Bassetts Ice Cream sales to China could melt without Export-Import Bank

 Bassetts Ice Cream at Reading Terminal Market. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Bassetts Ice Cream at Reading Terminal Market. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Bassetts Ice Cream is America’s oldest ice cream company. Michael Strange’s great-great-grandfather founded it, and he’s now grooming the sixth generation to take over the family business.

“We are the last remaining original merchant in this Reading Terminal Market, which opened in 1892,” Strange said. “We still have our original marble counters here. This is truly a historic venue in Philadelphia, and I would say is the epicenter of food in the city.”

Even though the ice cream is now sold internationally, Strange said the company hasn’t forgotten its roots. Just take a look at the most popular flavor: vanilla.

“That’s our vanilla bean speck,” Strange said with glee. “That is quintessentially Philadelphia. Many, many companies use vanilla extract. And I think people who are eating Philadelphia vanilla expect those vanilla bean specks.”

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But the company has evolved. It now makes a green tea — or matcha — ice cream for customers in China. Bassetts shipped its first batch to China in 2008.

But Strange said his overseas business depends on the credit guarantees he receives from the Export-Import Bank of the United States — a federal bank that financially backs U.S. companies that export overseas. Even though the bank’s charter has lapsed, Strange said, his credit line will last a couple more months. But he’s worried Republicans in Congress are going to kill the bank once and for all.

“It’s not going to put us out of business, but it’s certainly going to affect our volume, it’s going to affect our hiring plans in the coming years, it will affect our growth,” Strange said. “The effects are going to be manyfold on this.”

Philadelphia’s U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Democrat, said the bank doesn’t just support local ice cream.

“So Peanut Chews, which are manufactured in Philly, are now being sold in 46 other countries around the world,” Fattah said. “Penn Fishing Tackle over in North Philadelphia selling fishing reels at $1,500 a reel all around the world. Opening up opportunities for our businesses to build it here and sell it other places makes sense.”

The Export-Import Bank has been at the center of a fierce debate dividing more moderate Republicans and tea party conservatives who call it “corporate welfare.” They also point out the bank removed officials last year over allegations they took bribes in order to finance contracts with federal money. U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, a Central Pennsylvania Republican, remains undecided on the bank, but he’s demanding reforms.

“I want more oversight on it. I want more guarantees of payments. I want when someone is unable to make their payment, we need to do a complete investigation as to why — and if there are assets out there,” Marino said. “It’s just like someone filling bankruptcy and hiding assets. I don’t want that to happen.”

The bank supports nearly 600 businesses across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, officials said. It exports more than $12 billion in goods.

That’s why many businesses were up in arms that Republican leaders allowed the bank’s charter to expire at the beginning of July. Republican U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur of Central Jersey said he hopes GOP leaders can at least placate the conservative wing of the party and revive the bank.

“Well there’s a lot of people here that would like to shut it down, so I think we’ve got to address some of the issues that have been problematic, and there are some things that need to change in the bank,”  MacArthur said. “But I for one strongly believe that we need to reauthorize it.”

But North Jersey U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat, said this fight over the Export Import Bank reveals that the Republican Party has been co-opted by the tea party.

“These guys just want to undermine government. This is a plan that calls for no tax money. In fact, it’s brought $650 million into the treasury just this past year,” Pascrell said. “There is no reason to undo the effort to create jobs in America.”

Back at Bassetts Ice Cream, Michael Strange isn’t thinking about politics. He’s been trying to find a private bank to replace the Export-Import Bank, and he hasn’t found one willing to support his international business.

“I cannot help but suspect that without replacing this foreign receivables insurance our shipments to China are going to diminish significantly,” he said.

While Congress prepares to debate the bank this fall, Strange said he’s going to keep calling around to find a replacement. But he isn’t optimistic.

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