Aug 7, 2012 10:44 PM
LOUISVILLE. (AP) - At 5:40 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, Robert Ehrler double-checked 20 plastic coolers loaded with eggs, bagels, cheese, yogurt, cream and milk in glass bottles. Outside in the pre-dawn darkness, the temperature was already over 80, but inside Ehrler's walk-in refrigerator it was a chilly 40 degrees.
After adding ice to the coolers, Ehrler loaded them onto his cow-spotted milk delivery truck. By 6 a.m., he rolled out of the parking lot, embarking on a delivery route that winds through the Highlands, hauling the full coolers up to customers' doors and carrying back the previous week's empty coolers and glass bottles.
Home delivery used to be the dominant means of distributing dairy products. At one time, Louisville had more than two dozen independent dairies, according to Ehrler. But with the consolidation of the industry over the last few decades, the local dairies disappeared, and home delivery followed.
"In some places, it never went out of fashion," Ehrler said. "But it did in this area."
Ehrler, 54, is now the only person in Kentucky licensed to sell dairy products door to door. He launched his business, Ehrler's Micro Dairy, in May. Since then, he has attracted more than 40 customers - he said his goal is to add 30 per month - and expanded his delivery route from one day a week to three.
He handles most of the business himself, from fielding calls to making deliveries, but said he plans to hire the company's first full-time employee soon.
He credits the local food movement for inspiring a renewed interest in local milk - especially among consumers who are willing to pay more for the sake of supporting local producers who provide a high-quality product.
Ehrler sells JD Country Milk, which is from a family-owned dairy in Russellville, Ky. A half-gallon costs $3.75, and the delivery fee is $2.99.
Ehrler's customers say the products he delivers are well worth the price.
Still, Ehrler is keeping his day job as an in-house environmental lawyer.
With all the changes in consumers' habits since the last milk truck stopped rolling - and the belt-tightening caused by the prolonged economic crisis - can a dairy delivery service thrive again in Louisville?
Bob Ehrler's family has been in the dairy business since his great-great-grandfather Joseph Ehrler took a job with a Louisville dairy. Actually, the family business goes back even further - Joseph Ehrler had emigrated from Switzerland, where his family ran a goat dairy.
In 1867, Joseph's employer owed him so much money in back wages that instead of paying him he gave Ehrler a milk wagon. Thus began the association between the Ehrler name and the dairy trade in Louisville.
At its height in the 1950s and '60s, Ehrler's Dairy had a milk processing plant, more than 10 stores and 60 trucks serving 15,000 home delivery customers. In the 1970s, Bob's uncle sold the family's stake in the company to a cooperative that eventually shut down the plant, most of the stores and the delivery service. Although Ehrler's Dairy brand lived on, especially in their namesake ice cream stores, no Ehrler family members were involved.
Their story is a familiar one of agricultural consolidation, with big conglomerates stepping in and homogenizing the trade. Putting more emphasis on volume and productivity, the big milk producers use Holstein cows almost exclusively, due to their high output.
In the old days, dairies competed for consumers by boasting their different varieties of cows - Jerseys and Guernseys were particular favorites in the area.
Bob grew up on a dairy farm, where he helped milk a herd of 50 Guernseys. His parents bought the farm after the sale of the company.
Now, "there may not be 50 Guernseys in the state of Kentucky," Ehrler said.
Ehrler doesn't run his own dairy - he's strictly in the delivery business. He traces the idea of getting back into the family trade to 1997, when he came across an old milk bottle at a flea market. It bore the logo of Maple Grove Dairy, which later became his family's farm (the one with the 50 Guernseys). That got him started collecting bottles from the old Kentucky dairies. By now, the collection fills long shelves covering one wall in the hallway outside his office.
"I've been very conscious of the family history in the dairy business," Ehrler said. "I thought about getting a farm and milking cows. I thought about getting goats and making cheese." But there were already local farmers doing that.
"I thought, what's the one niche that nobody is filling now? That's home delivery."
The family dairy that makes JD Country Milk doesn't treat its cows with antibiotics or hormones. The milk comes in glass bottles, is pasteurized at a lower-than-typical temperature to keep beneficial bacteria alive and is not homogenized - you need to mix or shake the cream into the milk before drinking.
Two of Ehrler's customers Ben Hufbauer and Bess Reed, said the quality of JD milk impressed them.
"It's really a lot better," Hufbauer said, even though he was "somewhat skeptical" that it would improve on the organic milk the couple were already buying.
Reed was raised on a dairy farm in California, so she knows her milk. "I had these vivid memories of milk that tastes like milk," Reed recalled. "And this tastes like milk should."
For Reed, Hufbauer and their two children, JD's smaller scale and more humane treatment of its animals add to the appeal - their cows are grass-fed and free-range. "My daughter, like most kids, is an animal lover," Hufbauer said.
Leslie Holland, another of Ehrler's customers, said she chose the milk for what's not in it. "My mother and sister are both breast cancer survivors, so non-hormone dairy products are important," she said.
Still, Ehrler has positioned himself to capture only a fraction of a fraction of the market - not only the relatively few people willing to pay extra for locally produced, high-quality milk, but the fraction of those who are willing to pay extra for it to be brought to their door.
A $2.99 delivery fee doesn't sound like much, but it's more than most people pay for a gallon of milk.
For Holland, the convenience of delivery outweighs the added cost. "I spend a lot of time going to the grocery just for milk, because my son drinks a lot of milk, and that's not my favorite thing to do," she said. "For three bucks a week, they're saving me some aggravation."
Hufbauer also cited the hassle of lugging glass bottles to and from the grocery store. "It's one of the heaviest things in the store, so you can save yourself that trip," he said.
And Hufbauer and Reed don't just get milk delivered. They also order local cheese, eggs and bagels on a typical week. Holland orders duck eggs and Red Hot Roasters coffee from Ehrler, items that her grocery store doesn't carry. Increasing the weekly order spreads the delivery fee over more items, making it more cost-effective.
Nostalgia is undeniably part of the appeal, too. For many baby boomers, the milkman was part of their childhood. Ehrler's Micro Dairy lets them share that experience with their own children.
"Definitely, nostalgia is a part of it," Hufbauer said. "His truck is painted like a cow, and of course my 10-year-old daughter was thrilled."
"They're too polite to say I'm crazy to my face," Ehrler said of his family, which includes the two uncles who sold Ehrler Bros. in the 1970s, now ages 88 and 96. "If you're going to have a midlife crisis, buy a sports car, not a milk truck," they said.
He found the truck for sale on the Internet. It came from A.B. Monroe Dairy in Providence, R.I., which has been in business since 1881. Ehrler spent a week embedded with Monroe, observing the business from the inside. "I practically had an internship," he said.
The challenge in setting up the business came mainly in the form of logistics. "It's a supply chain," Ehrler said. For example, producers make their deliveries to Ehrler's warehouse on different days, so the products have to stay fresh until Ehrler can deliver them.
And then there's the delivery route, which Ehrler had to build as efficiently as possible to minimize driving time.
"Whether you have 1,000 customers or 10, you have to have that basic supply chain in place."
Because of the small scale of the businesses he works with, bumps in the supply chain can have big effects. For example, he gets his eggs from a Mennonite farmer in Breckinridge County. During the recent drought, the farmer's full-grown chickens stopped laying eggs. If the farmer's younger chickens hadn't been able to make up the difference, Ehrler would have had to explain the shortage to his customers.
"Basically, I was planning on educating my customers on what a drought means for small poultry producers and hoping that they would support the small farmer affected by the drought," he said. "I see a big part of what I do as educating the customer - to appreciate artisan products and to understand the challenges of making artisan products."
To drum up new business, Ehrler is pursuing a two-pronged strategy. First, typical of a 21st-century business, he has a Facebook page and a website with an online order form.
Second, he's marketing "the old-fashioned way" - going door to door offering a free bottle of JD's milk. "I can assure you milk in a glass bottle tastes a lot better than milk in a carton," he tells prospective customers.
So far, the strategy seems to be working - on a single quiet Highlands street, he has won four customers.
On a recent delivery run, by the time he pulled the truck up in front of one of these houses, the sun was up - and so was the temperature. Ehrler sweated as he carried the full cooler up to the front door.
But then he returned down the walk, tossed the empty cooler into the back of the truck, climbed into the driver's seat, and set off for the next delivery.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)