Milk delivery makes a return

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woman delivering milk
Angie Rondolet, owner of Cow Belle, delivers milk and other goods to a home in eastern Pennsylvania. Rondolet more than doubled her delivery business since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Submitted photo)

A sight not seen in some neighborhoods for decades: bottles of milk being dropped off right at people’s front doors.

The milkman is making a comeback. Or milk woman, in the case of Angie Rondolet.

Rondolet runs the delivery service Cow Belle, in the Lehigh Valley, in eastern Pennsylvania. She delivers not only milk from a local dairy, but meat, eggs, cheese,

She had between 120-140 regular customers before March and was seeing slow, but steady growth. Now she’s up to more than 350 customers and more than 100 on a waiting list. She had to buy a second van to manage the increase.

“Everything was working fine until March,” she said. “It’s been a lot of work. It’s very little sleep.”

Milk delivery services have gotten a boost this spring, with people trying to avoid crowded grocery stores with bare shelves and wanting to support local businesses.

“I think that in our lifetime, people have not experienced going to the store and not being able to purchase what they wanted,” Carissa Itle Westrick said. “That made people take a long hard look at where their food comes from and how it gets to them.”

The old timers

Westrick, director of business development at Vale Wood Farms, said they were scrambling after losing school, restaurant and other wholesale customers overnight when things began shutting down. Around the same time, they saw an uptick in their home delivery business.

“That has sustained us from what otherwise would’ve been a downturn,” she said.

Their business is about 50-50 wholesale to retail sales, Westrick said. They process milk from their farm and several neighboring farms into milk and a line of dairy products.

Vale Wood Farms, located in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, has been doing home delivery for decades. With long-established routes, it wasn’t difficult to add new customers into the mix.

“Thankfully, we’ve been in situations where we’d serve one person on the block, and now we serve four people on the block,” Westrick said. “We’ve been able to make more efficient what we’re doing.”

More people spending time at home may have helped with that. She’s heard from new customers that they saw a milk truck delivering to a neighbor’s house and didn’t realize such a service existing in their area.

Some new customers jumped into home delivery out of panic and haven’t stuck around, Westrick said. There were also growing pains for people who are used to a quick turnaround of online shopping.

“We did have a small portion of customers that thought we were Amazon,” she said. “But a dairy home delivery is more like a relationship … Now, the calls I take are people saying ‘this is so convenient, I never thought about this. I’m going to keep doing this.’”

The up-and-comers

Rondolet noticed the same thing with her business. She started Cow Belle in 2016 with the goal of bringing local, quality foods right to people’s homes.

She grew up in Greece and remembers the milkman dropping off glass-bottled milk at her home. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was 5, but that always stuck with her.

Years later, when she noticed people moving towards local food sources more, she saw an opportunity to bring back home delivery.

She started with milk from Apple Valley Creamery, eggs, butter, cheese and juices. Her customers started asking if she could get them meat. She found farms that could provide her with poultry, pork and beef.

Before the pandemic, it was just her and her husband running things. As more customers came on board, she brought on a family member to help out with deliveries. She had to find new suppliers as some of her regular farms were also seeing high demand for their products. They bought the second delivery van – a purchase they were planning on making, just not quite so soon. They went from three delivery days to four.

“I wish I had another five drivers with trucks to help everybody out,” she said.

The new guys

Hartzler Family Dairy had been talking about home delivery on and off for a while. The Wayne County, Ohio, dairy has been bottling and selling milk since 1996.

Then, because of recent events, they put the idea out to the world via social media.

“And it blew up,” said James Maibach, client relations manager for Hartzler Family Dairy.

People were definitely interested. So, they decided to give it a try, Maibach said. They opened up online ordering and delivery to the first 40 or so people that contacted them about it.

Turns out the interest online was a bit stronger than the interest in real life. They’ve averaged about five stops a day for their Tuesday and Thursday delivery days, Maibach said.

The slow start is OK with them, he said. They were actually worried about how they’d handle it if everyone who was interested placed orders.

They’re starting with Wayne County. They’re going to open it up to new households and see how things progress. They may add other locations later on.

“We didn’t want to get too big too quickly,” he said. “We’re going nice and slow. We want to see what Wayne County does, see if we can manage it well.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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