“No dessert,” I replied to the waitress when she offered our group menus.
We had just finished lunch at The Reservoir, a restaurant and tap room in downtown Waterbury, Vermont, and my two teenage children and their friends were anxious to move on to the purpose of our excursion: a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory. They had all taken the tour numerous times (one of the advantages of living in rural New Hampshire, about a 90-minute drive from the factory) but this fact did not dampen their enthusiasm.
We made the 10-minute drive from the centre of town to the famed factory, and discovered throngs of others who were equally enthusiastic about the opportunity to bask in Ben and Jerry’s lore and partake of the ice cream. The place was mobbed, and even though tours run every 10 minutes, we had to buy our tickets two hours in advance.
To pass the time we drove down the road to visit two other big Waterbury attractions: Cabot Creamery, where we sampled far too much Vermont-made cheese; and Lake Champlain Chocolates, where we somehow made room in our stuffed stomachs for truffles. Each was a nice appetiser for the main course, and if I weren’t a local able to buy both products at my neighbourhood grocery, I might have done a little shopping.
Back at Ben and Jerry’s, we lingered in the hot sun with a collection of tourists and other locals, eager to get inside the hallowed walls. The compound is remarkably small, especially considering that it produces 40 per cent of the ice cream sold in the United States. There is a small waiting area for tours, and an adjacent gift shop. Outside, there is an ice cream kiosk, and half a dozen tables.
Finally, at 10 past four, a cowbell was rung and our tour began. It started with a short film about the history of the company. As most Ben and Jerry’s aficionados know, it all started in 1978 when two friends opened an ice cream shop in a renovated petrol station. The seven-minute animated film skips along, emphasising the company’s social activism and fair trade business practices. (In 2003 the company became a fully owned subsidiary of Unilever, but Ben and Jerry’s retains an independent Board of Directors.)
After the film, we were taken to a landing overlooking the room where they make the ice cream, but we were not allowed to take photographs. There were eight stages and each was labelled with a big sign, while our tour guide told us what happened at each. I was surprised…