As he pulled out of Brenham's Blue Bell factory without any ice cream in the back of his delivery truck in April, Tim Smith (not his real name) couldn't shake the feeling he was forgetting something. After almost a decade of delivering ice cream for Blue Bell, Smith had been sent out by his employer to bring it back. Drivers were fanning across 23 states to pick up quarts of lime sherbet, boxes of chocolate-covered Moo Bars and half gallons of Homemade Vanilla, part of the final voluntary recall of all Blue Bell products instituted by company officials after it was revealed that the facilities at Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Sylacauga, Alabama; and the company headquarters in Brenham were all contaminated with listeria.
Driving from the grocery stores to the convenience stores that have made up his route for years, Smith rummaged through his truck, found a favorite flavor and ate. Even though Kroger yanked the ice cream from its shelves a couple of weeks after the first recall of a few Blue Bell products, and H-E-B padlocked registers to prevent sales after the total recall was issued in late April, Smith wasn't deterred.
"I was hungry and it was going in the dumpster anyway, so I didn't see any harm. The only people who ate our ice cream and got listeria were already weak," says the man who asked not to be identified because he is still a Blue Bell employee and they aren't supposed to talk to the media.
For Blue Bell, it all went wrong with a random sample. In February, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control officials were inspecting a Blue Bell distribution center when someone pulled out a box of Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwiches and Great Divide Bars to test for bacteria. The ice cream tested positive for listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria which can cause food poisoning or meningitis. The elderly, the pregnant and those with weak immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease.
Backtracking and working with the Texas State Department of Health Services, South Carolina officials soon discovered the contaminated ice cream came from Brenham. Then it turned out that five people in a Kansas hospital were all infected with listeria-laced cups of Blue Bell ice cream they were fed upon arriving at the hospital. Listeria was traced to ice cream made in Sylacauga and Broken Arrow.
Blue Bell issued its first recall in 108 years of business in March and followed up with a series of small recalls as efforts to clean the factories and get listeria out of the production line failed repeatedly. Finally, Blue Bell's president and CEO Paul Kruse pulled all Blue Bell products off the market on April 20. By then it was known that 10 people in four states (Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas) had contracted listeria, and three of them had died. A Food and Drug Administration investigation subsequently revealed Blue Bell facilities had been testing positive for listeria since 2013. Officials learned through genome sequencing of the disease samples that Blue Bell ice cream had likely been making people sick with listeria since 2010.
Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who got his start representing clients against Jack in the Box in the 1990s agrees that in the world of industrialized food, it's difficult to ensure that food will never be contaminated. But once it is clear a product has been tainted, a company's survival depends on how it handles the problem, Marler says. "If [Blue Bell executives] had been more transparent and forthcoming about this instead of trying to control the story and not commenting for so long, things might have been different, they might have saved jobs," Marler says. As the third-largest ice cream company behind Nestle's (Häagen-Dazs and Dreyer's) and Unilever (Ben and Jerry's and Klondike), Blue Bell should have done better, Marler says.
Kruse, the grandson of one of Blue Bell's first CEOs, filmed a video apology that was posted online the day of the full recall. He said this had never happened before. He said he was sorry it occurred. He insisted that Blue Bell has always made decisions in the customers' best interests. "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. For that we do apologize, and we're going to get it right."
He never mentioned the people who got sick from the ice cream. He never mentioned three people who might have gotten a fatal illness from his ice cream, only his company, his customers and eight million gallons of ice cream thrown away.
By mid-June, Blue Bell spokesman Joe Robertson was saying Kruse was not making public statements anymore because he was focused on Blue Bell. Robertson says he cannot comment about the listeria outbreak or how the company has handled it due to pending lawsuits. "Each decision was based on information we had at the time," he says.
Kruse is known at his company and around Brenham, where he grew up and has raised his family, as an unfailingly polite, down-to-earth and friendly kind of guy. Blue Bell employees are allowed to eat all the ice cream they want at work, the company holds potlucks and gives out generous Christmas bonuses, and anyone can go have a word with Kruse.
Without Blue Bell pulling in the summer tourists, Charlie Pyle, the owner of Must Be Heaven, a restaurant and ice cream shop in downtown Brenham, remains optimistic, saying he has faith in Kruse to make things right. "Here in Brenham, we know Paul Kruse," Pyle says. "Ultimately, he wouldn't do anything to hurt the company, and we know he will do everything he can to bring Blue Bell back."
For years Blue Bell has maintained a carefully cultivated image of a folksy creamery in Brenham that only wants the best for its employees and its customers. But in May, Blue Bell cut the company workforce to the bone — after previously announcing it would keep everyone on — laying off 1,450 of 3,900 employees and furloughing 1,400, including Smith. The much-vaunted "country charm" evaporated in the face of a diminishing bottom line.
Once, more than a century ago, Blue Bell really was the "little creamery in Brenham." The company started in 1907 as a dairy cooperative built by some enterprising local farmers in an abandoned cotton gin mill. The business, originally dubbed the Brenham Creamery Company, started making ice cream as a side venture — the focus was on selling butter — in 1911, producing about two gallons per day. The creamery really hit its stride when E.F. Kruse was hired in 1919.
Under the previous managers, the company had faltered, but E.F. Kruse knew how to develop the business, shifting the focus from butter to ice cream. He expanded and modernized operations over the years, allowing Blue Bell to produce more gallons per day. He steered the company through the Great Depression, without laying off workers, and renamed it Blue Bell Creamery in 1930 after his favorite Central Texas wildflower.
While the Kruse family has run Blue Bell for three generations — E.F. died suddenly and his son Ed took over in 1951, followed by his brother Howard who ran the company until Ed's son Paul took the reins in 2004 — the townspeople also came to depend on the Blue Bell factory for employment. "Almost everyone here in Brenham either works for Blue Bell or has family or a neighbor or a friend who does," Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Page Michel says. When the company started growing in the 1960s, Brenham's fortunes rose with it. Soon Brenham's identity was inextricably tied to the ice cream factory, a vital part of the town's economy. Ice cream became the main reason people driving between Houston and Austin would stop in Brenham.
In the beginning the attempts to get Blue Bell into the big Texas city markets were as "country cute" as a company could get: Blue Bell employees tried to crack the Houston and Dallas markets by calling people from Brenham who had moved there and asking them to request Blue Bell at their local grocery stores. But by the 1990s Blue Bell was being skillfully sold to consumers. It was shrewdly advertised as a brand delivering "homemade country style" ice cream even though the company could produce hundreds of gallons of ice cream in a single hour on its factory line. (Famed ad-man Lyle Metzdorf wrote the ads that helped both solidify Blue Bell's "country charm" image and gain 60 percent of the national market, according to the Southwest Advertising Hall of Fame.)
The company remained based in Brenham but new factories were set up to meet the increased demand. The Broken Arrow plant opened in 1992 and Blue Bell purchased the Sylacauga plant in 1996, but the small-town image stayed focused on Brenham. When Blue Bell started offering tours, people arrived in droves to see where the ice cream was made.
After state health inspectors from Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as federal health investigators, traced listeria-tainted products back to all three of Blue Bell's plants, Blue Bell officials consistently fumbled the problem. Each time listeria was found in a product, the company only shut down the production lines directly tied to listeria contamination and issued narrow recalls.
Listeria is a pathogen that can be found almost everywhere, including soil, water and food, and unlike other bacteria, it has evolved so that it thrives in cold, moist areas like refrigerators and ice cream factories, Jay Neal, a food safety professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at University of Houston, says. Ice cream factories have always been susceptible to listeria problems, Neal says, but the vulnerability was overlooked by industry members. "Nobody ever thought of ice cream as a potentially hazardous food, because it's too cold," Neal says. "But listeria can survive in low temperatures, it has up to a 70-day incubation period and once it starts reproducing it's really hard to stop."
Listeria is a nasty bug, one that can lurk in factories for years without being wiped out. In 2008, FDA officials published specific instructions on how to deal with the bacteria in the "Guidance for Industry: Control of Listeria Monocytogenes in Refrigerated or Frozen Ready-to-Eat Foods." They recommended that companies test everything from the food contact surfaces to the food itself. FDA guidelines also called for companies to come up with written instructions for how to keep facilities sanitized and clear of any contamination, but companies aren't legally required to follow any of these recommendations.
The FDA is currently undergoing sweeping regulatory changes through the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress in 2010, but the law — which is focused on preventing outbreaks of diseases caused by foodborne pathogens — has yet to be implemented.
Blue Bell had a "plant environmental testing plan" where a private laboratory regularly examined swabs from the factories to make sure the buildings were free of pathogens. But despite all of the tests, Blue Bell only sampled areas in the factory that didn't have direct contact with ice cream, according to FDA records. It's still unclear why Blue Bell officials never tested equipment and surfaces that touched frozen desserts or why they didn't start checking the ice cream after listeria showed up in test results. Robertson says he can't discuss the details of the listeria outbreak because of pending litigation.
When federal health investigators swarmed over the ice cream factories in April, they found Blue Bell facilities had been testing positive for listeria since 2013, according to Blue Bell's own records. Blue Bell didn't report this to the FDA, but company representatives are only required to notify the FDA if they find a "reasonable probability" that people will get sick, according to FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher. Most companies simply clean and sanitize the area without contacting government health officials or doing further testing if a pathogen isn't found on the food itself, Sucher says.
Starting in 2013, Blue Bell's records in Broken Arrow show that listeria was found on samples taken from the "non-food contact areas" on equipment used to make ice cream and in the processing room and the kitchen. The floor in front of a freezer tested positive for listeria in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Listeria was also found on a catwalk behind a flavor tank in 2013 and 2014. Each time an area tested positive, Blue Bell employees cleaned and sanitized the space. The FDA report rather dryly noted that Blue Bell officials "failed to demonstrate that [their] cleaning and sanitizing program is effective in controlling recurring microbiological contaminations" since the listeria was never successfully removed. (Tests in 2014 and 2015 also showed high levels of coliform, another type of bacteria, running through the entire production process in violation of Oklahoma law, according to the FDA.)
Ultimately, Blue Bell officials announced that the likely source of the listeria at Broken Arrow was equipment and sealed-ingredient buckets stored in a non-sanitary room near a drain. It's still unclear how listeria got into the ice cream at the manufacturing facilities at Sylacauga and Brenham. The FDA's report on all three factories was a litany of the flaws in Blue Bell's environmental testing plan: It didn't require tests of the surfaces that touched the ice cream; it didn't outline ways the company would respond to possible contamination; it didn't mandate a test of frozen treats to make sure the listeria wasn't in the ice cream, or examine why the company's standard cleaning and sanitizing treatments had repeatedly failed to kill listeria and other contaminants.
"You look at the reports and they weren't running things right. You look at prior inspections and there were warning signs that the plants were built and structured to have a risk of contamination," Marler says. "It's one of the worst reports I've ever seen." Employees were recorded not washing their hands before working on the ice cream, according to reports from the FDA. They were allowed to wear their own shoes, which is a way listeria can be tracked in. Condensation was recorded during various FDA inspections at the different plants and condensation dripping into the ice cream is one way listeria could get in the product.
Marler has been handling food safety lawsuits for so long he sometimes consults with companies about how to approach a food safety issue. Blue Bell isn't the only ice cream company to deal with listeria. In December, Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream, a high-end Washington ice cream maker, found listeria in its product and issued a recall for all ice cream made in 2014.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, an Ohio-based company, shut down production in April when listeria was discovered after a random sample test at its Nebraska facilities. Jeni's briefly started churning out ice cream again in June, but had to stop production again after more ice cream tested positive for listeria.
Two people landed in the hospital with the Snoqualmie outbreak. There were no listeria-related illnesses reported with Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, according to the Centers for Disease Control report.
Snoqualmie co-owner Barry Bettinger immediately took the tainted ice cream off the shelves; he focused on both his customers and his employees and voiced concern over anyone potentially becoming sick from his ice cream. The last thing he talked about was his company, Marler says, which is the right approach. Now Snoqualmie is operating under the FDA-recommended guidelines to prevent listeria. "Snoqualmie handled this right. Snoqualmie immediately recalled one year of product. Then they shut down their plant, invited in the health department, the FDA, everybody, and asked them to tell them what they needed to do to fix this. Blue Bell didn't do that," Marler says.
Despite the deaths and illnesses and years of listeria problems, customers have been intensely loyal to Blue Bell, hoarding ice cream and posting oddly triumphant photos of themselves digging in.
There have also been savvy entrepreneurs who snapped up cartons of Blue Bell and put it up for sale online. One enterprising individual slapped a pint of Krazy Kookie Dough on Craigslist with a $10,000 price tag. A more reasonable seller put a container of Cookies and Cream on eBay for $50 and someone else was hawking Dutch Chocolate for $10, before eBay employees stepped in and removed all Blue Bell-related posts. A lot of would-be customers don't seem to care about the listeria or those who caught it from ice cream. They just want to know when stuff will be back on the shelves.
If South Carolina state health officials hadn't sampled the right Blue Bell containers, the Texas company might still be churning out listeria-contaminated ice cream. Most Blue Bell true believers would just as soon that discovery had never happened. For those people, David Shockley is the nightmare scenario they prefer to ignore.
When Shockley moved to Houston from Maryland, he found the elderly care center where he worked as assistant executive director was stocked with Blue Bell ice cream. Shockley ate the small cups of ice cream frequently. Now his lawyers say the ice cream made him sick. While most healthy people in their 30s aren't likely to get listeria, Shockley has ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disorder that required him to take medication that weakened his immune system and left him vulnerable to listeria, Brendan Flaherty, a lawyer with Pritzker Olsen PA, says.
In October 2013, it started with a headache. Skull pounding, Shockley, then 31, felt like throwing up and couldn't stand the light, according to court documents. He called an ambulance, but the EMTs diagnosed him with migraine and sent him home. When Shockley didn't show up to work or return emails, text messages or calls, coworkers went to his home and found him unresponsive, pale and having trouble breathing.
He was rushed to the hospital with a temperature between 106 and 107 degrees, and admitted to the intensive care unit for acute respiratory failure, septic shock and seizures, according to court documents. Shockley was on a ventilator for five days and unconscious for six. When he woke up he couldn't walk, talk, swallow or move most of his body, according to court records. Doctors conducted a spinal tap. After his cerebrospinal fluid tested positive for listeria, Shockley was diagnosed with listeria meningitis with encephalitis, according to court records.
After he was discharged from the hospital, Shockley needed full-time care, so he moved back to his childhood home in Snow Hill, Maryland. He has not granted any interviews because brain damage has made it difficult to speak, Flaherty says. "Before this illness the sky was the limit. His future was just unbelievable," his mother said quietly before referring all other questions to Shockley's lawyers. "I'm not going to say anything more, because words cannot describe what our family has been through, what we're still going through. He is a real person, and it really did happen."
Shockley filed a lawsuit against Blue Bell in May contending he contracted the disease from adulterated Blue Bell ice cream products.
Shockley filed the first lawsuit, but Flaherty and Marler agree he probably won't be the only one to sue. Flaherty says his firm is considering a few cases and Marler says he's looking at a handful of potential cases culled from more than 100 calls. "A lot of times doctors don't even think to test for listeria. If you don't have a genetic fingerprint, you can know a patient ate Blue Bell, but they also ate other things," Marler says. "You can file a lawsuit, but in order to win, you have to have an expert with a reasonable degree of certainty that you had listeria and it was reasonably caused by Blue Bell ice cream. That's a hard standard to measure up to."
Like Tim Smith, many of Blue Bell's supporters have dismissed the 10 cases confirmed by the CDC, arguing that the people who got sick were weak. A misunderstood statement from the Kansas Health and Environmental Services Agency has persuaded some that the three who died didn't die from listeria.
"It's not as simple as saying that listeria did or did not cause it," Kansas Health and Environmental Services public information officer Ashton Rucker says. "We can't definitely say listeria was not a contributing factor in those deaths. It's difficult to determine how much of a contributing factor it is since they were in the hospital with underlying conditions."
Shockley's is not one of the 10 cases identified by the CDC — no one with a confirmed case has been publicly identified so far. The Texas Department of State Health Services, like every state government health agency, registers every listeria case with PulseNet, a national network run by the CDC which brings together public health and food regulatory agencies to track outbreaks from pathogens like salmonella, E. coli and listeria, according to spokeswoman Carrie Williams. It's unclear what happened to Shockley's test or if it was entered into PulseNet. (The 10 listeria cases were definitively tied to Blue Bell because PulseNet matched all but one to listeria genomes found in ice cream samples. There are about 300 strains of listeria monocytgenes, so this is like matching fingerprints.)
Even without a PulseNet match, Flaherty maintains that what he calls Blue Bell's unsafe practices paired with the amount of ice cream Shockley ate are reasonable proof of where the listeria came from. "This is an individual in his 30s who is well educated and successful, and he's gone from all of that to living with his parents and going to doctors appointments," Flaherty says. "He ate the ice cream and he tested positive for listeria. It's a strong case."
Blue Bell may also have government regulators to contend with. State health department officials in Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas have all accepted Blue Bell's proposed methods for returning to production, but there might be other penalties for the outbreak. Initially, the Texas Department of State Health Services officials stated Blue Bell had not violated any rules, but now agency spokeswoman Williams says agency officials are considering issuing penalties against the company. "Blue Bell has been very cooperative, but we wanted to be firm and very clear in our requirements with the company moving forward." Fines range from $1,000 to $25,000 and are calculated based on the severity of the issue, Williams stated. Blue Bell's estimated revenue was about $680 million in 2014, according to Privco, a firm that provides financial data on privately held companies.
Kruse and Blue Bell's other top executives could be facing other legal issues, Marler says. "The potential for criminal sanctions are very real," Marler says. "You can be charged with a criminal misdemeanor if you unknowingly ship a tainted product across state lines. If you knowingly ship that product across state lines it's a felony and you can face decades in prison."
Sucher stated FDA officials "can't speculate on whether [they] could or might take any specific enforcement action" against Blue Bell, but the FDA has the option of leading criminal prosecution related to outbreaks, according to its website. She declined to comment on whether Blue Bell has been cooperative with the FDA.
In the wake of the final recall, the town of Brenham organized Support Blue Bell Day, an event that featured a pep rally and people wearing Blue Bell T-shirts — the factory store sold out — and sporting ice cream cartons on their heads.
Since then the community has remained intensely behind all things Blue Bell. Signs declaring "We Support Blue Bell" and "God Bless Blue Bell" are in almost every store and dot lawns all over Brenham. Everyone who talks about Kruse and the company insists neither party did anything wrong. Paul Kruse didn't attend the prayer circle held in town shortly after the mass recall, but his uncle, former-CEO Howard Kruse, stood on the steps of a white gazebo in the town square and thanked the group of about 200 people for their support. "I can assure you that this situation, whatever is the problem, will be solved," he said.
There hasn't been an easy solution. After Blue Bell tried and failed to get the listeria out of the factory, it became clear that it would be weeks, if not months, before Blue Bell started making ice cream again. For more than 50 years the Lions Club has held a Blue Bell ice cream festival, Country Flavors, on the first weekend in May, drawing crowds to Brenham to eat as much ice cream as they could hold. That, of course, had to be canceled this year.
Traditionally summer is Brenham's high tourist season. By early June people are usually coming in droves to the ice cream factory. The tourists usually trail through the town, buying trinkets in the stores and eating in the local restaurants, all of them stocked with a choice of Blue Bell ice cream. It's money that the store and restaurant owners depend on, sales tax dollars that are vital to the city government, says Michel, the chamber's county president. But this year, the tourists haven't come. Sales tax numbers are delayed by a few months so they have no way of knowing how hard the tourism season has been hit, she says.
Pyle says they've already seen the number of customers drop off. Must Be Heaven is a large restaurant and old fashioned ice cream parlor with picture windows that let the customers take in the peaceful calm of downtown Brenham. Right now the ice cream display is conspicuously empty and that side of the restaurant is deserted. He won't consider stocking the restaurant with another brand of ice cream. "It won't bring the people into the town and then into the shop, it'll only send them away. I won't promote another brand," Pyle says. "I can go out and try and substitute that part of the business, but my situation is still rather small compared to some of my friends and neighbors who are out of jobs."
Randy Wells, executive director of Faith Mission, a nonprofit for the area homeless and working poor, organized the prayer circle for Blue Bell. People outside of Brenham failed to grasp what the prayer circle was really about, he says now. "People asked why we were praying for ice cream, but they couldn't see that it wasn't about the ice cream, it was about the people. Now that hundreds of people have been laid off they can see it," Wells says. He never mentions the listeria victims.
Faith Mission immediately set up outreach programs to get in touch with those furloughed or out of work. Slowly, the people came in, many still stunned. One man had worked at Blue Bell since high school and had never missed a day, but he was laid off, Wells says. A woman dropped into a chair in the Faith Mission office after she'd been laid off, sobbing as she explained she has always been someone who donates to charities, not someone who needs help from one, Wells says. "These are folks who are not breaking down the door looking for a handout. These are people who don't know how to do this."
The layoffs didn't stop with Blue Bell. Brenham City Manager Terry Roberts says the packing company that Blue Bell persuaded to move to Brenham from Dallas suddenly lost one of its primary customers and started cutting jobs. Not only was Blue Bell the top private employer in the county, the company was also the biggest electricity customer in the city. That revenue disappeared when the plant shut down in April, Roberts says.
Roberts and the other city officials are putting together next year's city budget and they're cobbling together a conservative plan based on a worst-case scenario in which Blue Bell doesn't reopen for months. "It's been a stressful time," he says. "Other employers that are more cyclical, like oil and gas, it's not the first time they've laid people off and it won't be the last, but Blue Bell has never done this before."
No one blames Kruse or anyone at the top of Blue Bell for the economic difficulties. "I know Paul Kruse and I know he did his best," Keith Hankins, the owner of the Ant Street Inn, says. Hankins pulled the ice cream out of the little mini-fridges in each hotel room after the final recall, but ate the ice cream himself rather than throw it out.
Standing in the empty ice cream parlor where she works part-time, Blinn College student Brandi Poyer reasoned people are tolerant of Blue Bell and the Kruse family because of the role both entities play in the community. "The owners are real people here and they give a lot of scholarships and things and they show up for everything. They've been in business for more than 100 years and people know they weren't planning on this happening," Poyer says.
Robertson says Blue Bell believes in supporting communities but the company doesn't track how much money it donates each year. Kruse sponsors the church singing scholarship that helps Poyer pay for college, she says, and a lot of people have similar ties.
In return, the company seems to get unquestioning loyalty. "It'll take five years, maybe, to get back to where they were, but it'll happen," furloughed employee Smith says.
Before the listeria outbreak, people arriving to take the Blue Bell Ice Cream factory tour in Brenham walked from the parking lot under a tree-lined walkway to a homey looking red brick building: the tour center. There's a statue of a little girl and a cow out front and the impeccably landscaped complex draws the eye away from the massive industrialized plant that churns out gallons of Blue Bell's "homemade" ice cream every minute.
Now, the factory is a ghost town. On a Thursday afternoon in June a woman sat behind the information desk, surrounded by pictures while catchy Blue Bell ad jingles blared over the loudspeakers, echoing in the empty room. Signs on the doors tell visitors there's no ice cream and the tours are canceled indefinitely. "This is devastating," she says, staring out the window. "Usually at this time of day that parking lot is packed and this place is filled with kids ready to take the tour and eat some ice cream."
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She watched from her chair as a car pulled up and someone ran to peer at the sign on the heavy wooden doors, leaving without even trying them. "I don't know what we're going to do or how we'll get through this." A few minutes later she snapped off the lights in the tour center, locked up and left.
Smith has been spending his days restless and idle while he waits for the company to complete the required testing and get back to making ice cream. But he admits that Blue Bell must have made some mistakes to end up in this situation. Maybe it got too big too fast or lost focus. They'll have to stick to making a few flavors and be food safety models. It might not ever be like it was before, he says.
But still Smith is anxious for them to start up again. He wants to go back to work of course, but he's also eaten all the Blue Bell he stockpiled. He's started making his own with a plastic hand-cranked ice cream maker — concentrating on his favorites: Chocolate Mocha, Dutch Chocolate and Homemade Vanilla. It takes him all day to make a gallon.
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