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Blue Bunny cranks out ice cream

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ST. GEORGE — Wells' Dairy executives offered local leaders and the media a frosty sneak peek at their newest Blue Bunny ice cream plant here Monday.

"We are looking forward to a great future here in St. George," said Doug Wells, chief operating officer of the family owned business, headquartered in Le Mars, Iowa.

The $55 million, 160,000-square-foot facility located on 50 acres in the Fort Pierce Industrial Park is the third for Wells' Dairy Inc. and the only one west of Iowa.

St. George workers began producing saleable ice cream on July 29 after finishing a comprehensive training program and testing their production skills. Of the 49 people employed at the plant, 12 transferred from the company's Iowa facility.

"It's been three years since our initial brainstorming to July 29," Wells said. "We've had a good working relationship with all the folks, from the city, county, on up to the state."

Employees in the production process receive a wage ranging from $10 to $13 an hour with full benefits, he said. The plant is capable of producing 48,000 half-gallon units of ice cream a day, or 18 million gallons annually.

"We are really passionate about ice cream," said Wells, who admits he's a sucker for Blue Bunny's "Natural Vanilla Bean" ice cream. "That's why we say it's made by people who love it as much as you do."

Workers on the production line Monday were making Neapolitan ice cream but had to shut the process down for a moment because of a defective cardboard ice cream box.

"The thing about ice cream is that it's an emotional purchase," said Wells, pointing out quality assurance is a critical component in the ice cream business. "It really has a way of bringing out childhood memories. It draws out our likes and dislikes."

Although the plant is designed to hold four production lines, only two are installed at the moment. Half-gallon boxes and five-quart pails of Blue Bunny ice cream are being produced in St. George, although Wells said he hopes to begin filling orders for round half-gallons by 2004. Eventually, more exotic flavors, like "Bunny Tracks" or "Peanut Butter Panic," will be added to the St. George line.

Once the ice cream is made and properly packaged, employees monitor the freezing process. In order to reach the zero-degree core temperature needed in each half-gallon of ice cream, packages are stored for three hours in a giant freezer at 40 degrees below zero.

Once that's done, the ice cream is placed on pallets, wrapped with plastic, labeled with a destination and stored in another freezer until orders are shipped to customers in Western states.

The company's annual payroll of $2.28 million and its estimated 203 associated jobs bring a cumulative economic impact of $26 million to the local economy, according to Scott Hirschi, director of the Washington County Economic Development Council.

E-MAIL: nperkins@infowest.com