Texas’ ice cream town reeling after deadly bacteria outbreak

AUSTIN — It’s hard to overstate how big a deal ice cream is in the little Texas town of Brenham.

Parks have slides in the shape of sundaes. Businesses like Must Be Heaven, one of two ice-cream parlors, are named after Blue Bell Creameries Inc. slogans. The Chamber of Commerce keeps a freezer stocked with Blue Bell ice-cream sandwiches and mini- cups. And a mural on the wall of a building on West Alamo Street includes the town’s motto: “Brenham, a Flavor of its own.”

So when Blue Bell announced it was recalling all of its products after a deadly listeria outbreak, many in the town of 16,000 were stunned.

“It’s like if a friend has cancer,” said Page Michel, head of the Brenham Economic Development Foundation, fighting back tears.

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The road to “the Little Creamery in Brenham” is lined with bluebonnet wildflowers and fields of grazing cows. The trucks rumbling along it Tuesday weren’t on delivery runs but heading out to redeem gallons of Mocha Madness and Homemade Vanilla. The company pulled its products in an expansion of an earlier limited recall that came after federal public health officials linked three deaths to tainted Blue Bell ice cream.

“It’s painful,” Joe Robertson, the company’s advertising and public relations manager, said as he sat on a bench outside the Little Creamery. “This is a huge undertaking.”

For Brenham, it’s an emotional blow.

“Here’s the thing — everybody has celebrated a birth or a wedding or a birthday with Blue Bell here,” said Charlie Pyle, Must Be Heaven’s owner. “It’s just a part of life for us.”

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With 900 workers, Blue Bell is the largest private employer in Brenham, which is about 70 miles from Houston and was named for a hero who fought for the Republic of Texas against Mexico. He died in 1843 and Blue Bell churned its first batch in 1911, and since then ice cream has been the local obsession. It’s a statewide infatuation; Blue Bell’s not widely available in Washington and Texans George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had it shipped to the White House during their presidencies.

The recall is the first in the company’s history. The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control are investigating the listeria outbreak, which the CDC said has sickened 10 people. Blue Bell distributes in 23 states and Mexico and to U.S. military installations around the world. It has four plants, in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama.

The creamery is now making ice cream under what Robertson called a “test and hold process,” where what’s produced is stored and checked for listeria. The number of flavors has scaled back to fewer than 10 from the usual 50-plus.

“We need to keep the process going,” Robertson said.

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The idea of the company not quickly getting back on its feet is heresy to Brett Smith, who owns Scoops, a convenience store and ice cream parlor in Brenham for 33 years. He taped a sign to the ice-cream cooler that says “We Miss Bluebell” and is asking customers to sign it, like a get-well card. He said they’re “shocked, just shocked” when they see the cooler’s empty — Scoops doesn’t sell any other brand — “and then the next emotion is they’re just sad.”

Blue Bell is the nation’s third largest ice-cream maker with annual sales of about $880 million, said Jared Koerten, a senior food analyst at Euromonitor International. No. 1 is Nestle, which sells around $4 billion a year and whose brands include Haagen-Dazs. The next is Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry’s and sells about $2.7 billion annually.

The market is crowded and cutthroat, Koerten said, with a growing number of brands that keep coming out with edgy flavors. But Blue Bell’s been steadily increasing its market share, which is now above 6 percent, up from 4 percent in 2005, according to Euromonitor. Sales nearly doubled over the same period as the company boosted its flavor count. Employees submit suggestions and management vets as many as 300 ideas from them every year.

A mainstay is Cookies ‘n Cream, as everyone in Brenham knows. The breeze carries the scent of cookies, which the creamery bakes in massive batches.

“It’s kind of like smelling a rose and remembering your grandmother’s garden,” the economic development agency’s Michel said. “Blue Bell and Brenham are synonymous.”