Tainted ice cream. A series of recalls. Deaths linked to the company’s products. And a future that is in doubt. What are Texans supposed to think about Blue Bell now?
“Brenham is an orderly place,” my friend Molly told me. She had moved there from Houston a few years ago and was settling into life in what is arguably Texas’s best-loved small town. She gave me the grand tour on a perfect late spring day when the sky was a cloudless blue and the April air was cool, crisp, and pristine.
It is a town built by thrifty, modest German immigrants. The Victorian and Craftsman cottages had been restored with restraint. Flower gardens thrived without the benefit of professional landscapers, and the rainy winter had left the lawns and wild grasses in the fields beyond an almost otherworldly green. Children roamed the oak-shaded parks, joyously free of adult supervision. The clean, broad streets were devoid of big-city blights like hungry strays, impassable traffic, and people yelling into their cellphones.
In fact, Brenham, with a population of around 16,000, peddles nostalgia better than just about any other small town I know. Molly and I wandered around the “Historic Downtown”—caps theirs—poking through Texas ephemera in the antiques stores and visiting the farmers’ market housed in a restored old warehouse; the locally grown produce and homemade jams were set off nicely by dark-wood floorboards and sunlight filtered through old glass panes. We stopped for salads at the Funky Art Cafe, which was suitably so, and peeked in on the homemade pies at Must Be Heaven, which describes itself as a place where “everything from the hand-painted decor to the old-time atmosphere makes everyone slow down and enjoy the day.” Then we headed out to the airport to check out the Southern Flyer Diner, which boasts Brenham’s best burgers and waitresses who dress in fifties ensembles, including but not limited to poodle skirts. Everyone we met seemed really glad to see us—maybe a little more so than usual, even for a small town.
The reason for that eagerness became all too apparent when we pulled into the hulking complex better known as “The Little Creamery in Brenham,” the home of Blue Bell, indisputably the makers of the best-known ice cream in the state. The town and the company have a symbiotic relationship, both capitalizing on the safe, sweet, old-timey identity of the other. You can, for instance, take Blue Bell Road around town, and you can swim at the Blue Bell Aquatic Center. Locals have benefited enormously and routinely from the company’s largesse in scholarships, charitable donations, and the like. But the day we drove up, the visitors parking lot, normally jammed, was empty, a paper notice taped on the door delivering the sad news that all tours had been canceled indefinitely.
For the first time in its 108-year history, Blue Bell—and, in turn, Brenham—is in crisis. A super-nasty bacteria known as Listeria monocytogenes was found in a few Blue Bell products. Five hospital patients in Kansas had been infected with the listeria bacteria, three of whom died. The outbreak now consists of ten confirmed cases in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arizona. A partial recall led to a full-on recall, and now there are no more half gallons of Homemade Vanilla, Rocky Road, Blueberry Cheesecake, Homemade in the Shade, Southern Peach Cobbler, or Tin Roof to be had in the near future. While locals and desperate fans in Texas and beyond worry over the future of the Little Creamery—the third-largest ice cream maker in the country, one that employs almost four thousand people and brings in around $900 million in sales—plaintiff’s lawyers have already begun to circle. Residents of Brenham have responded by dotting their yards with “God Bless Blue Bell” signs and attending prayer vigils (“It has grieved our hearts that our beloved product . . . could ever become a source of harm to anyone”). The freezer compartments at local convenience stores remain empty and forlorn, because no Brenham retailer would dream of substituting any other ice cream for Blue Bell.
The entrance to the creamery was open and so was the store, so we pushed on past the lobby photographs of Texas’s most famous baseball coaches. (“Families and sports—that’s what matters in Brenham,” Molly pointed out.) We climbed up the wide staircase and stepped into an empty version of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, decorated with marble-topped tables, wrought-iron chairs, stained-glass hanging lamps, and large guest sinks for proper hand washing. Our footsteps echoed on the tile floor. No one was scooping ice cream for the multitudes, and the pyramids of display containers in the familiar rainbow—lavender, mint-green, vermilion, caramel—stood at attention, like soldiers on a futile training exercise. A solitary employee bustled past us but seemed eager to talk when we stopped her. Yes, she said, things were looking up. Yes, she expected the products to be back on line within a month. “June,” she said hopefully and then pushed on, disappearing down the steps, a Blue Bell version of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit.
The store, in contrast, showed definite signs of life. It was full of merchandise, a cross between an airport souvenir shop and a down-home boutique, with gentle lighting and displays inside homey wooden crates. From one saleswoman’s account, the store was doing a good business, particularly among avid Blue Bell supporters. One Houston company had purchased 130 T-shirts to help out. There were nightgowns decorated with dairy cows and the phrase “I’m Moooody in the morning.” T-shirts adorned with an ice cream crank and “I get cranky without my Blue Bell.” There were old-fashioned ice cream sundae glasses and cookbooks with treasured Washington County recipes. There were scoops, mugs, lacy hoodies, bumper stickers, coasters, wallets, gimme caps, and just about anything else you could stamp with the company logo, that charming silhouette of the little girl in a sun hat leading a milk cow somewhere, well, nice. “They’ve thought of everything,” I heard a customer say in awe.
Everything, I thought, except what can happen when the reality of the business world busts in on a deeply held dream of the past.
Ice cream is Proustian. One bite can send you time-traveling decades back, to a hot summer day, when you walked barefoot on shell-dappled Gulf sands, vanilla ice cream dripping over the sides of a cone and onto your fingers. Maybe it was a reward for the first time you lost a tooth, a sweet, cold dish of mint chocolate chip as balm for the pain. A bite of blackberry gelato might conjure up a stroll down a sunny Roman street with a long-lost love. More recently, ice cream has become associated with being a good person and doing good works, even though the product really isn’t all that good for you. Honesty matters. Trust matters. We feed it to our children, after all. This is why Ben & Jerry’s, on its website, stresses its commitment to “progressive values across our business,” “climate justice,” and mandatory GMO labeling. This is why Häagen-Dazs wants you to know that the company has devoted more than $1 million to honeybee survival (“We want to keep those little heroes buzzing”). This is why Breyers pledges to use “sustainably farmed vanilla and fruit” and milk and cream from cows “not treated with artificial growth hormones.” Keeping up with modern times, Breyers also features lactose-free, no-sugar-added, fat-free, half-the-fat, carb-smart, and gluten-free ice cream.
Blue Bell, on the other hand, has thrived by never seeming to stray from its small-town roots. The Brenham Creamery Company was founded by a group of local businessmen in 1907, and it has been run by three successive generations of the Kruse family since 1919. The name was changed to Blue Bell, after the lovely Central Texas wildflower, during the Great Depression. For the next thirty or so years, the customer base remained small and exclusive. The flavors came from family recipes along with fresh eggs and milk from nearby farms. Blue Bell was local long before local was cool.
But Ed Kruse, like his father, E.F., understood that the company couldn’t grow unless it got the word out. When it made its first push into Houston, in the early sixties, it stumbled with corny radio spots (“Blue Bell is lahk climbin’ through a barbed wahr fence—it’s easy to get hung on it”). Blue Bell’s way of creating demand was to telephone Brenham émigrés who’d moved to Houston and ask them to request the ice cream in their grocery stores.
The real change in Blue Bell’s fortunes came thanks to a famously eccentric adman by the name of Lyle Metzdorf, who arrived under Ed’s leadership. Metzdorf was not a small-town guy; he did hail from Independence, Missouri, but once he opened a shop in Houston he managed to start snagging national advertising awards from his New York brethren with alarming frequency. His clients would eventually include the likes of Sony and Citibank. Despite Metzdorf’s long hair and flamboyant fashions—in seventies-era Houston he carried a walking stick for show—he won over the deeply conservative, devoutly Christian Blue Bell leadership with his notion of “sophisticated country.”
In other words, Metzdorf thought Blue Bell was on the right track with its marketing, but it needed a classier mode of travel. Houston was already booming, and Texas’s transition from a rural to an urban state was in full force. Big-city folk missed their country origins but couldn’t embrace them lest they be judged as hicks. Metzdorf understood that getting a country product onto city shelves required a certain degree of self-acceptance combined with irony. One solution was to do an ad that recalled Grant Wood’s American Gothic but switched out the farmer’s pitchfork for a spoon, with the tagline “Blue Bell don’t taste store bought.” A Kool Kookie ice cream sandwich package evoked the hipness of Seymour Chwast, a noted graphic artist of the time. The Kruses loved it. According to John Barnhill, Blue Bell’s first marketing director, one of the only times Metzdorf ran into trouble was over the now-iconic logo: the company was moving into style-conscious Dallas, and Blue Bell executives were apoplectic when the teats on the milk cow kept coming back from the graphic designer all wrong. “I knew how to draw a little girl,” Jerry Jeanmard, now a successful Houston interior designer, told me, “but I guess I had no idea how to draw a cow.” Before long, however, Blue Bell’s loyal fans were advertising the product themselves. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush couldn’t live without it and had it shipped to the White House.
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 company adopted food trends with gusto: it built an empire of ice cream products that included about a zillion flavors, some seasonal and some not, including frozen yogurt, ice cream cups, ice cream without added sugar, low-fat ice cream, sherbet, Bullets, Mini Sandwiches, Banana Pops, Mooo Bars, several kinds of fruit bars, and more. In 1989, as the company expanded beyond Texas, it started offering regional flavors, like Key Lime Pie for the Florida customers and Mississippi Mud Pie for those in the Delta. And even though the Blue Bell leadership pretty much ranged from middle-aged white men to middle-aged white men, Blue Bell also shrewdly moved into flavors like Mexican Vanilla—it had a dash of cinnamon—and tres leches con fresas to capitalize on Latino tastes. The Kruses were also early adopters of automation: distribution centers sprang up in every new market, though to preserve the quality, the products could be delivered and stocked only by certified Blue Bell deliverymen. And, of course, like all modern corporations, Blue Bell got involved in politics, generously supporting the likes of Dallas congressman Pete Sessions and Senator Ted Cruz, men who share their deeply conservative views of the Texas that was and the Texas that should be.
By 2015, Blue Bell wasn’t a luxury product anymore, and it wasn’t so pure either—high-fructose corn syrup had become part of the recipe, and maybe the factories could be just a little bit cleaner. But it was right there behind Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. Like so many Texans, it had made it from a small town to the big time.
Here is what normally happens when a product is recalled. There are lots of angry protests, with people bearing placards and chanting and, in the most-modern times, setting up change.org accounts. Health experts weigh in. Congressional hearings are held. There are calls for more government regulation. Lawsuits are threatened and filed. The product and its company are vilified, mostly for not caring about the little guy. Some products come back from the brink, and some don’t: Tylenol did. The Ford Pinto did not.
Listeria is a common bacteria; it can survive in freezing temperatures and hide in machinery for years before making its presence known. Once found, it’s hard to get rid of. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that the outbreak started as far back as 2010 but was only recently able to trace it back to Blue Bell. Two cases were reported at an unnamed Texas hospital in 2011. And over the next four years six more cases surfaced. In February South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control discovered listeria in the Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and the Great Divide Bars, both of which had been made in Brenham. That information helped link all of the other cases going back five years. Blue Bell ordered a partial recall, but the company press release stated unequivocally that the withdrawal “in no way includes our half gallons, quarts, pints, cups, three gallon ice cream, or take-home frozen snack novelties.”
Then, at the end of March, the FDA, using a foodborne-illness database, reported that it had found listeria in some three-ounce ice cream cups. Blue Bell issued another partial recall, which stated unequivocally that this withdrawal “in no way includes Blue Bell Ice Cream half gallons, pints, quarts, three gallons, or other three-ounce cups.” It was around this time that other Texas institutions started pulling Blue Bell products, most likely because the word “liability” started seeping into the consciousness of hospital administrators (Texas Children’s) and grocers (H-E-B). Blue Bell brought in a Washington, D.C., public relations firm called kglobal as Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Kroger were taking Blue Bell out of their freezer cases. The bad news kept coming: listeria next appeared in the cheery yellow pint containers of Banana Pudding Ice Cream, and in April two additional cases of listeriosis were confirmed.
It wasn’t until April 20 that Blue Bell accepted reality, announcing a total and complete recall of all products. That same day, it brought in another PR firm, the global Burson-Marsteller, whose crisis-management team had represented Tylenol, Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) in India, and the Argentine military dictatorship. More recently, Blackwater USA hired a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller to help defend itself in a congressional hearing after the killing of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in 2007.
CEO and president Paul Kruse, looking somewhat like a deer in the headlights and just a teensy bit peeved, made the obligatory apologetic video. “We’re committed to doing the one hundred percent right thing, and the best way to do that is to take all of our products off the market until we are confident that they are all safe,” he said. “We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers.”
That was enough for most Texans, who just wanted their ice cream back. As the Austin-based lifestyle website Wide Open Country put it in a headline, “Panic Overtakes Texans as Blue Bell Supply Dwindles.” The supportive yard signs easily stretched all the way to Houston. Bun B voiced his support on Instagram. Gallery Furniture took out full-page ads. The “Come and Take It” flag, the one used by soldiers in the Battle of Gonzales in 1835, showed up affixed to the Blue Bell logo all over the Internet. One Jayson Seth Lindley, of Pearland, became a social media star by posting the following: “Let me break this down for Northerners who can’t understand the tragedy of recent events: The Blue Bell recall doesn’t mean we’re down a brand of ice cream. We don’t BUY other brands of ice cream. The Blue Bell recall means WE ARE OUT OF ICE CREAM.”
Naysayers were pretty much tarred and feathered. “Your mother didn’t love you enough when you were little,” someone retorted in a comment to a Blue Bell critic. Houston Chronicle cartoonist Nick Anderson drew a Blue Bell container with a new flavor—“Luscious Listeria”—and received hate mail. (“The only things you can’t draw are Muhammad and ice cream,” executive editor and executive vice president Jeff Cohen subsequently cracked. He received the threat of a voodoo curse.)
Psychiatrists would probably call the (over)reaction of the fans a narcissistic injury, that defense mechanism that kicks in when someone reexperiences a wound that dates all the way back to childhood, like when someone made you go to bed without ice cream, or teased you for being a dunderheaded Texan, or pointed out that what you believed in wasn’t really what it seemed.
In the meantime, as equipment is cleaned and employees are retrained, as executives and lawyers begin to sort things out, people will begin to ask questions that aren’t so sweet. It didn’t help matters that, according to FDA findings released to the Chronicle in May, Blue Bell had a pretty good idea that it had a listeria problem as far back as 2013. On the street there’s a lot of talk about “regaining trust.” Brenham is holding its collective breath. Blue Bell has never had to lay off employees before, but no one knows if management will be able to avoid that now, despite its promises. And no one knows when Blue Bell products will return to stores. As the anxiety levels rise, perhaps it’s best to remember the words of Howard Kruse, who ran the company from 1993 until he handed the scoop to his nephew Paul, in 2004: “Ice cream is the happiest food in the world,” he liked to say. Well, it is, ain’t it?