Suffolk Blue Bell facility closes, dozens impacted

Trucks sit open and empty at the Blue Bell distribution center in Suffolk, Va. May 18, 2015. The plant closed Friday. (WAVY/Brandi Cummings)

SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY/AP) — After a voluntary recall of all its products last month, Blue Bell Creameries is letting go of more than a third of its workforce — including employees in Hampton Roads.

The Texas-based company made that announcement Friday, marking the first layoffs in its 108-year history. Blue Bell said those losing jobs work at distribution centers. Another chunk of employees will be furloughed and workers who are part of the cleanup and repair efforts will continue working with reduced pay.

Among the 10 locations impacted is the distribution center in Suffolk. Blue Bell Public Relations spokeswoman Jenny Van Dorf confirmed to 10 On Your Side the center closed Friday, leaving between 30 and 40 employees without jobs.

All this was prompted by a series of listeria illnesses — including three deaths — that were linked to its ice cream. Since the recall, the company has been working to rebound, but things haven’t gone as planned.

“Because of the maintenance, repairs and some of the programs we’re implementing, its going a lot longer than we originally anticipated,” Van Dorf said. She said the company has decided, when they do re-enter the market, they’ll have less production and distribution facilities.

When 10 On Your Side stopped by the center off Nansemond Parkway Monday, the insignia had been removed from the door and empty trucks sat with doors open. Even Suffolk city leaders were surprised to learn of the layoffs on Friday.

“We’re not happy. It’s unfortunate that Blue Bell is in this situation,” said Gregory Byrd, Suffolk’s assistant economic development director.

Byrd said the city has not received word directly from the company about the closure, but they have particular interest in Blue Bell’s future plans because of an agreement made last year. The city’s Economic Development Authority had approved a $100,000 grant to build a Blue Bell new facility, not far from the distribution center space they were leasing.

10 On Your Side learned that even though Blue Bell purchased the land from a private owner, they wont be building on it.

“We won’t be returning to Virginia — Richmond, Suffolk, Hampton Roads or North Carolina and South Carolina,” Van Dorf said.

That means even when Blue Bell ice cream returns to store shelves, it won’t be in Hampton Roads. The company said they’ll continue to own the land in Suffolk. Byrd said, since they do, they can decide to build whenever they chose. So far, no grant money has been distributed, and it won’t be until work on the new facility is complete. Byrd said he’s optimistic.

“It’s hard to get a new business, and so you work hard to do that, but you work doubly hard to keep what you have. So, we’re going to support Blue Bell in any way we can,” he said.

The company said employees who are laid off will be receiving benefits (like insurance) and pay for a limited time, however they did not say how long that will be.

Paul Kruse, CEO and president of Blue Bell, released a statement and this video online:

Kruse said Blue Bell executives will be contacting area chambers of commerce to ask for their help for employees who have been laid off, and business owners who may have jobs available are encouraged to contact Blue Bell at 979-830-9831 or at jobs@bluebell.com.

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