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California | THE SUPERMARKET STRIKE

Convenience Drives Milk Sales

Dairy store owners and delivery services hope to hold on to the significant gains they've made during the grocery dispute.

November 08, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The milkman cometh.

The supermarket strike in Southern California is pumping new life into two branches of the dairy industry -- home delivery services and drive-through convenience stores -- that have been on a decades-long fade to white.

Local milkmen and dairy store owners report a surge in sales since the start in mid-October of the dispute between grocery workers and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons stores.

"My business in October was up by 50% over the previous month," said Jim Pastor, who employs seven drivers delivering Rockview Farms milk and dairy goods to more than 4,000 homes in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Pastor's Santa Ana-based service had averaged two to three new customers a week. These days, he's signing as many as 10 a day.

"It is so convenient," said Gary Schmidt, who lives in Yorba Linda with his family of four. "I don't have to drive to the store and fight the pickets."

Schmidt started out just ordering milk but has added cheese, butter, eggs and orange juice to the provisions delivered by Pastor's service.

"I plan to keep it even when the strike ends," Schmidt said.

Before the strike, some of the savvier milkmen used the potential for a labor dispute in their door-to-door sales pitches and marketing brochures, said Stephen Schaffer, general manager of Alta Dena Certified Dairy Inc., one of Southern California's two major suppliers of home-delivered milk. Now Bill Burks, a Temecula milkman, is thinking outside of the milk carton: He plans to launch a radio advertising campaign this month.

Burks, who like most small dairy operators won't reveal his sales, tries to keep his prices near or even below what supermarkets charge to make sure he holds on to customers after the labor dispute ends. He sells a gallon of Alta Dena milk for $3.85, generally about 15 cents less than what the big grocers charge for the same brand. Generally, milkmen don't charge delivery fees.

Owners of certain drive-through dairies and convenience stores say privately that they wouldn't be upset if the strike, which is headed for mediation next week, continued for some time.

Their numbers tell why.

Before Oct. 11, Joe Van Ruiten, a Rockview Farms dealer, sold 1,500 to 1,800 gallons of milk a week out of his Milk Barn drive-through in Long Beach. Now he is moving as much as 3,000 gallons.

He charges $3.49 for a gallon of rBST-growth-hormone-free Rockview milk.

"My milk sales have almost doubled, and my general grocery sales are up 25% to 30%," said Van Ruiten, whose shop is stocked with bread, eggs, chips and cigarettes in addition to dairy products.

Eric Burckle too is seeing a bump up in sales on milk, beer and other items at his Green Pasture Drive-In Dairy in Lancaster. He's hoping all his new business will translate into a 10% increase in annual sales, enough to hire another employee.

Schaffer of Alta Dena thinks Burckle and others will retain a modest portion of their new customers.

"We sell to a lot of the chains that are not part of the dispute, and those supermarkets say they hope to keep 15% to 20% of the new business they are seeing when the strike ends," he said.

He figures that the home delivery and drive-through dairies will keep 5% to 10% of their new business. That would be a significant gain for an industry that has seen fatter times.

"The home delivery guys might do better than the drive-throughs because people find it so convenient to have the fresh milk delivered right to their porch," Schaffer said.

Alta Dena, the City of Industry-based division of Dean Foods, sells its dairy goods to 75 drive-through stores, many of which use the Alta Dena name in their signage, and 82 independent distributors who deliver to a combined 32,000 homes in Southern California. Downey-based Rockview Farms supplies 25 drive-through dairies and 20 home delivery routes.

Those operations represent only a small fraction of the hundreds of old-time dairies that once dotted southeast Los Angeles County. The region was known as Dairy Valley, home to 100,000 cows spread across 400 farms on land that became the cities of Cerritos, Artesia, Norwalk and Downey.

Back in the 1950s, Pastor recalled, a single dairy could support as many as 180 drivers each delivering milk to 300 to 400 homes once or twice a week.

The rise of giant supermarket chains at the center of the grocery strike put most milkmen and the small dairies out of business. The chains centralized milk processing, building their own bottling plants to supply their stores.

But remnants of Southern California's old dairy economy can be detected in such names as Van Ruiten and Pete Vande Witte, owner of the Jersey Gold Dairy drive-through on Pioneer Boulevard in Cerritos. They are descendants of Dutch dairy farmers who settled the area in the early part of the 20th century.

When Vande Witte started to work at the Jersey Gold Dairy 25 years ago, he helped the previous owner run the bottling line that operated in a building just behind the drive-through store. All that remains of the former Jersey Gold milk brand is a couple of 200-gallon stainless steel tanks, some piping and a single Jersey Gold milk bottle Vande Witte keeps at home.

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