DU QUOIN — More than a year ago, shoppers saw the legendary Blue Bell label return to grocery store shelves.
Since ranchers Ray Gardner and David Pearl of Du Quoin Specialty Meats re-launched the Blue Bell name and began the process of reopening the old Du Quoin Packing Co. plant, they have almost doubled their line of products and the number of stores carrying it.
You can now find Blue Bell in more than 80 locations from Indiana to Cairo and soon, Du Quoin Specialty Meats will have its own retail location for Blue Bell fans to buy their favorite bologna, bacon, ham, salami and cheeses.
For almost 65 years, Blue Bell meats from Du Quoin were on kitchen tables and in lunchboxes throughout Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama. The original owners, the Du Quoin Packing Co. closed in 1990.
Gardner and Pearl purchased the old packing plant on East Cole Street in 1991, right after the structure was gutted by fire.
Over the last 20 years, Gardner and Pearl have been working to reopen the plant as a production facility, and are getting closer to that goal. However, extreme weather last June ripped the roof from one of the buildings, significantly delaying its opening.
But now, Pearl said, the economy and high prices in the beef market have not yet made it feasible to re-open the plant as a production facility.
“We are continually renovating and expanding and putting in the tools, but we’re not throwing money into something just to speed it up,” Pearl said. “We have not backed off from our long-range goals, but our timeframe is being controlled or adjusted by the current state of the economy.”
Du Quoin Specialty Meats are contracting out production to “mom and pop” plants. Although the new Blue Bell recipes are not exactly the same as the original, their seasonings are from the same company, Excalibur in Pekin.
Pearl said Du Quoin Specialty Meats have expanded the current line of Blue Bell products in the last few months. They now offer a family-style bologna made of beef and pork, pickle loaf, frozen brick chili starters and complete frozen chili, beef sticks, and a beef sloppy joe mix. In addition, their meats are now available at deli counters.
“From the feedback we get from people, the family-style bologna we added probably more closely resembles the original Blue Bell bologna,” Pearl said.
Because of the reaction and demand to the introduction of Blue Bell products to the marketplace, Pearl said Du Quoin Specialty Meats will open a retail location at the East Cole Street packing plant.
Pearl said the retail part of the plant is currently under construction. He hopes it will be open in early November.
Although Pearl said he was initially against the idea of a retail outlet, he said the number of customers they have driving long distances and reaction from attendees of the Illinois Food and Wine Products Show at the Du Quoin State Fair convinced him otherwise.
“We finally pulled the trigger on that after talking to a lot of people,” Pearl said.
On Twitter: @BrentStewartSI