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Blue Bell’s Black Mark

“One scoop of Blue Bell ice cream, please.”

With those “Famous Last Words,” David Letterman delivered his final “number one” of the famed Top Ten list, on “The Late Show”‘s penultimate night. And with that quip the Kruse family, owners of “the little creamery in Brenham” since 1919, finally, unfortunately, achieved their dream of their product being forever known nationwide.

Here in Texas, much of (okay, let’s be honest, most of) the population is slowly working through the stages of grief. And by “slowly,” I mean we’re struggling to move past denial. Blue Bell is not just a brand of ice cream, it is the brand. “Pick up some Blue Bell while you’re out!” has been yelled from the watering mouth of many a Texan, lest a general reference to mere “ice cream” bring with it the implication that some lesser option might suffice.

But for weeks, an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper explaining the total ice cream recall—under threat of listeria—was taped to grocery store freezer shelves left empty and waiting from Amarillo to Zapata, ready for what we hoped would be a speedy return. It was a bit like when Amish families set a place at the dinner table for the son or daughter who has left the faith and the farm. Surely, they will soon return—and they will be welcome when they do, and we will proceed with life as it should be without speaking of this unpleasantness.

Blue Bell’s dominance in the Lone Star State began with a real family-owned creamery, and they effectively sold both a superior product and the allure of rural values. You really believed that their first joy was making ice cream, not making money. “We eat all we can, and we sell the rest”: the slogan did not sound hokey. It sounded about right.

Growing up in the extreme northeast corner of the state, Blue Bell was not in the freezer of my early childhood. But, thankfully, my sister and I knew that our loving Grandma would have a pint waiting for each of us when we visited several hours to the south. Oh, the difficulty of making that pint last an entire weekend.

For years, the company’s stated ambition was to bring its delicious product to every Texan. And they did, all from the single plant set amidst fields and flowers in a small town between Houston and Austin. The Brenham creamery wasn’t so “little” anymore, but that was alright by those of us on the edges of the state who were happy to see the distinctive round tub arrive in our freezers in the late 1980s.

“Blue Bell, the best ice cream in the country,” the jingle went. We proud Texans sang along, knowing you could only get it here. But the Kruse family seemed to interpret the tune differently. Being the national ice cream of Texas was no longer enough: they wanted the rest of America to nod in agreement, too. Blue Bell crossed the Red River in earnest in 1992 when a second creamery was built in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Another would follow a few years later in Alabama.

It seemed a little wrong at first, but we adapted to the “local kid makes good” storyline and cheered as they began to dominate these markets. At the start of 2015, Blue Bell was the top selling brand in America, despite its still-limited geographic reach. The small town shtick had beaten out tie-dyed sell-outs Ben & Jerry and the faux European elegance of the Bronx born Haagen-Dazs.

When deadly listeria was first linked to Blue Bell ice cream in Kansas in April, most Texans took comfort in the fact that, well, it was in Kansas. The ice cream had not been produced in Brenham—and we were assured that, even there, the infected production line only made those dinky cups and novelties foreign to those of us who ate our Blue Bell by the bucket. Living within 100 miles of Brenham, I was not concerned in the least, and continued my regular half gallon habit.

The folks at Blue Bell always seemed to be straight shooters. A few years back, when milk prices rose and most brands quietly shrunk their cartons to 1.75 or 1.5 quarts to protect their focus-group tested price point, Blue Bell stood firm and proudly proclaimed itself “Still a Half Gallon.” We appreciated the honesty, gladly paid our seven bucks a pop, and stocked up when it was on sale.

But April’s bad news just began to snowball. And as much as we loyalists wanted to blame overly sensitive bureaucrats or trial lawyers or some Okie who forgot his hairnet, it increasingly appeared that the little creamery had fallen prey to at least two nasty bugs: one a bacteria, the other an inflated ambition.

We hoped the total recall was undertaken (as we were told) “voluntarily” and in an abundance of caution. We felt heartened when management clearly said, “In our entire history we’ve never had layoffs. It’s not happening now.” Ten days later, Blue Bell laid off a third of its workforce and cut the pay of the rest.

Blue Bell Incorporated had long before embraced shortcuts like high fructose corn syrup. There are some indications that the company knew for months or even years that it had a listeria problem lingering on the factory floor. Nevertheless, a hungry public beckoned, and the company was in the midst of an aggressive expansion strategy, shipping its products to new states and even new countries. If Walmart could grow global from Bentonville, why couldn’t Blue Bell branch out from Brenham?

As Mimi Swartz summarizes in a new Texas Monthly article that only sadness must have kept off the cover (find me a native Texan who really thinks that Urban Cowboy turning 35 is a bigger deal than Blue Bell’s disastrous dive), this was a tale we had heard before:

As its sales increased, Blue Bell became like a lot of other small-town escapees—eager to join the larger world, interested in the past only so far as it might enhance the future. The Kruses were expansionists, not purists; there was no going back.

The “God Bless Blue Bell” yard signs are still up in Brenham, and given prices on the black market, a Fourth of July deep-freeze full of Homemade Vanilla or Cookies ‘n Cream could come near funding a child’s college education.

But the grocers are beginning to rearrange their inventories. Names like Dreyers and Blue Bunny, heavily discounted to lure in shoppers, attempt to fill the hole Blue Bell left. (Dreyers strikes me as the Charmin of ice creams: no matter how cold the freezer, the airy and additive laden blend always remains squeezably soft.)

We Texans are beginning to move past our denial into acceptance of the dark but increasingly probable possibility that our favorite ice cream might be gone for good. Sadly, it seems our favorite mom-and-pop ice cream company has already been gone for a while.

John Murdock writes from Texas after a decade in D.C. and has now gone several difficult weeks since his last half gallon of Blue Bell Mint Chocolate Chip. You can find him online at johnmurdock.org.

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