clock menu more-arrow no yes
A horse-drawn making a milk delivery. Photo: FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Filed under:

The Return of the Milkman

Amid a delivery service arms race, a quaint tradition is making a comeback

The sun is just beginning to cast light over the hill-sloped street that novelist Dennis Mahoney lives on in Upstate New York. His house, a white craftsman-style bungalow with accents of hunter green, sits only mere blocks from the revitalized downtown of Troy, population 49,000 and change. The earliest risers are up and preparing for work, the sounds of their routines punctuated with metallic clinks and heavy thuds.


The Meadowbrook Farms Dairy milk truck has arrived, and the insulated box — emblazoned with red script and an image of a Holstein cow — sits on Mahoney's porch awaiting the milk delivery. Sunbeams reflect off the box and the heavy wire bottle carrier the milk man holds, creating a glare across the porch. The milk man takes the empty glass bottles away and replaces them with full versions, processed and bottled 20 miles away in Clarksville, NY.

It’s just another day in Modern America.

City dwellers choose at-home milk delivery to engage in nostalgic ideals: knowing your farmer and eating from the local foodshed.

How we get our food in the U.S. has no doubt changed in time. Once, most of us would have had our own cow (two, if we were lucky) to milk for cream, butter, and whey. As food industrialized and people moved away from the rural life, farms grew and specialized in dairy production. Delivering goods direct to consumer was a cost effective and efficient means of milk supply from small, independent dairies. It made sense to have milk delivered straight to the front door in a time when bread, meat, and produce were all purchased from individual shops and retailers.

Eventually, food became even more centralized with the advent of the grocery store (many sources point to the first supermarket opening in Jamaica, Queens in 1930), and people began buying gallons of milk at the same place other sundries and foodstuffs were procured. According to an Economic Research Service document by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 percent of milk sold in America was home delivered in the 1960s. By the 1990s, that number had dipped to less than one percent. But while many consumers still partake in the one-stop shopping experience at today’s grocer, some reserve milk as a truck-to-table ritual and rely on milk delivery services.


"My wife and I heard about the service half a decade ago and thought, ‘Old-timey milkman! How can we not try this?’" Mahoney says. Since Meadowbrook, which has been offering milk delivery since 1926, was already serving in the neighborhood, Mahoney signed up for milk to be delivered once a week. Eggs, cream, cheese, and egg nog sometimes populate the milk box on the porch, but the usual delivery is milk-only.

Mary Beth Halayko, who lives just outside of Troy in North Greenbush, NY, is another longtime Meadowbrook customer. She has a standing order for two half-gallons of two-percent milk and one half-gallon of chocolate milk per week. Occasionally, she will order other items listed on a flier left by the delivery man in her milk box. As to payment, "I leave money in the box and they leave me a balance sheet every three months." At Christmastime, a complimentary half-gallon of Meadowbrook’s eggnog is left as a thank you.

The quaint approach to milk is not reserved just for those close to the farm. Urbanites can still revel in the milk delivery service even when the farm becomes more distant. "It’s modernized nostalgia," says Frank Acosta, co-owner of Manhattan Milk. His company sells and delivers milk produced and bottled at Trinity Valley, a fifth-generation dairy farm, in Cortland, NY. Brendan Brown, the farm's owner, says that he produces and bottles about 250 gallons of fluid milk products (white milk, chocolate milk in various sizes) for the Manhattan Milk brand, which he ships to New York City weekly for distribution.

Milk delivery on a porch in Maryland. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Manhattan Milk’s purchase order is about 10 percent of what Trinity Valley produces weekly for its farm store and local grocery wholesale business. But according to Acosta, Manhattan Milk’s customers (roughly 100 throughout New York City) choose home delivery to engage in nostalgic ideals: knowing your farmer, and eating from the local foodshed.

Manhattan Milk has its own brand for milk, cheese, and other value-added items, but also sells the Byrne Dairy, Blue Diamond, Califia, Organic Valley, Soy Delicious, Silk, Applegate, and other lines of milk and dairy products. (The Byrne Dairy milk, sold from corporate offices in Lafayette, NY, near Syracuse, comes in half-gallon glass bottles.) Orders for Manhattan Milk are placed online, but Acosta notes that customer service issues are handled over the phone as quickly as possible. "With us, there aren’t 20 levels of communication," he says.

The nostalgia factor only accounts for so much of the company’s success. The convenience of having milk on your stoop in a nearly on-demand fashion is a big sell for some of customers. Acosta points to elderly people, pregnant women, and people with young children as the primary target for the the convenience of milk delivery.

A milk delivery in 1955. Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

But convenience comes at a cost. "There is a demand for it to be cheaper, more economical," Acosta says. "Some people want a Mercedes-Benz but want to pay for a Honda."  Price is usually a deciding factor for customers: Manhattan Milk requires a minimum order of $15, with a $6 delivery charge. Meadowbrook’s milk — which can also be purchased at farmers markets and small, independent grocery stores in and around Albany, NY — costs $3.25 per half gallon, with a pint of half-and-half running $2.25. A half-gallon of Byrne Dairy whole milk from Manhattan Milk costs $5.99. Meanwhile, according to nerdwallet.com, a gallon of conventional milk in New York City averages $2.27.

"Why would anyone have it delivered when you can buy it at the store? Having it delivered is always going to cost more," says Bruce Krupke, executive vice president of Northeast Dairy Foods Association. Most home delivery services use glass bottles for their milk, tacking on a deposit credited to customers’ accounts when the bottles are returned in the milk box. Purchasing a milk box to keep milk cold on the porch is an additional one-time expense.

"Milk is a volume business," Krupke says, viewed as a commodity and priced accordingly. "It’s cheaper to put milk in an 18-wheeler and drop it off at a grocery store." Just like with other bulk items, milk is cheapest when produced, bought, and sold en masse.

But Mahoney can list numerous benefits that offset the higher cost. "The milk tastes noticeably better than store-bought. We never have to lug gallons for milk home from a store. There’s something deeply satisfying about having that old-timey milk box on the porch, and about getting to know the delivery men. The whole experience gives the milk personality."

The same rationale that Mahoney employs with his milk choices can be related to the Community Support Agriculture (CSA) or farmers market movement. More and more, people insist on knowing where their food comes from and the hands that toiled to produce it. Like with any other direct-to-consumer food product, part of the appeal is transparency.

"There’s something deeply satisfying about having that old-timey milk box on the porch. The whole experience gives the milk personality."

And according to Acosta, there is a direct accountability for bad product or missed delivery in small dairy services that doesn’t exist with other delivery companies, like Amazon. Another differentiator? Personal character. "You have Target going up and taking away the uniqueness of New York City," he says.

Krupke says for dairies, the perishability of milk is the biggest deterrent from getting into the home delivery game. The nature of milk and the resources required of it, especially to make individual delivery stops for small home orders, are prohibitive for most dairies. The common model is cooperative milk production, where milk is produced on small dairy farms, collected on a daily basis by regional milk processing firms, pasteurized and bottled (or turned into value-added products like yogurt, cheese, butter, or protein-rich milk and whey powders) at the processing firm, and then sold to grocers or institutions (think schools and hospitals) in bulk quantities within a three to four county area. (This is true across America, says Krupke.)

Acosta notes the huge risk and expense that small milk production and delivery requires. "Competing with Amazon and companies that have a ton of money and resources behind them," is a worry he considered. But also concerning: the rise of grocery delivery services that can bring commodity-priced milk directly to a customer’s door with a small delivery charge.

A milkman in Maryland makes a delivery. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Modern-day milk delivery in Maryland (left; Alex Wong/Getty Images) and Los Angeles (right; Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images).

The state of milk production now might lead to a jump in dairies that choose to deliver. "The price of milk is down to half of what it was four years ago," says Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager for New York Farm Bureau, a lobbying and advocacy group. "The price is lower than what it costs to produce milk, and exports to China and Europe are also down. The price now is what farmers got in the 1980s." The current price of milk for NYS dairy farmers is $15.80 per hundredweight, which is equivalent to 11.6 gallons. It was more than $24 per hundredweight just a few years ago, he says. An abundance of milk exists on the market even though there are fewer farms producing it. (According the the latest USDA Agriculture Census in 2012, there are 5,427 dairy farms in New York State. In 2002, there were 6,682.)

Farmers who deliver milk to consumers are able to set their own prices, which might be one reason why home delivery services for milk might spike, says Ammerman.

Besides costs, are there any deterrents to milk delivery? "I will say that dropping a half-gallon glass bottle is like detonating TNT, but that’s 100 percent user error," says Mahoney. The convenience of milk delivery, much like other food delivery services, subscription-box services, and online ordering through Jet.com or Amazon, is worth the added cost to many. For others, living by the ethos of buying local and knowing one’s farmer — and having the charming milk box outside the front door to prove it — is enough to justify the costs.

"How much of the stuff in your house is actually local? Maybe food is the one thing they can do," says Krupke.

Deanna Fox is a freelance food and agriculture journalist.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

Gastropod

Before Candy, Halloween Was About Predicting Your Future Husband by Tossing Apple Peels

Anthony Bourdain

Who Knows Anthony Bourdain?

Features

How Wildwoods BBQ Brought a Taste of Australia to the Jersey Shore

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day