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Ice Cream Factory Closing After 129 Years; 240 Jobs Melting Away

September 4, 1995 GMT

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ As a child, Frank Avent never knew what those little black specks in his vanilla ice cream were. He didn’t know they were real vanilla: They just meant Mom had bought the good stuff, Breyers, not a store brand.

For 25 years, Avent has worked on the shipping dock at the Breyers ice cream factory. He sometimes even whistles while he works.

``This has always seemed like the perfect job for me,″ said Avent, now 53. ``It has always been my favorite dessert. Until now.″

Last month, Good Humor-Breyers told Avent and about 240 coworkers that the plant will be phased out by the end of October and production moved elsewhere. America’s top-selling ice cream will no longer be produced in the city where it was created.

It’s the second bitter departure of a Philadelphia sweet in two years. Whitman’s Chocolates closed in 1993 after 151 years and left 700 out of work. Russell Stover still makes Whitman’s products, but in the Midwest.

``Big business once again shows its concern for the bottom line and its lack of concern for working men and women,″ said Edward Henderson, the head of Teamsters Local 463, which represents 184 workers at the Breyers plant.

Thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1980 because of Philadelphia’s reputation for high business taxes, its aging infrastructure and crime, said William Hankowsky, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

Other high-profile companies abandoning Philadelphia this decade include the tuxedo-maker After Six in 1992 (500 jobs) and Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens, the fish stick king, in 1993 (another 500). Sears, Roebuck and Co., Sealtest, Canada Dry and 3M Co. also joined the exodus.

``Some of these earlier closings were expected, but Breyers came totally out of the blue,″ Hankowsky said. ``It surprised everyone.″

Mayor Edward G. Rendell fought to keep Breyers, offering low-interest loans, cheap land and tax breaks.

William A. Breyer stirred up his first batch of ice cream in 1866 in his North Philadelphia kitchen. His family sold the business in 1926 to the National Dairy Products Co., which sold it to Kraft in 1952.

``It’s a shame they’re leaving Philly. It really is,″ said Rich Hunter, a mechanic who has worked at Breyers for 12 years. ``My father used to work here, too. We’ve got pictures of this place from when horse-and-buggies used to deliver the ice cream.″

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John Gould Jr., a spokesman for Wisconsin-based Good Humor-Breyers, said production would be shifted from Philadelphia to a recently renovated plant in Framingham, Mass. Production also continues in Indiana, Virginia, Nevada, Florida and Missouri.

``We believe the Philadelphia operation is one that we can close without adversely affecting production,″ Gould said.

Officials said it would cost $15 million in modernize the 71-year-old Philadelphia plant, which makes Good Humor, Breyers and Sealtest-brand ice cream, Popsicles and other frozen desserts.

It will be the third Breyers plant to close since the Dutch and English consumer-products conglomerate Unilever NV purchased the company from Kraft General Foods two years ago. Other Unilever products include Wisk detergent, Vaseline, Lipton tea, Ragu spaghetti sauce, Aim toothpaste and Elizabeth Arden cosmetics.

Unilever, which posted $2.4 billion in profits in 1994, also closed a Breyers plant in Charlotte, N.C., and is closing another one in Los Angeles.

``They knew what they were getting when they bought this place, but they never even tried to fix it up,″ said Roney Brabham, 40, a production worker for 18 years. ``Where does that leave us?″