Ari Zinger // Ben & Jerry’s Israel

Ari Zinger just wanted to run his ice cream business. As the founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Israel, Ari has built up his company and brand over the past 35 years. He turned Ben & Jerry’s into a household name in Israel, employing 170 people. All was going well and the company was doubling its earnings every few years…until the boycott and the attacks that came from none other than the parent company, Ben & Jerry’s in the US.
In a move that made headlines, the parent company told Ari that it was not going to renew his license to sell in Israel because he was selling his ice cream in the “occupied territories,” a move that they deemed to be “inconsistent with our values.” But Ari and the scores of Jews who backed him up were a formidable foe.
Garnering support from Jews around the world, Ari fought and won. Unilever, which owns the Ben & Jerry’s brand, announced last week that it would be selling Ari the exclusive rights to Ben & Jerry’s in Israel. There would no longer be a licensing deal; Ben & Jerry’s in Israel is now his.
I spoke to Ari about how he built his business and about his fight against the BDS movement and Ben & Jerry’s in the US, including all the latest developments. Although I had read about the boycott, I was unaware of the behind-the-scenes details, and Ari shared those with me candidly. It was interesting to hear about how he operated the business despite the turmoil. There was lots to learn from this interview!


“I always liked ice cream, so owning an ice cream company was a natural fit for me. However, I never imagined I would have to deal with the events of the past two years.
“My parents are both from Tel Aviv, but originally they came from Warsaw, Poland. I grew up in a traditional Israeli family. Back then, Yom Kippur meant something; the chagim meant something. Those were different times. My father ran a small mechanic shop and was a hard worker.
“I was born in Tel Aviv and attended local schools. Growing up, I was like all the other kids in Tel Aviv. There was nothing especially different about me. After high school, I served in the Israeli Air Force for five years.
“When I was 22 years old, I went to New York to study at the New York Institute of Technology. I ended up being in New York for 13 years. I liked technology, but I didn’t have any specific career goals in mind when I attended college.
“After graduating from university, I worked at the Israeli consulate in New York for a few years, until I was 24. I met my wife in Israel, but we got married while I was in New York. My job in the consulate included a lot of traveling to South America and Central America.
“When I was in New York, many Israelis asked me to help them find 220-voltage electronics to take back to Israel. Back then, people thought that 220-voltage electronics were better and cheaper in the US than in Israel, and that was generally the case. I helped them find what they needed, often on the Lower East Side. People kept asking me until I sort of became an expert in it, and that led to opening my own store offering 220-voltage items, located at 53rd street between 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue. I called it Avi’s Appliances. I was 26 years old at the time.
“It became very popular because everyone used to come to me before flying back to Israel. Due to my solid relationship with manufacturers, I even opened a wholesale division selling 220-voltage electronics to other retailers.
“I had the store open for ten years, and I was doing very well. However, I always wanted to get back to Israel. My family and friends and practically my whole life were in Israel. I had always told myself that when my daughter started first grade, it would be in Israel.
“I was thinking of what I could do when I went back, and one thought came to mind—ice cream. I used to go skiing in Vermont, and I came across Ben & Jerry’s ice cream there. I happened to love ice cream, and I figured I could bring Ben & Jerry’s to Israel. At the time, Ben & Jerry’s was a small operation and people had hardly heard of them. I met Ben in his studio apartment and told him about my idea to bring Ben & Jerry’s to Israel. He loved the idea. In general, Ben and Jerry were very friendly to me and wanted to help.
“Additionally, the ice cream in Israel at that time was mostly of poor quality. So in 1987, at age 35, I moved back to Israel to open Ben & Jerry’s here.
“At that time, Ben & Jerry’s didn’t know what to do with me. They were busy growing the US division of their company. They just gave me the list of suppliers, ingredients and formulations of their flavors and left me to my own devices.
“Back in Israel, I started looking for a place where I could produce the ice cream and a location where I could sell it. It wasn’t easy finding a manufacturing plant, and it took me some time. Finally, a year later, I opened the first Ben & Jerry’s store in Tel Aviv. It was 1988.
“Honestly, back then, no one in Israel had heard of Ben & Jerry’s. Even in the US most people had never heard of them. But we were lucky. After a short while, we had people waiting in line for 45 minutes to get ice cream at our Tel Aviv store. We soon expanded to five stores and then to 16 stores across Israel.
“We were increasing our volume daily. We started with one truck and then added another and another. We went from selling in mini-markets to selling in supermarkets. Little by little, we expanded to larger factories to accommodate our growing distribution since we were now selling all over Israel.
“We had a licensing deal with Ben & Jerry’s in the US. We paid them royalties, and in exchange we got their support, their formulas for the different flavors, and their general know-how. They were always cooperative, and we were good friends for 35 years. I was friendly with the board, the management, and Ben and Jerry themselves.
“In 2000, we decided to close our stores. It was during the Second Intifada, and people weren’t going out much. We had three stores in Jerusalem near the sites of several suicide bombings, and the retail business was slow.
“At the time, we were distributing some mini ice cream cups to Europe, and our wholesale business in Israel was growing. We brought in more and more products and doubled ourselves every four years.
“As more people got to know our products, they switched from buying other ice creams to buying ours. One of my core business beliefs is to offer products at a competitive price. We try to keep prices low to attract more customers.
“In addition to the standard OU hashgachah that all Ben & Jerry’s products in the US have, here we also have the Belzer hashgachah on our core ice cream flavors. About 60 percent of the flavors sold here are chalav Yisrael.
“Obviously, over the years I have received requests from many people in the US to send them Ben & Jerry’s ice cream from Israel, but Ben & Jerry’s never let me export to the US. They said that it might confuse people and hurt their core business.
“Our business was growing rapidly. We sold to more supermarkets, convenience stores, hotel chains and even more airlines. Eventually I decided to stop exporting to Europe and focus only on Israel.
“Over the past few years, Ben & Jerry’s in America became more liberal. Their business model reflected this as they produced flavors and packaging designs that had social movements on them.

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