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By Joan Killough-Miller, Photography by Patrick O’Connor

“So, what are we making today?” Pete Gosselin ’85 asks a couple of production workers at the Ben & Jerry’s Waterbury, Vermont, plant, where they are enjoying a break, still garbed in their obligatory lab coats, steel-toed boots, and voluminous hair nets. While the mouth-watering answer still hangs in the air, Gosselin offers his own translation. “Peanut butter cup and vanilla caramel fudge. Ah, good, a single chunk and a double variegate.” To Gosselin, ice cream is merely a compressible emulsion of fat, fluid, air, and ice crystals, which is frequently combined with other incompressible fluids (hot fudge and caramel syrup, to the lay person).

Meet the gearhead behind the euphoric flavors of this $500 million ice cream enterprise. (Gosselin’s business card actually says Gearhead, although he’ll also answer to his alternate title, director of engineering.) For the last decade, he’s kept Vermont’s Finest rolling off production lines, to the satisfaction of customers around the world. The company’s mission statement dictates that he must do this in the most ecologically responsible manner possible, while upholding product quality and profitability. For Earth Day 2004, Gosselin unveiled the company’s new thermoacoustic freezer, developed for Ben & Jerry’s by scientists at Penn State University to keep ice cream cold without heating up the planet or depleting its ozone layer (see Hot concept, cool freezer). The New York Times Magazine listed the thermoacoustic freezer in its annual “Year in Ideas” special issue, and Time ranked it among its “Most Amazing Inventions of 2004.”

Building a better ice cream

Gosselin, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, got into the ice cream industry at a defining moment, when process engineers had just figured out how to pelletize unbaked cookie dough for injection into the frozen mix. Over the last 10 years, he’s been on the front lines in the conquest of more complex flavors, involving larger, odd-shaped chunks (called inclusions) and multiple variegates (the technical term for ribbons of fudge or caramel).

With off-the-wall flavor concepts beaming in from all over (pitch yours at the Suggest-a-Flavor page at BenJerry.com), it’s up to Gosselin to translate that boundless creativity into a reliable manufacturing process for 12 to 15 new product launches each year. Once the flavor gurus in the Bizarre and D (R&D) department have perfected a concoction, they turn it over to engineering and say, “Here it is. We cooked up a batch in the lab. Now could you please come up with a process that will deliver 80,000 pints a day, at consistent high quality? Thank you.”

“Ice cream has been around a long time,” says Gosselin. “It’s a fairly stodgy industry, in terms of the equipment that’s available.” For example, the machine that spits out prefrozen chunks at a regular rate is still referred to as a fruit feeder, a term that dates back to a time when suspending strawberries in a vanilla base was considered state of the art. Because he’s not originally an ice cream guy (Gosselin came to Ben & Jerry’s in 1994, after a stint with Procter & Gamble’s consumer products line, where he worked on Citrus Hill orange juice and packaging for personal care products), he’s able to think outside the pint, so to speak, when it comes to designing new processes.

When Ben & Jerry’s came up with its Core Concoctions line, there was no equipment on the market that could force a channel of gooey fudge or caramel syrup through the center of a pint of semisoft ice cream. “How do you deliver exactly 48 grams of this stuff in a quarter-second, every second and a half, and make it stand up in a cylinder?” Gosselin asks, his eyes lighting up at the challenge. He discovered the solution at a food equipment processing show—but only by venturing outside the dairy products displays.

Some of his other sweet feats were finding a way to spiral two flavors into a single pint for the Two Twisted line and keeping those pretzels crunchy in the Chubby Hubby. (Chocolate, it turns out, is an excellent moisture barrier, as long as the coating remains intact.) He’s especially proud of the thick veins of delicate marshmallow nougat in Phish Food, developed in partnership with the former rock band Phish.

“Not just, are we making ice cream and are we making money, but are we giving back to the community, and are we serving the community that works in our factories?”

Adding environmental ingredients

Gosselin is quick to laugh off the importance of his accomplishments. “It’s just ice cream,” he shrugs. Devotees of the product might beg to disagree. So might fans of the corporate philosophy: proceeds from the sale of Phish Food go to the Waterwheel Foundation, which has given away more than a million dollars so far for environmental efforts on Vermont’s Lake Champlain. Improved refrigeration at the company’s St. Albans plant helped reduced energy consumption by an estimated 948,603 kilowatt-hours a year. By converting to bulk-feeding systems, ingredients—such as the two million pounds of cherries used in Cherry Garcia—now arrive in 2,000-pound totes, rather than 5-gallon buckets, eliminating 47,000 plastic pails from the waste stream each year. Automating the pallet-loading process—a hazardous and undesirable job that had to be filled with temporary workers—has improved worker safety and satisfaction.

“Even on the technology side, the work we do is a good dovetail with the values I learned at WPI,” he says. “All that stuff we were asked to think about, like the impact of technology on society, seemed like an academic exercise back then. But it’s real. The Ben & Jerry’s three-part mission (product, economic, and social) has us thinking about that every day. Not just, are we making ice cream and are we making money, but are we giving back to the community, and are we serving the community that works in our factories?”

Worldwide, Ben & Jerry’s has served as a role model to make other companies strive to be better corporate citizens, Gosselin notes. (Although the company was acquired by Unilever in 2000, the parent company is committed to supporting the guiding principles of the founders and to investing at least a million dollars annually into the charitable Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.) “The things they were doing decades ago that once were considered progressive are now run-of-the-mill for a lot of other companies,” Gosselin says. “Everybody said, ‘It can’t be done, it’ll cost too much, it’ll run us out of business.’ But you can have higher efficiency and safer systems and environmentally sustainable production. You can lead with your values—and make money, too.”

After a decade devoted to ice cream, Gosselin hasn’t lost the desire for frozen confections, but he does tend to think of them more clinically now—an occupational hazard he likens to a medical doctor who sees naked bodies all day long, day after day. “While others are enjoying the ice cream, I’m thinking fat content and mouth feel and moisture barrier.” At home, he sometimes gets flak for forgetting to bring home his daily three-pint allotment (a fringe benefit for all employees); at the end of a long day, an ice cream sundae is the last thing on his mind.

Still, for a guy with a mechanical engineering degree, it’s one cool job.

Gosselin explains the science of thermoacoustics to a couple of cartoon penguins in the Sounds Cool animation sequence on the Ben & Jerry’s Web site. More technical specs and schematics can be found on Penn State’s Thermoacoustic Refrigeration page.

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Last modified: Aug 24, 2005, 14:05 EDT
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