The summer hasn’t been great for Blue Bell Creameries. The beloved Texas ice cream company recalled all of its products after a Listeria contamination issue led to three deaths and numerous illnesses. Four months after this voluntary recall, Blue Bell ice cream is returning to store shelves today, much to the delight of its devoted fan base. How does Blue Bell inspire such strong feelings from customers? It’s worth digging into the company’s history to see.
1. The Company Didn’t Originally Make Ice Cream.
It wasn’t called Blue Bell, either. When the company we now know as Blue Bell Creameries opened its doors in Brenham, Texas in 1907, it was the Brenham Creamery Company, a cooperative that didn’t have any intention of making ice cream. Instead, the company set out to conquer the Texas butter market.
2. Ice Cream Came Along Four Years Later.
In 1911, the Brenham Creamery Company began dabbling in ice cream. These early efforts at making frozen desserts weren’t exactly industrial in their scale—the creamery hand-churned a whopping two gallons of ice cream a day in the early going. This product then had to be loaded onto horse-drawn buggies loaded with ice and salt for delivery.
3. The Ice Cream Was an Instant Hit.
Production may have been limited, but Denham’s residents loved the creamery’s ice cream. When it became clear there was demand for the frosty treat, the company invested in equipment that would enable it to jack up annual production to 6,000 gallons.
4. The Blue Bell Name Comes from a Local Wildflower.
Even after hitching both its literal and metaphorical wagons to ice cream, the Brenham Creamery Company struggled. In 1919, the company recruited local teacher E.F. Kruse to help lead the failing creamery back to profitability. Kruse proved to be a savvy hire who stayed at the helm until his death in 1951. One of Kruse’s most enduring contributions to the company involved changing its name to Blue Bell Creameries in 1930, a picturesque moniker based on one of Texas’ most popular flowers.
5. The Kruse family is still running the show.
Nearly a century after E.F. Kruse first stepped in to rescue the Brenham Creamery Company from potential insolvency, his descendants are still at the top of the company. When the company faced its most recent crisis, it was C.E.O. Paul Kruse, E.F.’s grandson, who had to allay consumer fears about contamination issues.
6. Making Cookies ‘n Cream Was a Bit of a Pain.
Vanilla ice cream laced with bits of chocolate sandwich cookies is a classic combo, and Blue Bell claims to have created the flavor in 1978. (It’s worth noting that other pioneers have made their case for recognition as the inventors of the flavor, too.) In the earliest days of Blue Bell’s Cookies ‘n Cream, making each batch required quite a bit of legwork. As Blue Bell had to buy individual packages of Oreos from Nabisco and manually open each bag that went into the ice cream. This process grew tiresome, and today the company bakes its own cookies for the treat.
7. Homemade Vanilla is the big draw.
It may not be flashy, but Blue Bell’s Homemade Vanilla is always in demand. While the company offers a wide portfolio of flavors, the Homemade Vanilla that first found its way onto cones in 1969 keeps the lights on with around 60 percent of Blue Bell’s annual sales. Not surprisingly, Homemade Vanilla is one of four flavors that’s returning to shelves today, along with Dutch Chocolate, Cookies ‘n Cream, and the chocolate-vanilla combo The Great Divide.
8. Blue Bell took its time expanding.
Even once Blue Bell established itself as the premium ice cream of choice for local Texans, the company wasn’t in a huge hurry to expand. Even though Brenham is only 70 miles northwest of Houston, the company didn’t expand into that market until 1960. Once it established a foothold in Houston, Blue Bell kept spreading across Texas. By 1989, the company was ready to branch into other states as it stepped into Louisiana and Oklahoma.
9. The company is committed to the half gallon.
In an era of shrinking package sizes, Blue Bell has stubbornly stuck to the classic half-gallon tub as its default serving size. The company website has its own “Still a Half Gallon” page that touts how it offers customers 33 percent more ice cream than most of its competitors.
10. Its small geographic footprint hasn’t held it back.
Blue Bell is only available in 23 states, but this relatively limited distribution area hasn’t kept it from competing with ice cream’s big boys. In 2014, Blue Bell ranked as America’s third-largest ice cream maker by controlling 6.4 percent of the U.S. market. It trails only food giants Nestlé (which owns Haagen-Dazs and Edy’s/Dreyers) and Unilever, makers of Ben & Jerry’s and Klondike.
11. The Listeria Outbreak Led to a Black Market for Blue Bell.
Blue Bell is known for the loyalty it inspires in customers, and the consumer reaction to the recent recall underscores how devoted the brand’s fans can be. As The Washington Post and Food Safety News noted in May, rather than scaring fans away from the brand, the Listeria recall gave rise to a playful black market for pre-recall Blue Bell products. Sellers on eBay and Craigslist were offering tubs of Blue Bell at prices that ranged from inflated ($50 for a gallon of Cookies ‘n Cream) to preposterous ($10,000 for a pint of Kookie Dough). The burgeoning black market never really had a chance to get off the ground, as eBay quickly removed the Blue Bell listings.