Weis Bars Ice Cream
Weis Bars Ice Cream

Weis takes with it some sweet memories

SOMETHING is rotten in the state of Denmark, or rather the city of Toowoomba where the multinational corporation Unilever has announced it will close down the Weis factory by December next year.

The one that's been there for more than 60 years, the one that a local family began, and the one that brought us the mighty Fruito ice cream bar with the delicious strip
of vanilla - but more on that later. Let us return to the Unilever announcement.

Jasmine Lemcke, Lachlan Humrich and Emily Rose eating Weis Ice Cream bars. Picture: Steve Pohlner.
Jasmine Lemcke, Lachlan Humrich and Emily Rose eating Weis Ice Cream bars. Picture: Steve Pohlner.

As far as these sorts of announcements go, it contained all the usual platitudes, including "not a decision taken lightly", "regrettably", "we recognise that this announcement will affect everyone on site" and, of course, "impact".

By the way, when a huge corporation says it understands decisions will "impact" jobs, it means it will sack people.

Only it doesn't say that, because it believes it is less palatable, and also that people are fools.

And perhaps we were all foolish to believe that when Unilever bought Weis two years ago and said - and I quote - "Please be assured there will be no changes to how or where our products are made. We'll still continue to make our Weis flavours in our Toowoomba factory, using our same recipe and same ingredients - just more widely available" - that it would honour that commitment.

Perhaps the Weis family was naive when they agreed to the sale to Unilever in 2017 on the condition the factory, its products and its workers remained in Toowoomba.

Social media messages from Weis, by then owned by Unilever, assuring customers the factory would remain open.
Social media messages from Weis, by then owned by Unilever, assuring customers the factory would remain open.

Julie Weis, the former managing director of the company and daughter of founder Les Weis, has gone on record to say she would never have sold the family firm if she knew Unilever would break its commitment.

"Keeping the manufacturing local and the jobs was our number one priority in the sale," Ms Weis said.

Perhaps it is not too far a stretch to suggest this move by Unilever, despite all its platitudes and protestations, was inevitable all along. The company has said that the reason it is closing down the Queensland icon and shifting operations to New South Wales is because the ice cream market has changed very quickly - perhaps it's melted - and that it could not have foreseen these changes in "costs, competition, distributions channels" etc, etc, when it bought Weis two years ago.

Les Weis in the early 1990s with Weis ice cream bars.
Les Weis in the early 1990s with Weis ice cream bars.

Really? The global behemoth that is Unilever, the British/Dutch outfit, currently the fifth fastest-moving consumer goods company in the world with more than 400 brands under its belt and a 2018 net profit of $US11.21 billion ($A16.5 billion) could not possibly - with all that business acumen, all that financial knowledge and all that acquisition experience - have planned for changes in the market, or guessed that a move to its larger, New South Wales plant was on the cards?

I don't know, but something, as I said, is rotten in the city of Toowoomba, where 93 people face losing their jobs by next Christmas.

That's a lot of jobs in a town like Toowoomba, where Les Weis sold his first "Fruito" ice cream bar at Pop's Milk Bar, opposite the Empire Theatre in 1957.

It was Les's dad Cyril who invented the delicious ice cream in 1936 - a glorious (and anyone who has ever eaten a Fruito will know that it truly is glorious) fruit salad of a bar made with pineapple, bananas, passionfruit and cream.

Of course, Weis went on to make many more flavours at the Toowoomba factory - my husband is very partial to their mango and macadamia blend - but for me, it's Fruito all the way.

I bet most Queenslanders could tell you what their favourite Weis bar is, and quite a few could tell you they remember the first time they ate one.

Ben and Eliza Flanagan enjoying mangoes and Weis ice cream bars.
Ben and Eliza Flanagan enjoying mangoes and Weis ice cream bars.

Because it's part of our story, isn't it?

And the reason it matters so much - at least to me - that it's almost over, is that when we lose these places, and businesses, and buildings - as Queensland is so inclined to do - we lose our stories as well.

When the Weis factory closes its doors in December 2020, its story will slowly fade from the town, and its place in our state will eventually be reduced to a plaque on a wall, or an entry in Wikipedia.

Perhaps the saddest thing I have read in this whole, sorry saga was a quote given by Les Weis, then 86, at the time of the 2017 sale.

He said: "(My wife) Val has always said to me 'business is like a wheelbarrow, it doesn't go anywhere unless someone pushes it' and I think Unilever will give Weis just the push it needs."

For years, the Weis slogan has been "The taste on everyone's lips".

Perhaps it could now be changed to "The sour taste on everyone's lips".


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