Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor guru explains her formula for success to alma mater

Natalia Butler, a class of ’12 master’s student in food science, returns to UMass as Homecoming speaker

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Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor guru explains her formula for success to alma mater

(Chris McLaughlin/Daily Collegian)

(Chris McLaughlin/Daily Collegian)

(Chris McLaughlin/Daily Collegian)

(Chris McLaughlin/Daily Collegian)

By Chris McLaughlin, Assistant News Editor

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Natalia Butler, a “flavor guru” for the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, returned as the Homecoming speaker on Thursday at her alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, to share insight into her flavor making career and her personal formula for success with current UMass students.

Butler, who graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in food science from the University, began crafting flavors for the Vermont-based business in 2016.

“I’m a foodie. If you ask me, if anyone asks me, I’m a foodie. I love food, my life has been always about food,” Butler said. “I have always been surrounded by food, my parents owned restaurants when I was growing up, and I come from a culture that celebrates food.”

Butler grew up in Puerto Rico, where her parents owned restaurants and, as an undergraduate student, she studied chemistry.

“And then UMass happens,” Butler said. “From 85 degree weather, sunny, always sunny to minus 19 that year because like what was I thinking, or the lack of thinking thereof.”

At UMass, Butler did an internship originally in biochemistry and pondered whether or not to go into the pharmaceutical industry, which is a major source of business in Puerto Rico, but found that it wasn’t for her. That’s when Butler said she discovered food science and soon began an internship in the field.

“It’s okay to not have a plan right away,” Butler said. “Your first job might also not be your dream job and never ever after you are going to pick something after here whatever that is, never do it because of money.”

Butler explained that after graduation, she worked two different jobs before Ben & Jerry’s. She originally worked as a hard cider maker in Vermont, but noted, “What happened there was that it was a great job, but I always had to prove something. It felt like I was constantly proving myself, I was constantly proving my worth.”

According to Butler, the cider industry is very male-oriented. So, as a woman in the field, it was a regular struggle for recognition from her male counterparts, but she says she also always recognized her own worth. Whereas at her second job, in animal supplement product development, she became the center of attention and constantly worked. She added that it became draining.

Then one day, Butler said a recruiter contacted her through LinkedIn about a job opportunity at Ben & Jerry’s — she gave a tip to students to keep their LinkedIn accounts up to date.

“Network, network, network, network, it’s all about who you know,” she said.

“So, then Ben & Jerry’s happened, an opportunity that I was not looking for ,and on top of that, like 700 plus people applied for this job,” she said. “And one thing to know about Ben & Jerry’s is that people who have been doing this flavor guru job have been doing it for like 25 years and turnaround at Ben & Jerry’s is, like, zero.”

Among the reasons Butler listed as to why a highly coveted opening would arise included a death, a firing, a retirement or “for some miracle they were ready to hire someone.”

Believing the sheer odds were against her, Butler didn’t think she wound land the job, but said “one day [the recruiter] called and she said to me, ‘actually just so you know, you got the job.’ I literally was crying for like 45 minutes in my driveway.”

Ever since, Butler has worked to formulate flavors with the team of eight flavor gurus based in Vermont and seven based in London, each of whom brings their individual specialties to the table with Butler being a food scientist and others being pastry chefs for example.

She has since appeared in a variety of publications including Food Network, O, The Oprah Magazine, Tasty and Refinery29.

“If you would have asked me seven years ago would I have been here today speaking to you, the answer would be ‘hell no,’” she said. “I wouldn’t have thought in a million years that I was going to be here. So, I’m humbled and honored to be here.”

Butler says that it takes 18 to 24 months to have a flavor go from concept to market, but that “it all starts with an idea.”

She explained a lot of creativity and playing around with flavors goes into the job, where Butler herself leads sessions in which the flavor gurus get into teams, experiment and cook a bunch of ingredients together similar to TV shows such as “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.”

From the ideation stage, the flavor goes through steps such as consumer testing, marketing and checks to see if it aligns with the Ben & Jerry’s standards. The company prides itself on its three missions: social, economic and product.

Butler also oversees new and existing markets abroad such as in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil and Japan in addition to the United States. She also has traveled more extensively in recent years and makes a yearly pilgrimage to New York in January and December to do Ben & Jerry’s product tours with media and social media personalities.

According to Butler, there are over 45 flavors Ben & Jerry’s has available in the United States, with certain flavors specific to the brand’s “Scoop Shops,” and exclusive flavors only available through certain retailers such as Target and Walmart.

Butler’s favorite flavor creation is the “Justice ReMix’d” flavor, a combination of cinnamon and spicy fudge brownies, which is specifically dedicated to criminal justice reform. She added that she is also a big fan of flavors such as cookie dough and “Americone dream.”

The Homecoming speaker event was organized by students from University Programming Council in addition to the Student Alumni Association. Among them was Anne Norton, a junior communication major and one of the three UPC coordinators specific to the evening’s event.

“It’s kind of just to give back to UMass and try to see what the alumni have become and what those who go to UMass could become and their potential, what we have to look forward to after we graduate,” said Norton about having Butler speak.

“She was awesome,” Norton added. “I love that everything’s tied to Ben & Jerry’s, but also she put her own spin on it, and I think it was really impressive that she was able to like have a theme throughout and tie it all back to Ben & Jerry’s even though it’s her own life.”

To fit with the sweet theme of the evening, students in attendance were catered to with brownies, cookies and refreshments from Sweets & More, received a coupon for a free pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and had the chance to talk with Butler personally and take photos together.

UPC put on several other events over the course of Homecoming weekend including a Homecoming spirit kickoff, the Saturday morning Homecoming Parade from Dallas Mall by McGuirk Alumni Stadium to Haigis Mall and events with the candidates for Homecoming royalty, some of whom were in attendance at the Homecoming speaker event.

Chris McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ChrisMcLJournal.