Ben and Jerry

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Rainforest Crunch. Cherry Garcia. Peace Pops. Perhaps no other consumer brand's image is so entwined with hippie-inspired idealism and social causes as Ben & Jerry's. Among the ice-cream maker's crusades: saving the endangered family farm by supporting farmers' cooperatives and fair-trade initiatives. The message is unmistakable: by buying pints and cones, consumers are helping Ben & Jerry's stick up for the little guy. But when it comes to its own "little guy," Ben & Jerry's may not be quite so generous, to hear an increasingly embittered group of the company's shop owners tell it. In interviews with two dozen current and former franchisees, some of these mom-and-pop entrepreneurs say the company misled them into investing their life savings in stores that were doomed to failure, and did little to help them stay afloat. They tell of ice-cream shipments weighing less than what they paid for and delays in restocking popular flavors. They say big buyers like Costco and Wal-Mart were given comparable wholesale prices by Ben & Jerry's, undercutting individual scoop shops. They claim headquarters didn't market their stores adequately or provide business advice, as a national franchise is typically expected to do. Ben & Jerry's says the complaints are either exaggerated or just plain wrong, and don't represent the experience of most of its franchisees. Opening your own business—even a branch of a well-established brand—is always risky. That's something many would-be owners forget as they imagine the gilded pot at the end of the golden arches. "We want success for all of our franchisees," says Debra Heintz, director of retail operations for Ben & Jerry's. "Unfortunately, not all will succeed." Alan Sherman and his wife, Shannon, are among the unsuccessful ones. The couple opened their shop in Blacksburg, Va., in 2004. They say they built their business plan based on information in a 2004 Ben & Jerry's franchising circular, a disclosure document sent to prospective new...
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