The milkman is back: An old job sees new life in COVID-19 crisis
MAPLEWOOD — As soon as the glass bottles start clanking, neighbors rush to their windows.
Between the curtains, they spy a deliveryman carrying a crate of milk from his truck. He places the bottles in a box on a nearby porch, along with some other necessities, like eggs.
What is this, the 1950s?
No, it’s business during a pandemic.
While some may consider the milkman a relic of yesteryear, New Jersey milk delivery services are experiencing a surge in orders as supermarket-wary residents stay home due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“The uptick in new customers for home delivery is unbelievable,” says Ed Seabridge, owner of Suncrest Farms, a milk delivery service in Totowa.
“We’re probably averaging somewhere around 90 to 100 calls a day,” Seabridge, 67, tells NJ Advance Media. “It’s just nonstop.”
He delivers the goods — whole milk, 2%, 1% and skim, organic optional — in a truck painted like a cow (license plate: COW 54).
Among new customers, Seabridge hears a common refrain.
“'I didn’t know the milkman still existed.'"
After all, the once-vital profession is now largely associated with a bygone time. The business started to decline with the rise of supermarkets and spacious refrigeration cases. In 1963, about 30% of consumers still received home milk deliveries, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey. By the early aughts, home delivery accounted for less than 1% of sales.
However, some delivery businesses — and their glass bottles — have maintained a small grip on neighborhoods. Other purveyors of doorstep dairy sprung up after the initial fall of the industry, trucking along during the rise of newer food subscription services that bring groceries and organic produce to people’s doorsteps at a time when many consumers have embraced a farm-to-table ethos.
Of course, milkmen deliver to other places, too. But due to shuttering schools, daycare facilities, offices, restaurants and catering halls, Suncrest Farms lost anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of sales. New interest in home delivery has helped to soften that blow, Seabridge says.
“I had somebody call from Maryland and somebody call from Pennsylvania,” he says. “It’s crazy. Some of these people are in a panic mode, think they’re never going to get food again.”
Suncrest’s four delivery people bring regular milk, as well as soy, almond and Lactaid milk, to homes in an area spanning Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties, from Fort Lee down to the Lincoln Tunnel and west into Short Hills and Summit. In addition to the vintage milk delivery method — glass bottles — milk is also available in plastic jugs and paper cartons. In recent days, customers have also been ordering more non-milk products like orange juice and yogurt.
Seabridge says his prices are comparable to convenience stores, but he calls his hormone-free grade A milk “the Rolls Royce of dairy products.”
Falling back on an old staple of American culture has its benefits, he says. For one, reliability.
“We’ve never missed a delivery," Seabridge says. “Hurricanes, Superstorm Sandy, everybody that was supposed to get their milk that day, gets their milk that day.”
For Deanne Landress of Maplewood, milk delivery will always be an “essential” business. She has been depending on Seabridge’s deliveries for 15 years.
“He never does not come," she says — whether it’s a blizzard or, as now, a global viral outbreak.
“It is such a calming thing in a difficult time to know that every Monday morning I get milk, eggs and butter," Landress, 64, tells NJ Advance Media. “It’s always there before I wake up. It’s really nice.”
Regular delivery can occasionally create a household surplus, but at a time like this, that’s not such a bad thing.
“Sometimes I have a couple weeks worth of orange juice, but that’s OK,” says Landress, a teacher.
While “no-contact” delivery is all the rage, given that people are washing their hands after every encounter with a package, Seabridge has been practicing much the same for decades. Suncrest Farms has been in operation since 1961, and he’s owned the company since 1971.
His orders, which often arrive in the early morning, involve little fuss and not much interaction at all.
“I have customers that I’ve personally delivered to for 20 years and I wouldn’t know them,” he says, even as he’s delivered to multiple generations of the same family. “I’ve never had face-to-face contact with some of these people.”
Still, he’s noticed something curious in recent days. People, perhaps grateful for any sign of life-as-normal, have started waving to him — a throwback courtesy within a throwback industry.
“Years ago it used to be everyone knew everyone,” he says.
At Organic Milk Corporation in Hillsdale, a milk delivery service also known as Farm Fresh Dairy, the sudden spike in customers has resulted in some startling interactions.
“At first the drivers thought that they were being followed," assistant manager Peter Romano tells NJ Advance Media.
It turns out, they were right. Potential customers were so hungry for milk, eggs and other refrigerator staples that they have been stalking the milkmen.
“They’re tracking down our vehicles on the road," says Romano, 21. "It’s a little bit a of mayhem right now.”
In non-pandemic times, one main selling point of the company’s offerings has been the shortened window for cow-to-table: the milk can get from farm to customer faster, since Organic Milk Corporation’s glass bottle milk is also not subject to ultra high temperature pasteurization, which would extend the shelf life.
Since the coronavirus crisis, calls have increased “a thousandfold," Romano says. His mother, Rosemarie Romano, has owned the business, which serves Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties, for 25 years.
“A lot of people are frightful of going out and we’ve trying to cater to them all," he says.
The delivery service provides organic milk in glass bottles in addition to bread, cheese, butter, yogurt, crème fraîche and organic eggs as well as meat (including bacon, beef and chicken) and seafood. (“Logistically it’s been difficult to procure eggs because I think too many people are hoarding eggs," Romano says. “We’re asking people not to hoard.”)
It turns out, people are realizing the value of the milkman.
“My mom was always concerned about FreshDirect and Amazon and all these other companies," Romano says. But now, all it takes for one of their milk trucks to arrive in a neighborhood for people to start making inquiries.
Jeff Milling, owner of Udderly Delicious, a milk delivery service based in Old Bridge, says demand for his hormone and antibiotic-free dairy products has gone through the roof since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. Milling and his three employees, who normally drop off products at night, are now working around the clock.
“It’s been insane," he tells NJ Advance Media. “Everyone wants to have the home delivery now. It’s nonstop. My business has doubled. I had to build a second truck and another walk-in box (to store and refrigerate products) just to accommodate customers."
For 25 years, Milling, 62, has delivered to homes from Howell north through Edison and across Staten Island. He specializes in glass bottle milk, which starts at $3.99 for a half gallon (with a $3 delivery charge), but his offerings also include frozen meat, seafood, pasta and desserts.
Yeah, he says. All of it.
“All of my food, all of the frozen food,” Milling says. “People are stocking up their freezers.”
Still, he’s curious to know if this new influx of customers will see the value of a milkman when home quarantines are over.
“I’m the last of a dying breed," he says. “There’s hardly any of us left. We’re going to keep on plugging away as long as there’s a need for it."
(Story by Amy Kuperinsky, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. Distributed via the Associated PRess. Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)