Four months is a long time to wait for Blue Bell. But when grocery stores began offering four flavors in Houston, Austin, and Brenham stores, y’all came flocking. Texas Monthly went to Houston on Monday morning to Insta-document the ice cream’s sweet, sweet return.
"The ice cream is that way," a young man said moments after I entered a Kroger's grocery store on Monday morning, partly in a trance but with another part set in dead-eyed determination. It's the look that many people had as they made a beeline to the ice cream section Monday to celebrate the first time Blue Bell has been available to the public since the entire line was recalled in April. My helpful guide wasn't even an employee, just a dude with long hair, stringy and matted from his bike ride. In one hand he carried a helmet, and in the other: a pint of Blue Bell's Dutch chocolate. Monday marked the first of five phases of Blue Bell's return to the market. Beginning around 5 in the morning, the company began restocking its shelves in select Texas areas—Austin, Houston, and, of course, Brenham. It offered three flavors (well, three-and-a-half, technically) — Homemade Vanilla, Dutch Chocolate, Cookies ‘n Cream, and the Great Divide, a combination of chocolate and vanilla. The return couldn't have come soon enough. Media outlets were ready when delivery trucks rolled into grocery store parking lots, and Blue Bell workers spent the day restocking the supply in an effort to keep up with demand. Even Governor Greg Abbott reveled in the return, his office releasing a photo of the governor two-scoops deep with this proclamation: “Texans can rejoice today as Blue Bell ice cream makes its long-awaited comeback in freezer aisles across the state." Our long statewide nightmare, it seems, is almost over.
The social media hype over Blue Bell's return is pretty true to the excitement IRL. A Kroger public relations rep said one of the funniest things about the watching Monday morning’s proceedings were the vocalized reactions. People saw the fresh supply and exclaimed, "God is Good!" or " Amen!" Or that one woman, who simply let out a mhmmmm of contentment. For some, the Blue Bell rush was fueled by childhood nostalgia. "I went to three different stores," said one longtime costumer who had finally found a location offering the goods. But late converts suffered, too. Houstonian Nikki Bannister said she lost 10 pounds during Blue Bell's absence. But now that it’s returned? "I was willing to gain five back." Bannister didn't discover Blue Bell until moving to New Orleans in the early 1990s, and when she finally arrived in Texas, the Blue Bell craving was something of a homecoming. "I don't even eat sweets, but that's the only dessert I'll eat." Others couldn’t go without some sort of Blue Bell substitute during its absence. Picking up his own half gallon, Ross Norwood said that after the company first recalled its products he tried to make ice cream himself. He bought the maker, because "there wasn't a whole lot out there [quality-wise]. And I thought, well, why not give it a try?" I asked Norwood if he would pack away his ice cream maker now that Blue Bell was back. "Oh, yeah. Definitely. It wasn't that difficult to make, but nothing can beat this." — Jeff Winkler #bluebellicecream #bluebell
Customers may rejoice, but perhaps no one is happier about Blue Bell’s return than its employees. The listeria recall forced the company to lay off about 700 full and part-time employees and put another 1,400 on furlough. But those furloughed workers were busy on Monday, starting their shifts around 3 in the morning and, it seemed, not stopping once. Most of the deliverymen I spoke with had been with the company for some time. One had sixteen years under his belt, another had ten. When the furlough hit, some of the area supervisors still went to the office four days a week. It was just busy work—cleaning, mostly. "The branch looked like brand new place," laughed one driver, who, like all the others, worked at a quick and steady tempo while restocking the shelves. "It's just good to be back," he said, shoving product in the freezers as sweat gathered on his forehead. That was the general chorus: It was great to get back to work. Without breaking restocking pace, the deliverymen eagerly chatted with customers who sneaked up behind them to scoop up cartons after they had barely touched the shelf. They thanked customers for their support and patience, and they were always courteous. Ridiculously so. They were Blue Bell’s branded hometown wholesomeness personified. And that company image was only solidified when one deliveryman told me that instead of morning coffee in the office, it was ice cream. Wait, seriously? He assured me this was true, and he was working too hard to have much energy for jokes. — Jeff Winkler #bluebell #bluebellicecream
If there's one thing Blue Bell underestimated, it was the public's love of Cookies ‘n Cream. Sure, there were three other flavors, but the people's choice was clear. At one location, Cookies 'n Cream sold out at 8 a.m. "Where's the Cookies ‘n Cream?" squawked one woman at a volume loud enough to be heard halfway down the aisle. Another woman was in near tears when she discovered her favorite flavor had sold out. In seconds, her eyes reflected both joy and disappointment—like a child finding out Santa is real, but he's dying of cancer. It was a funny thing to watch throughout the morning. People would come along in a stiff half-trot to the Blue Bell freezer, stop dead in their tracks, and scan the display meticulously. After a second, you could see reality registered on their faces as they slumped in disappointment. One man came up clutching a $20 bill in his hand, only to carefully put it back in his wallet when he realized that his hopes had been for naught. Arriving well after 8 a.m., Cookies 'n Cream aficionado Jeremy Bentley wasn't going to let a technicality get in the way of sweet bliss. "I saw [a bag of] Oreos and was, like, 'Alright, I've got to improvise a little bit." So the ice cream McGyyer bought a bag of Oreos and a half-gallon of The Great Divide. In the afternoon, yet another crew of deliverymen came and restocked the freezer, including plenty of Cookies 'n Cream. Just as they finished, a couple in their mid-fifties came up from behind and took out a carton of the crowd favorite. After the man placed the tub in their small basket, the woman half-whispered one conspiratorial word: "Run." — Jeff Winkler #bluebell #bluebellicecream
Despite the set backs—loss of employment, the criticism, the three people who died after eating listeria-tainted ice cream—was there ever any doubt Blue Bell’s return would be anything less than triumphant? One store in San Antonio sold 261 of its half-gallon tubs in the first fifteen after Blue Bell hit the shelves, according to KSAT. Almost uniformly, stores put in place a cap on how much Blue Bell people could buy—perhaps worried about some sweet-tooth black market. But most people were good about taking only what they needed. A surprising number of folks on Monday simply grabbed a single small pint before making their way to the register. And then there was the man I found at the self-checkout with two Dutch Chocolates. He confessed that he'd already bought four half-gallons of Homemade Vanilla at another store. Was he going store-to-store buying up as much stock as he could? "No," he said. "I just got to thinking I needed a couple chocolates in my inventory." The lucky ones who snagged a tub had to take another memento, one that couldn’t be eaten with a spoon. Some snapped exuberant selfies. Others took photos to taunt. "I used to get [Blue Bell] with my sister," said one woman who'd just taken a picture. "So I'm getting this and she's nooot." — Jeff Winkler #bluebell #bluebellicecream