How Did The Jeni’s Dolly Parton Ice Cream Flavor Come To Be?

The inspiration and process behind Strawberry Pretzel Pie.

dolly parton ice cream
Photos courtesy of Jeni’s Ice Creams and Getty Images, design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Photos courtesy of Jeni’s Ice Creams and Getty Images, design by Grace Han for Thrillist

From Jolene to vaccine to ice cream? The journey for Dolly Parton has certainly been an interesting one and her latest collaboration is proof that everything she touches turns to gold. When Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams produced its first run of Strawberry Pretzel Pie, in partnership with the famous singer-songwriter, its website crashed and 10,000 pints sold out in minutes. 

Parton, of 9 to 5  and “Jolene” fame, also most recently sealed her sainthood by helping to fund the Moderna vaccine. People are wild about her and Jeni’s Ice Creams—and putting both of them together was a perfect storm. 

Jeni Britton Bauer opened the first Jeni’s in Columbus, Ohio in 2002. Since then, the company has grown to include 47 retail shops and a booming online business. In that time, she’s been incredibly particular about which celebrities she collaborates with. 

“We never pay for partnerships,” she says. “We can’t afford them, but we’ve just literally never paid for it.” Jeni’s most recent collaboration was with Tyler, the Creator who they partnered with twice and made a flavor inspired by blue-raspberry slushies. The Jeni’s team thought maybe the sky’s the limit and asked themselves who another dream partner would be. The answer was Dolly Parton. They figured, “Let’s just try it.”

Britton Bauer found out that Parton’s favorite Jeni’s flavor is “Strawberry Buttermilk.” Then she remembered strawberry pretzel salad, a mid-century dish that she grew up with in Illinois. It’s a salty layer of pretzel crust topped with a cream cheese filling and a layer of strawberry jello on top. “I just kind of knew that she would love it. So I made her a couple of different kinds,” says Britton Bauer. But there was one flavor that Britton Bauer was hopeful that Parton would really like. It was just a matter of waiting to hear back from Parton’s team. 

“It was weird,” Britton Bauer says. “I just kind of felt like when we made the flavor, we loved it so much, and it was like, when we feel really emotional about something that it's really special. I just felt like she was going to love it.” When Parton gave it the stamp of approval, it felt like magic. “When she came back and loved the same one that we loved, it did feel like we had understood and created something together.”

The flavor sold out twice and, unless you want to pay $1,000 on eBay, or know someone who got lucky, it’s going to be nearly impossible to get your hands on it.

But if you are lucky enough to try it, here’s what you can expect. “It’s just like that sweet, creamy, salty, crunchy, with that punch of tart that people love in America,” says Britton Bauer. “There is something about the lush cream cheese punctuated by that sort of sweet-tart strawberry, and then the salty little streusel pieces. It really is a winning sort of equation of flavor that people love.” 

What’s more, proceeds from the flavor are benefitting Parton’s book gifting program, The Imagination Library, which Parton started in 1995. 

As for future collaborations, Britton Bauer doesn’t know who they’ll partner with next but there will be someone. For the Jeni’s team, choosing a partner is a careful, deliberate process. “We’re looking for somebody inspiring and inwardly beautiful, like somebody with a great message who’s really impacting culture in a unique way,” says Britton Bauer. “So, not sure who it's going to be yet, but we’ll definitely do more.”

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, and CNN Travel.