Heaping bowls of Blue Bell ice cream signal bedtime for the Kruse family in Brenham, Texas (pop. 13,507). “I have three kids, and they will not go to bed without eating a bowl of ice cream,” says Paul Kruse, president of Blue Bell Creameries. “They’ve each got their own half-gallon in the freezer.”
With the Kruse family at the helm, Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham has cranked out ice cream for most of its 100-year history. Today, the country creamery has scooped its big-city competition by becoming the third best-selling brand of ice cream in the nation, even though it’s only sold in 16 states.
The Kruse family thinks this is just further proof that “cows think Brenham is heaven,” which is one of their favorite company slogans.
Recipe for success
Brenham businessmen opened Blue Bell in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Co., and they produced butter exclusively the first few years. In 1911, the company began making ice cream, hand-cranking two gallons a day and delivering it by horse and buggy to local families.
By 1919, the creamery was struggling financially, and 23-year-old E.F. Kruse was recruited to manage the business, even though his formal training was as a teacher. His decision to trade teaching duties for dairy science marks the beginning of an ice cream legacy.
Paul Kruse, 56, the third generation to run Blue Bell, says there are no secrets to ice cream. “It’s a matter of how hard you work at it,” he says.
Most likely this is a lesson passed down from his grandfather, E.F., who worked six days a week and two hours before church each Sunday throughout his career. Over the next 30 years, E.F. increased advertising, bought more equipment to increase production, and even renamed the company after his favorite Texas wildflower, bluebells.
His efforts strengthened the creamery so that when he died unexpectedly in 1951, his son Ed was able to take over and continue down the path of sweet success.
In 1954, Ed’s brother, Howard, also joined the company, and in 1958, Blue Bell quit making butter to focus solely on ice cream. It’s become such a booming business that the Kruses now have almost 3,000 employees at their numerous distribution centers, as well as three production facilities in Brenham; Broken Arrow, Okla.; and Sylacauga, Ala., and estimated annual sales around $400 million.
Gus Mutscher of Brenham, a former Texas lawmaker and family friend of the Kruses, says Ed and Howard have always worked well together.
“The policy from the management on down has always been quality oriented,” Mutscher says. “Howard took care of production, and Ed took care of the public. They made a great team.”
In 2004, Paul Kruse was named CEO, but his father, 78-year-old Ed, now chairman of the board, and his uncle, Howard, 76 and president emeritus, still offer advice.
“Howard is fond of saying, ‘We’re no geniuses, we’re just common people doing our jobs uncommonly well,’” says Tommy Supak, the company’s director of quality control and operations.
Cranking it out
The ice cream making process has evolved since those first two gallons were produced, and Supak, who has worked at Blue Bell for 34 years, says mechanization has made operations more efficient.
“It’s fun to eat ice cream, and it’s just as fun to make it,” he says.
At the beginning of a 10-step process, pure cane sugar, corn syrup, milk and cream are combined to create the basic mix used for most of the ice creams. Flavoring, fruit and nuts are added later in the process. From the observation deck of the Brenham facility, visitors watch the plant floor in amazement, as nuts are mixed into one flavor while half-gallon containers whisk by on a nearby conveyor belt.
“It’s funny to see people’s faces when they come here,” Paul Kruse says. “It’s like they’ve arrived at some magical place.”
Day-to-day operation of the plant is not always sugar-coated, however, and Paul says freezing and storing the ice cream after it’s made is often the most complex part of the process.
When ice cream is poured into its container, it has the consistency of a milkshake. Then it is sent to a room where it is kept at negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that the ice cream will freeze quickly and maintain its creamy texture. If ice cream melts slightly and then refreezes, it becomes gritty. To preserve the ice cream’s freshness, Blue Bell hires its own drivers who maintain the temperature of their trucks and check the temperature of grocers’ freezers.
Paul says he learned the lessons of temperature at a young age when he would visit the plant with his father on Sunday afternoons.
“I’d be barefoot,” he says, “and he wouldn’t let us go in cold storage because he was afraid our feet would stick to the floor.”
A flavor for every fancy
Jeffrey Klein’s family has owned and operated Klein’s Supermarket in Tomball (pop. 9,089) since 1922 and has carried Blue Bell ice cream in the store for more than 40 years.
“We carry every flavor they produce,” says Klein, 36. “I’ve never had a Blue Bell flavor that I didn’t think was good.”
Blue Bell produces some flavors year-round, while others are produced seasonally depending on available ingredients. Bill Weiss, Blue Bell’s public relations manager, says five or six new flavors are introduced each year, and that it’s considered good if two or three of those make the year-round rotation.
“My favorite flavor is whatever’s in my bowl,” Klein says.
Each new flavor goes through vigorous research and development before a final taste test, at which Blue Bell employees grade its quality. But as Paul Kruse says, “Ice cream is not going to be better than what you start with.”
The Kruses take pride in using fresh ingredients, including items like native Texas pecans and fresh fruit, not to mention the 50,000 gallons of milk required for one day’s production.
“We like to say it was grass yesterday, and today it’s ice cream,” Supak says.
In addition to traditional ice cream flavors, Blue Bell offers specialties such as Birthday Cake, Banana Pudding and Nutty Coconut. The company even makes regional flavors like Key Lime Pie for Florida, Cantaloupe ’N Cream for Texas and Peach Cobbler for Georgia. The top seller, though, since its introduction in 1969, has been Homemade Vanilla. Howard Kruse perfected the recipe to taste as if it was dipped straight from a hand-cranked freezer, and it has become the flavor for which the company is best known.
In celebration of its 100th birthday, Blue Bell has planned numerous activities, with the main event scheduled July 19 through July 21 at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Brenham. The celebration—free to the public—will include local entertainment, educational displays of Blue Bell machinery, games and activities for children and, of course, ice cream. A Blue Bell tractor-trailer rig housing an interactive museum also will visit 65 towns within the company’s distribution area throughout the year.
The Kruse family associates ice cream with having fun, and they take pride in knowing that a scoop of their ice cream and a smile go hand in hand.
“I work with the most enjoyable people and the most enjoyable food,” Ed Kruse says. “You know, you never see a kid crying and eating ice cream.”