The milkman is making a comeback as coronavirus keeps people from shopping

"We had to put some customers on hold just because of the big influx that we had.”
/ Source: TODAY

When New York implemented social distancing measures in March in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, restaurants, entertainment venues and schools — all establishments that buy and serve a lot of food — were forced to close their doors statewide. Almost overnight, King Brothers Dairy in Saratoga County saw a huge segment of its milk sales dry up.

But the 140-year old family run farm also experienced an unexpected boost to its business: Demand for its home delivery offering shot up as an influx of new customers flocked to the dairy’s milkman service.

The boost in business was a welcome surprise, coming at a time when American milk consumption has been steadily declining for years.

A delivery truck leaves the King Brothers Dairy farm in Schuylerville, New York.King Brothers Dairy

As the statewide social distancing orders went into effect, King Brothers was immediately hit with a surge in orders from local grocery stores as they sought to keep milk on their shelves as people rushed to stock up on staples while preparing to hunker down.

Then the requests for home delivery started pouring in.

“We were caught off guard a little bit,” Jeff King, one of the dairy’s co-owners, told TODAY Food.“We started getting a lot of phone calls. We had to put some customers on hold just because of the big influx that we had.”

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According to King, orders for the dairy’s home delivery service have doubled since New York’s coronavirus control measures went into effect in mid-March.

The coronavirus-related milkman boom is not unique to King Brothers, according to the National Dairy Council, which told TODAY it has been receiving similar reports from local dairies and other milk delivery services in various parts of the country.

“People are going back to products they grew up with and trusted,” Paul Zieminsky, executive vice president of global innovation at the NDC, said.

According to NDC figures, milk sales as a whole were up 34% nationally during the fourth week of March, a dramatic change of pace for the dairy industry, which has been rattled for years as consumers increasingly opt for nondairy beverages and plant-based milk options, like oat and almond milk.

Cow milk consumption in the U.S. reached historic lows in 2018, with the average American drinking nearly 40% less milk than in the 1970s. Industry decline has put thousands of dairy farms out of business in the last several years and, in the last six months, two of the country’s largest dairy companies have declared bankruptcy.

Similarly, home milk delivery services have fallen out of a favor in the U.S. In the 1950s, more than 50% of milk sold in the country was delivered directly to the homes of individual consumers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As supermarket shopping became the norm, the sight of uniformed milkmen delivering cold glass bottles of fresh milk directly to one's doorstep became a thing of the past. By 2005, home deliveries accounted for just 0.4% of milk sales. That same year, the USDA stopped tracking data for this segment of the industry.

In the last 10 years, however, the farm-to-table and buy local movements have helped revitalize the market for family run dairy farms and home delivery services for dairy have slowly been coming back in certain parts of the country.

“(With) that farm-to-table acceleration, even on the milk side, even prior to this year we were starting discussions with companies ... and (talking about) how we can align them with global retailers,” said Zieminsky, speaking on the growing consumer demand for locally sourced milk from independent dairy brands.

King Brothers started offering home delivery of its products in 2010. The service was growing enough that the company even built its own processing plant four years ago, allowing workers to bottle milk on site for the first time since the 1960s.

Despite having some structure for home deliveries in place, the pandemic-fueled demand has been unprecedented. King said his team started reorganizing operations immediately. Drivers and trucks typically assigned to restaurant or school orders are now doing home deliveries instead. Meanwhile, the call volume has inundated the lone staff member who handles the farm's customer service line. “We’ve been working hard to get her some help,” King quipped.

Much like the rest of America, the modern milkman is also adapting to evolving guidelines on social distancing and hygiene practices recommended by public health officials. King said his operated added extra sanitary precautions for the home delivery service, including a “no-contact” option with a retro spin.

“People can buy the old fashioned porch boxes from us, so that we can deliver the product, put it in an insulated porch box, and then there's no human contact,” King said.