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Blue Bell ice cream returns to North Texas stores

Bryan McLarty let out a bellowing “Hoo-rah!” as he made his way to the checkout counter about 5:30 a.m. Monday at a Kroger supermarket in Southlake.

He was the first customer to buy Blue Bell ice cream at the store as the Brenham-based company returned to the North Texas market after being forced to shut down production last spring because of a listeria crisis.

Like many loyal fans of the frozen treat, McLarty put the controversy behind him and was ready to celebrate with four half-gallons.

“I’ve been waiting six or seven months for this,” proclaimed McLarty, 51, who owns Big Fish BBQ and Catering Co. Then he triumphantly held up a carton of Blue Bell Cookies ’n Cream and declared, “This one is probably going to be gone before I get across the street to my house.”

For fans of Blue Bell Creameries’ products, it was Ice Cream Monday — a day to scream for joy, dig out a spoon and experience a self-induced brain freeze.

But for those concerned about how the famed 108-year-old company handled a recent food-borne illness scandal, it’s still just a time to wait and see.

The popular dessert, which over the years became a cultural icon in Texas, returned to area store shelves after a seven-month hiatus. Before most residents were even awake, trucks carrying the famed half-gallon buckets of Homemade Vanilla, Cookies ’n Cream and a few other flavors fanned out to roughly 2,750 supermarkets, convenience stores and other North Texas retailers.

Many of the stores, including Wal-Mart locations, put out signs letting customers know that Blue Bell would return Monday. Nearly simultaneous pre-dawn deliveries took place at those locations, as well as Tom Thumb, Albertsons and numerous other outlets.

Outside the Southlake Kroger, which normally opens at 6 a.m. but allowed customers in early to celebrate the ice cream’s return, a pair of refrigerated trucks featuring Blue Bell’s iconic girl-with-a-cow logo pulled up about 4:15 a.m. Half-gallons of the five flavors that will be available for now — with other varieties to be added as production increases — were brought by giant dollies to the freezer aisles, and made available for immediate purchase.

The store invited customers to go through a special checkout line reserved especially for those buying ice cream.

Vicci Bartman took a pre-dawn trip to the Southlake grocery store with her 12-year-old daughter, Sophia. The duo enjoyed free samples of Homemade Vanilla with chocolate syrup and whipped cream before buying two half-gallons.

“She said her throat hurts. I said, ‘Would ice cream make it better?’ ” Vicci Bartman quipped. “We are Blue Bell fans. We haven’t bought ice cream since Blue Bell went away.”

In all, nearly 1,000 half-gallons were delivered to the store — about five times the normal daily shipment, said Jarrod Young, a Blue Bell sales manager who is normally based in Lewisville.

In addition to Homemade Vanilla and Cookies ‘N ’n Cream, customers can also get Buttered Pecan, Dutch Chocolate and Great Divide.

Blue Bell’s absence from the marketplace began with a listeria food-poisoning outbreak linked to 10 illnesses — including three deaths. The company first voluntarily recalled products, but as the controversy grew eventually shut down production in May and laid off or furloughed most of its roughly 3,900 employees.

For many of those returning employees, including workers at a Blue Bell distribution facility on Harmon Road in far north Fort Worth, Monday was the first day back on the job.

Now, buoyed by a reported $125 million investment by Fort Worth financier Sid Bass and assurances that its production lines have been modernized to prevent future food-borne illnesses, the famous Blue Bell brand and its logo featuring a silhouetted, bonnet-bedecked girl guiding a cow are poised to try and win back loyal Dallas-Fort Worth customers.

Michelle Kirchoffer walked by the ice cream aisle where posters informed customers of Blue Bell’s imminent return to shelves. As she passed the signs, she smiled and said: “I love Blue Bell. I grew up on Blue Bell. I can’t wait for it to come back.”

Salvaging a reputation

Despite the joyous occasion for devotees, not all customers are eager to let Blue Bell back into their lives.

Tonia Gentolizo, who lives in Fort Worth and works as a sacker at Kroger, said she used to love Blue Bell Cookies ’n Cream and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavors. But since the listeria outbreak, she has become fond of other brands, including Kroger’s name brand and its Private Selection offerings.

Gentolizo, a native of Ohio who has lived in Texas since 1983, said she isn’t necessarily buying Blue Bell’s assertions that it has cleaned up its production facilities. She has no plans to buy Blue Bell products any time soon.

“I’m not going to take the chance,” she said. “There are other brands.”

Winning back those customers will be a key to success for Blue Bell, said David Strutton, a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton who is considered an expert on marketing and branding.

Like many people who make their living studying publicity and public opinion, Strutton has watched with interest as Blue Bell tried to get its arms around the crisis. Many experts have criticized Blue Bell for being slow to pull its products, shut down production and take responsibility for several weeks after the listeria outbreak became known.

Now that the crisis appears to be over, Strutton doesn’t expect Blue Bell to return to its splashy advertisements, which in the past drove home the message that Blue Bell is made “the good old-fashioned way.” In this case, he said, that would be an inappropriate message.

Instead, Strutton expects the company to first quietly reintroduce its products, perhaps without much advertising for several weeks. And when it comes time to resume advertising, he said a good approach would be to use spots with a theme of seriousness and contrition.

“I would not be surprised if they went with some truth-in-advertising a week or two into the future, making a pronouncement that ‘We are back. We took a fall. We corrected our mistakes. We are sorry. We’re better than ever. You loved us once. Let us back into your lives,’ ” Strutton said. “If, contritely like a forlorn lover, Blue Bell asks for forgiveness, I think forgiveness will be given.”

Listeria outbreak

Blue Bell began pulling products from its shelves in April and shut down in May — laying off 1,450 workers and furloughing 1,400 more — after the company was linked to 10 cases of listeria, including three hospital patients who died.

Listeria is a bacteria found in raw milk and dairy products that causes a serious infection known as listeriosis. The disease is most dangerous for newborns, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, confusion, weakness, vomiting and diarrhea can last for days or weeks, according to the government website www.foodsafety.gov.

The privately owned ice cream company began returning to supermarkets on Aug. 31, when it rolled out in the Brenham, Houston and Austin areas, as well as parts of Alabama.

The Metroplex is part of a second phase that also includes Waco and central and southern Oklahoma.

The long-term plan is to resume distribution of Blue Bell products in all 15 states served by the company before the listeria outbreak. However, company officials haven’t publicized a timetable for further rollouts.

Photographer Joyce Marshall contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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