VALPARAISO | The corporate hand of Wal-Mart has come down on local little guys Valpo Velvet.
Catherine Brown said the discount store first notified her family, which owns and operates Valpo Velvet, early this year it was taking the ice cream out of its stores in Michigan City, Portage and Valparaiso. They were dropped from the Michigan City store in April and the Portage store in June. Wal-Mart began downsizing the displays at the Valparaiso store over Labor Day.
"Over Labor Day they took us out of the freezer door and moved us to an end cap," Brown said. "They tried to say they were trying something new, and, if it did well, they might move us back to the door. I think that was false."
After that, the cartons were put near the bananas. Next, the Browns were told they had to sell either quarts or half gallon because the store couldn't accommodate both.
"We complied with everything they asked, but three week ago they just took us out. They came out with their own new Great Value brand of ice cream instead."
Personnel at the three stores said it was a corporate decision because the company was downsizing vendors. While the other local grocery stores, like WiseWay, Jewel and Town & Country, continue to carry Valpo Velvet, the Valparaiso Wal-Mart was the biggest customer. She said sales at Wal-Mart stores increased every year, and the Browns never got any complaints about the product or delivery.
"It was just a corporate decision," Brown said. "The loss of the three stores really hurts us. They say they support local businesses, but only on their own terms."
The Valparaiso Wal-Mart told the Browns they have tried to get the corporation to change its mind. The Browns started circulating an e-mail explaining the situation and urging customers to call Wal-Mart.
"I have no hope of our getting back into the stores, but the purpose of the e-mail is to let Wal-Mart know we have a local community that cares."
Brown said other local vendors, like Katie's Potato Chips in Hobart, also have been removed by Wal-Mart. A spokesman for Katie's could not be reached Friday, and a call to Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters seeking comment was not returned.
The Browns are the only employees, so the loss won't mean layoffs, but it will mean changes. In addition to drastically reducing the families' budgets, they will re-open the Valpo Velvet Shoppe selling gourmet soups and sandwiches. The shop was open from 1997 to 2001, when the family closed it in order to concentrate on the ice cream business.
The e-mail says they will close briefly in November to do some remodeling and re-open in December. They also will stay open through the winter for the first time. Another change will be a new line of pint containers to compete with specialty ice cream makers like Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs.
"We've had at least 100 people tell us they will never walk in Wal-Mart's doors again," she said. "It's the little guy against the corporate guy."