Any Texan who was around in the 1980s and ‘90s and watched television or listened to the radio is certain to remember the ubiquitous jingles associated with “the best ice cream in the country.” Grocery freezers were lined with the familiar gallon tubs, just waiting for shoppers to reach in to have themselves “a Blue Bell country day.” One of the catchiest lyrics of the various advertisements included a line, “We eat all we can, and we sell the rest.” That company, that “Little Creamery in Brenham,” became Texas’s top-selling ice cream through the leadership of the Kruse family, who steered the company forward for nearly a century.
Back in 1907, a farmers’ cooperative in the rural Washington County ended up with plenty of extra cream. Those who were business savvy sensed an opportunity and formed the Brenham Creamery Company, converting an old cotton gin into a creamery to make and sell butter. The business was successful and the company exclusively offered butter for about four years. By that time, the company had in its possession an ice cream maker, a hand-cranked drum that sat in ice within a wooden tub. At a rate of two gallons per day, the company started manually cranking the cream, adding eggs and fresh fruit all produced locally. Along with the butter, the creamery hauled its wares around the surrounding community in a horse-drawn wagon. Its popularity spread by word of mouth and the sweet offering quickly became a hit!
Grandfather of Gallon Goodness
While early business was good, two managers failed to grow the company and by 1916 financial difficulties arose. The struggles continued until the creamery hired a new general manager three years later by the name of E.F. Kruse, a former school teacher in his early 20s. Incredibly dedicated, Kruse even withheld cashing some of his earliest paychecks, until he was assured of the company’s solvency. The new manager’s financial wherewithal saw the company through the crisis and business soon boomed under his careful guidance.
In 1930, he changed the name officially to Blue Bell Creamery, after one of Texas’s most beautiful wildflowers. The bluebell, not to be confused with the state flower, the Texas Bluebonnet, exhibits large, beautiful blooms in a bluish, almost purple hue.
Within two decades, Kruse had acquired a motorized vehicle and later a refrigerated truck, each upgrade allowing the company to expand its distribution area. The company was still making the ice cream by batch at a rate of about ten gallons every 20 minutes. It was at this time, in 1936, that Blue Bell purchased an innovation that would forever change their course, a continuous ice cream freezer. The contraption allowed the creamery to produce up to 80 gallons per hour, more than doubling their production rate. Additionally, the ice cream produced flowed through a spigot, so it was able to fill various sized containers.
A Family Affair
While Blue Bell was not family-owned, it became family-operated. When E.F. Kruse passed away in 1951 from a swift, eight-week battle with cancer, his sons took his place manning the ice cream ship. The two had both attended Texas A&M University just 40 miles away and majored in dairy science. Ed, Class of ’49, started working full-time at the plant that year, eventually achieving the role of chairman and chief executive officer while Howard, Class of ’52, started working full time in 1954, eventually serving as company president.
It was E.F. Kruse’s two sons who made the ultimate decision to stop production of butter in 1958 and focus solely on the ice cream business, thus sealing Blue Bell’s fate as a leader in the industry. Expansion was quickly necessary and the company’s first temporary branch opened in Houston just two years later. The distribution area expanded to Austin in 1965. “Blue Bell Homemade Ice Cream is homemade country style, and Blue Bell is better by a country smile.” Their staple flavor that would carry the company through the ups and downs of the next several decades debuted in 1969.
The 1970s continued to be successful for Blue Bell. Branches opened in Beaumont and Dallas. In 1977, the company established its long-recognizable logo, a young girl leading a cow. Five additional facilities opened in the early to mid-1980s, all still in Texas. At this point, production rates had climbed to approximately ten million gallons of ice cream annually.
When Paul Kruse, son of Ed Kruse, gave in and came on board at Blue Bell in 1986, the company had doubled its number of employees since his father and uncle took over from his grandfather (E.F. Kruse). However, jumping into the family business, however successful it was, had not been Paul’s goal. Instead of majoring in dairy science at A&M like the generation before him, he majored in accounting before leaving College Station for Waco, where he studied law at Baylor University. Indeed, growing up in “the” ice cream family of Texas, he had spent plenty of time in his youth in packing and on a production line. The lawyer declined an offer to join his family at the Brenham creamery three times before giving in, eventually coming on board as general counsel.
Ice Cream Empire
The same year Paul Kruse joined the company, Blue Bell set itself apart from other national ice cream manufacturers with a unique distinction. In the craze of low-calorie options, buyers wanted a creamy ice treat that catered to their dietary needs. Blue Bell created a “lite” offering in 1989, paving the way for other major ice cream companies. Over the next few decades, Blue Bell added more and more variety to their already expansive list of delicious offerings, including items like non-fat frozen yogurt, ice cream sandwiches, sherbet, treats on sticks, and options that incorporate popular candies. While Homemade Vanilla has maintained its position as their top seller, they also lay claim to creating the first Cookies ‘n Cream flavor.
In 1987, Blue Bell developed its own in-house advertising agency, known as Blue Bell Advertising Associates. The agency became the driving force behind the famous slogans, jingles, and commercials. The entirety of the Lone Star State would be left longing for the ice cream that tasted “just like the good old days.”
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were kind to Blue Bell, and the company soon spread their ice cream joy beyond Texas borders. In 1988, Brenham began offering tours to hungry fans wanting to see how their ice cream was made. The Washington County plant opened up a visitor’s center alongside its corporate headquarters. The next year, distribution began in Oklahoma and Louisiana. Blue Bell distributes and transports its own products, but sells their final products in grocery stores, therefore the company had easy access to the hearts, minds, and stomachs of ice cream lovers in all three states. By 1990, Blue Bell could be found throughout the Southern and South-Central states. By the mid-1990s, the demand was high and business booming, and the iconic Blue Bell half-gallon tubs soon found freezer space in markets in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Additional states have been added over the years.
Throughout its expansion and growth, the company has given the highest priority to ensuring quality control. While expansion was inevitable, much research went into every new market. Employees across the entire brand are carefully trained to adhere to Blue Bell’s standards. Many of the manufacturing plants find their homes in the midst of dairy farms, who have been able to provide the company with the fresh dairy they need, freeing up Blue Bell from the need to own its own cows.
A Tumultuous Time
Paul Kruse was elected to the position of President CEO in 2004. While Kruse’s leadership was careful and steady, he soon faced many obstacles outside of his control. As an economic recession hit the United States in the late ‘00s, Blue Bell discovered that while people may have skipped a splurge at a restaurant or ice cream parlor, they were still likely to bring cartons home for an after-dinner treat.
But steadiness through a tough economy was only preparing Paul Kruse for the food safety crisis Blue Bell experienced in 2015. The company had always prided itself on its commitment to high quality, so as Blue Bell removed its beloved products from shelves to determine the cause of the bacteria found in it, the stopping of production resulted in company layoffs and left consumers wondering about the ice cream giant’s future.
Kruse steered the company through the crisis, and ambitiously returned Blue Bell back to grocery store shelves. However, Blue Bell continues to focus on food safety. The company hired labs, government regulators, and private consultants to ensure its customers were provided with the safest ice cream possible. Public Relations Manager Jenny Van Dorf said, “We took a top-to-bottom approach in our production facilities and made enhancements to all of our processes and procedures, including equipment design, employee training, testing, and sanitation. Our focus is on making and selling the best ice cream in the country . . . As a final assurance, we have a test-and-hold procedure where our products are tested and proven safe before they are shipped to our distribution centers.”
Paul Kruse retired in 2017. Ricky Dickson stepped into the role of President, which means that for the first time since the Kruses got involved, the leadership of the company rests in the hands of a non-family member. However, the Kruses will forever be tied with Blue Bell. Greg Bridges, Paul Kruse’s cousin, currently serves as Executive Vice President of Plant Operations. Jim Kruse, son of Howard Kruse, recently returned to Blue Bell as Chairman of the Board.
When it comes to favorite flavors, Van Dorf shared that the creamery typically produces between 40 and 50 different flavors per year. “We have standard flavors available year-round and rotational flavors that rotate in and out to keep the ice cream aisle interesting,” Van Dorf explained. Included in these rotational options are the seasonal favorites, which are produced when fresh ingredients are available, “like peaches for Peaches and Homemade Vanilla or pumpkin for Spiced Pumpkin Pecan. We also produce flavors for specific times during the year like Mardi-Gras King Cake and Peppermint for the holidays.”
How does Blue Bell decide on new flavors? “We have a Research and Development team that is responsible for creating new flavors,” Van Dorf said. “They watch for dessert or food trends and listen to our employees and consumers for flavor suggestions. We have taste panels at our creamery that meet each month to sample new flavors and discuss new possibilities.” For those who just got excited about the existence of taste panels and are dreaming of a place at the table, Van Dorf added, “As you can imagine, there is a long waiting list to be on a taste panel!”
While Homemade Vanilla rests in the top spot for favorite flavors, the top five can change depending on the market, but in general, Cookies ‘n Cream slides in at the second favorite option. “Three is Dutch Chocolate, four is The Great Divide (half Homemade Vanilla and half Dutch Chocolate), and the fifth is Cookie Two Step,” Van Dorf said. “Cookie Two Step is a combination of two of our top selling products: Cookies ‘n Cream and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough,” she explained. “We released the flavor for National Ice Cream Month in 2016 and it became a viral sensation. In fact, it was so popular that it became a standard flavor and is now available year-round.”
Employees enjoy Blue Bell on their breaks due to stocked freezers in the break room and the opportunity to grab a scoop in the Ice Cream Parlor for those at the Brenham facility. They offer flavor suggestions of course, but consumers do too. “You can share the flavor on our social media pages, give us a call, or submit a consumer form on our website,” Van Dorf said. “We typically release four to five new flavors per year. Following our social media pages is the best way to stay informed. We release information about new flavors and returning flavors or items that are now available.”
Visit and Indulge
For fans of ice cream, Blue Bell, day trips, or all things Texas, the Brenham Visitor’s Center is a must-visit destination. Since opening its doors to the public in ’88, the creamery has been inviting fans and enthusiasts in to see how their products are made, learn the history of the company, and enjoy a tasty treat. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, as an important part of agricultural production.
“Our Observation Deck is a free experience where our visitors can see how their favorite products are made,” Van Dorf said. “Employees working in production often wave to those looking from above. When you make the best ice cream in the country, what is not to love or be happy about?!”
The Ice Cream Parlor is a fantastic way to cool down during the hot Lone Star summers. “We also sell scoops of ice cream for just one dollar. Our visitors are often impressed with the Texas-sized treat and hospitality at our creamery.” Patrons can peruse the welcome area and read up on Blue Bell over the years, don a fantastic old-fashioned ice cream parlor-style hat, and watch an informational video. Then guests typically head to the Observation Deck before enjoying their one-dollar scoop or visiting the Country Store, which sells plenty of souvenirs and paraphernalia to those who want to sport their fandom and love year-round!
As for shopping or picking up a fun souvenir, Van Dorf added, “There is always something new and exciting in the Country Store! Our products range from ice cream bowls and scoops to T-shirts and seasonal décor. We even have golf balls with the Blue Bell logo!” T-shirts with funny sayings or traditional logos are also a popular reminder of a trip The Little Creamery.
According to Van Dorf, Blue Bell participates in numerous events locally and throughout their sales territory. “We are always looking for ways to support our local communities, whether it is providing ice cream to a nonprofit, participating in a Pint for a Pint blood drive, or hosting ice cream parties for Teacher of the Year finalists or Blue Ribbon School award recipients. We feel it is important to be a good community partner wherever we distribute our products.”
And when it comes to the community, they are invited to come on down this summer to check out the Brenham location. The main attractions, such as the Observation Deck, Ice Cream Parlor, and Country Store, are open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but during the summer, they are also open Saturdays to accommodate their visitors. “We know many folks are on the road and would like to include a stop at our creamery,” Van Dorf said. She encourages potential visitors to check their website for up-to-date timings.
“While chatting with our visitors,” Van Dorf said, “We often hear of their favorite flavors or fondest memories of enjoying our ice cream. It’s the perfect treat for celebrations or family gatherings and in happy or sad times. We feel honored to be a part of so many special memories!”
The rest is history, family history.