Twenty miles north of Baghdad was not a great place to be in 2004. It was less than a year after the United States invaded Iraq, wreaking widespread destruction as it ousted Saddam Hussein and searched for weapons of mass destruction. And, deployed at Camp Taji, Jim Boyd was feeling lonely — until he found a postcard on the ground with a picture of a pint container of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream.
“It is hard to put into words the way I felt when I found this postcard from my great home state of Texas,” Boyd wrote in a letter to the company that year. “It was lying on the ground in an area totally destroyed by our bombs. … Each time I looked at the card I was reminded of home and Texas and what it would be like to go to the food store in Austin and buy some Blue Bell Ice Cream.”
Asked by Houston History Magazine about letters like Boyd’s the company received, Paul Kruse — like his grandfather, father and uncle before him, Blue Bell’s leader — was humble.
“We just feel privileged that they pick Blue Bell because we know that there are other choices they could make,” he said. “The loyalty of our consumers only makes us want to work harder to maintain the same quality going forward, and continue to find ways to improve what we do.”
Now, after a disastrous recall following reports of Listeria linked to Blue Bell, humility has been the order of the day. Pregnant women, newborns, older adults and those with weakened immune systems are vulnerable to the bacteria, which is found naturally in soil and water. Listeria can be spread through animal feces or by employees who do not wash their hands — and is almost always linked to dirty equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the reputation of a much-loved 100-year-old family business in his hands, the 60-year-old, white-haired Kruse looked nothing short of mortified in a recorded apology. This wasn’t just business — it was personal.
“We’re heartbroken over this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers,” the chief executive said. “Our entire history has been dedicated to making the very best and highest-quality ice cream we possibly could.”
He added: “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 … we’re going to get it right.”
If Kruse’s apology seemed a bit more heartfelt than the average corporate mea culpa, perhaps it’s because Blue Bell isn’t the average corporation. Located in Brenham, Tex. — population 15,000 — the 4,000-employee company named for a Lone Star wildflower is privately held and publicly lionized. And the recall is breaking hearts.
“It’s like if a friend has cancer,” Page Michel, head of the Brenham Economic Development Foundation, told the Kansas City Star as she fought back tears.
That friend has been around Brenham quite a while. Blue Bell was founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company. It delivered its wares to local families by horse and wagon. And jumpstarted by the leadership of E.F. Kruse, who took over in 1919, the regional company was earning $1 million in revenue by the 1960s.
“E.F. Kruse, being the youngest son of a respected local farming family had, no doubt, earned a reputation as an honest, hard-working individual,” according to a company-produced history. “Life on the farm was not easy, and the children were generally required to take on chores and become a productive part of the working family at an early age. These requirements taught the value of hard work and responsibility and also built character.”
Of course, Blue Bell didn’t get to be the No. 3 ice-cream maker in the country just by pulling at heartstrings. Though its products are only sold in 23 states and are available in just 30 percent of the nation’s supermarkets — these folks want to bring it to D.C. — it built a brand on a self-consciously countrified marketing campaign.
“Blue Bell’s success, in part, has been built on selling itself as an old-timey, country company,” the Houston Chronicle wrote in 2006. “That marketing strategy took hold in 1969 when Blue Bell … used Washington County settings and local residents to represent the down-home nature of the company and its ice cream.”
Blue Bell advertisement.
But in the case of Blue Bell, there may be truth in advertising. The company declined to speculate how much the recall will cost. But it’s standing by its workers.
“In our entire history we’ve never had layoffs,” spokesman Jenny Van Dorf told CNN. “It’s not happening now.”
And for the company’s fans and neighbors, the idea that the Kruse family just makes ice cream is off the table.
“Here’s the thing – everybody has celebrated a birth or a wedding or a birthday with Blue Bell here,” said Charlie Pyle, the owner of a Brenham ice-cream parlor. “It’s just a part of life for us.”