The cynical Hollywood version of this tale (imagine Michael Douglas starring in “Meltdown in Ice Creamtown”) would feature a hard-hearted, profit-driven CEO bellowing this to intimidated underlings in a cloistered board room: “You know, there are worse ways to die than from eating ice cream.”
But this isn’t Hollywood. This is Brenham. And, we’ve been told, the cows think it’s heaven. This is Blue Bell. We like Blue Bell ice cream.
And this is Paul Kruse — the third-generation CEO of the “little creamery in Brenham” — in a non-slick, 38-second, damage-control video that is the polar opposite of BP’s slick sorry-about-the-slick ads.
“We’re heartbroken over the situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers,” Kruse says. “Our entire history has been dedicated to making the very best and the highest quality ice cream we possibly could. And we’re committed to fixing the problem. Ice cream is a joy and a pleasure to eat. It certainly is for me, and I do it every day. And it should never be a cause for concern. And for that we do apologize, and we’re going to get it right.”
The “situation” is a listeria outbreak that has sickened 10 people, including three who died. Listeria is an infection that can be fatal for the very young and old and for those with weakened immune systems. It can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
Blue Bell has recalled all its products. Life-threatening for Blue Bell? Too early to tell, but probably not. Calling the deaths and sicknesses a “situation” does seem like an understatement. I sense lawyerly involvement. Kruse is one.
Truth is, the little creamery in Brenham is not so little. By one measure, it sold more ice cream in 2014 than any other U.S. company.
The New York Times, in a May 2006 Dining and Wine page dispatch from famed reporter R.W. Apple, said this about Blue Bell: “With clean, vibrant flavors and a rich, luxuriant consistency achieved despite a butterfat content a little lower than some competitors, it hooks you from the first spoonful. Entirely and blessedly absent are the cloying sweetness, chalky texture, and oily, gummy aftertaste that afflict many mass-manufactured ice creams.”
Them New York boys sure talk fancy. I think what he meant was it tastes good.
And that’s why you’re rooting for Blue Bell this week. Blue Bell and Brenham are synonymous, so much so that when you think of Brenham, you think of Blue Bell before you think of it as the birthplace of Texas, which it claims to be because the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed in nearby Washington-on-the-Brazos.
It was quiet at the Blue Bell tour center on Wednesday, where tours have been temporarily canceled. Michael Dennis, pastor at Austin’s North Village Church, had stopped by with friends en route to Houston. A mint chocolate chip guy, he’s hoping for the best for Blue Bell.
“They’ve done a great job of capturing that kind of small-town feel in their product, I grew up on it. I love it,” Dennis said just before I made him and his friends put on the paper Blue Bell hats they had just gotten.
Over at the city-run Blue Bell Aquatic Center, former Brenham High School basketball coach Thomas Schulte had just finished his half-mile swim. Blue Bell, he said, has done much for this community.
“Things happen, and it looks like they’re addressing the issue, and they’re going to rectify everything, and everything will be good,” said Schulte. “This too will pass.”
Moments later, up the road at the creamery, police cars and firetrucks were in the parking lot. What now?
What now was a community show of support for Brenham’s largest private employer. Wende Ragonis, the city’s director of community services and a homemade vanilla fan, was the wrangler for a group photo for an ad supporting Blue Bell in Thursday’s Brenham Banner-Press.
Florence Bentke, a lifelong Blue Bell fan (buttered pecan) is in the photo. She has several relatives who work at Blue Bell.
“It means everything,” she said of the creamery. “It’s just a shame that all this is happening to them. Can’t nobody believe it. It’s just devastating.”
Unaccustomed as you may be to rooting for high-profit corporations, you’re rooting for this one. You like the little creamery in Brenham even though it’s not so little.
But clearly harm has been done. So you’re hoping it somehow was a one-time, easy-to-correct, nothing-to-do-with-cutting-corners-to-pump-up-profits mistake.
You’re hoping that because Blue Bell is part of the fabric of our part of the world. And because you like Blue Bell ice cream.