By Jack Fink

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BRENHAM (CBS11) — Looking at the freezer sections in two Brenham supermarkets on Monday,  you’d never know the city’s pride and joy, Blue Bell ice cream, had just returned to stores for the first time since April. The shelves were as bare Monday night as they were the night before.

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Blue Bell has been off store shelves since April when a Listeria outbreak linked to the ice cream sickened ten people, three of whom died. Only the company’s Alabama plant is now up and running. The company began rolling out four flavors — Dutch Chocolate, Homemade Vanilla, Cookies ‘n Cream and The Great Divide — in select markets on Monday, but only in Houston, Austin and Brenham, the company’s hometown.

Blue Bell is set to return to Dallas- and Fort Worth-area stores during phase two of the roll-out. The company hasn’t given a specific date, but Kroger said it should see the ice cream again in two to four weeks.

Brenham customers continued to shop for Blue Bell at HEB and Brookshire Brothers only to be disappointed when all the tubs were gone. Both HEB and Brookshire Brothers supermarkets said they sold out of Blue Bell three times Monday.

Eric Hutchins, a shopper, said he was going to be in big trouble with his wife, because he wouldn’t be able to bring home her favorite ice cream.

“I’m taking a lot of pictures,” Hutchins said. “I’m thinking about interviewing a few people, and just say I was actually here, I did stop and there isn’t any. So we’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

The supermarkets’ next shipments arrive first thing Tuesday morning. The stores may be just as busy then as they were on Monday. Even before sunrise, customers were buying the ice cream.

Despite a limit of four half gallons, cups and pints, HEB said it sold 600 units in its first hour.

Brent Jones, a 7-year-old Blue Bell fan, said he and his family knew they had to get to the store early. “We knew Blue Bell was going to fly off the shelves fast,” he said.

Jones’ 12-year-old sister Lilly agreed. “On a level of one to 10,” she said, “[Blue Bell’s return] is a 15.”

In nearby downtown Brenham, the First Baptist Church and School held a parade to officially welcome Blue Bell back. About 250 people showed up to support the company and the community.

Brenham Mayor Milton Tate said he hopes Blue Bell’s main plant in the city will resume production by October or November. But the company said it doesn’t have a specific date set to reopen its plants in Brenham and Oklahoma.

For some customers, Blue Bell’s return was a mood booster.

Lorri Cales, whose husband has worked for the company for 10 years, cried tears of joy.

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“This is a very exciting day,” Cales said, “’cause it’s been a very rough time for us. It’s great seeing everyone out supporting us. I had to come buy my own.”

For Sean Cooper, “It just means that we’re going back to work.” Cooper is one of 300 Blue Bell employees who was furloughed when the company shut down its two plants in Brenham. Another 250 were laid off.

“I’m grateful,” Cooper said. “I’m grateful, because I could have been laid off.”

While on furlough, Cooper is working part time at the Higgins Branch Resale Shop. He credits the Faith Mission and Help Center for hiring him.

Blue Bell is still paying Cooper for 30 hours of work each week, but he said he’s used to working at the company up to twice that amount.

So the part-time job has proved essential.

“It’s allowed me to get back to living a normal life,” Cooper said. “It pays the bills. It helps me and my family to survive.”

Blue Bell isn’t the only company to experience problems in Brenham this year. The MIC Group laid off 64 employees and Valmont Industries laid off 160 workers in May.

The layoffs have taken a toll on this city of 15,000.

Charlie Pyle, who owns the Made In Heaven Ice Cream Parlor & Sandwich Shop in town, said since there haven’t been tours at Blue Bell’s facility, tourism has slowed.

Pyle said that has created uncertainty at his shop.

“I didn’t know how to buy, to staff, to prep any given day,” Pyle said. “We were almost making it up as we went along. And, you know … this store has been here 33 years.”

Aside from Blue Bell’s return, the community received additional good news Monday. Associate Secretary of Commerce Jay Williams went to Brenham to announce a nearly $1.4 million grant that will help build a workforce and technical training center in the city.

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