY YOU WORK, YOU GET A FREE PINT!!!! She said that she’s actually a little sick of eating ice cream, but that is a key reason for people who get hired on for summer help, when the tour is quite popular.

The last notable from the tour is that a collage history of the company is chronicled in the hallway between the “free sample room” and the gift shop. Among the things along those walls are a series of newspaper articles about an incident when Ben & Jerry’s attempted to reach supermarkets in their first major US city (Boston). Pillsbury, who owns the Hagen Daas brand of premium ice cream, threatened Boston chains that they would pull their products from stores if they chose to carry Ben & Jerry’s, which responded to the situation with a letter writing and bumper sticker campaign to expose these illegal and monopolistic practices. Eventually Pillsbury relented and Ben & Jerry’s eventually expanded to practically every grocery store in the country.

After all those good stories and experiences there, it was a little bit of a letdown to finish our budget discussions back at the lodge. I scored some maple products to bring home and an illustrated children’s book based on the lyrics to My Favorite Things for my daughter. All in all, it was a productive offsite that had a nice blend of grinding through work and some team bonding over ice cream.

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