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Crestwood Farms of Bellport keeps milkman tradition alive

Michael Wieczorek, 37, president of Crestwood Farms, at

Michael Wieczorek, 37, president of Crestwood Farms, at the company's distribution warehouse in Bellport, on July 9, 2015. Credit: Heather Walsh

The milkman, a vestige of another time who had seemingly gone the way of bowling alley pin setters and switchboard operators, is alive on Long Island.

Food distributor Crestwood Farms of Bellport has kept the tradition of home-delivered milk.

Its 10 contracted milkmen serve about 4,200 homes in Nassau and Suffolk counties each week. The company's total operation, which includes home and commercial sales, sells about 4 million gallons of milk -- whole milk, heavy creams, half and half and other products -- a year. Customer tastes have vastly changed, with growing demand for lower-fat alternatives such as soy, almond and coconut milk. But the job of delivering milk is still done the old-fashioned way.

From late at night to early in the morning, the contract drivers load their trucks at Crestwood's warehouse with a mix of glass-bottled milk, eggs, butter and other groceries, and stop at homes along their routes. In the morning and early afternoon, customers can expect to find the items waiting inside insulated aluminum boxes at their door.

"Every time I speak to someone, the number one thing they say is 'I can't believe they still do that,' " said Michael Wieczorek, 37, president of Crestwood Farms.

Part of the reason Crestwood has been able to keep its home delivery operation is by growing its commercial sales to chain supermarkets and convenience stores -- now 90 percent of the company's more than $5 million in revenue -- and by expanding beyond milk. The company, which has 40 employees, sells more than 800 food and beverage products, including juices, eggs, butter, cream cheese, water, Greek yogurt and even prepared deli sandwiches.

Crestwood's home delivery customers enjoy the convenience and freshness of the milk, and the service that makes them feel nostalgic, Wieczorek said. But the milkman has seen better days.

In 1963, 29.7 percent of milk sold in the United States was distributed to customers via home delivery. As of 2005, the latest year data are available, only 0.4 percent of consumers got their milk from home delivery services, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service.

The company's home delivery customers have diminished since 2005, when it served about 7,000 homes. But, going into the end of this year, Wieczorek said Crestwood plans to put a greater focus on its home grocery operation.

People are open to the idea of getting groceries delivered. According to an April survey of more than 30,000 people in 60 countries by Nielsen Holdings, a New York information and measurement company, a quarter of the respondents said they have gone online to order groceries for home delivery, with 55 percent saying they would be willing to do the same in the future. The growing trend of home-delivered groceries is due in part to tech-savvy millennials who are starting households and families of their own, according to the report.

Part of Crestwood's plan for the home-delivery business includes the relaunch of its website and the development of a mobile app. The idea is to give customers more ways to order, Wieczorek said.

The company is believed to be the last milkman on the Island, but it has competitors.

"The competition we have in home delivery would be Peapod or FreshDirect," Wieczorek said, referring to the online grocery delivery services. In addition, local supermarkets are increasingly offering home delivery, he said.

While those services might present a "little more of a challenge" for Crestwood, Wieczorek said he believes his company has an advantage in the convenience of its delivery model.

"It goes back to the nostalgia of having milk delivered to your house in the middle of the night," he said. "You just wake up and it's there waiting. "

Crestwood, founded in the 1950s, dates to a time when milkmen and local dairy farms were the norm across many parts of suburban America and Long Island.

In 2003, Crestwood, which only did home deliveries at the time, merged with North Shore Dairy, a commercial milk distributor started by Wieczorek's father, Robert, in the 1980s. The resulting company expanded its commercial sale of dairy and other food to retailers across Westchester, New York City and Long Island.

On June 26, the company moved from a facility in Bay Shore to a newer warehouse in Bellport, securing tax benefits from the Town of Brookhaven, including an $8,500 sales-tax exemption, a $15,000 mortgage-recording tax exemption, and a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes, saving about $106,000 over 10 years.

Home deliveries, which are only made in Nassau and Suffolk counties, make up 10 percent of Crestwood's business these days, down from about 25 percent in the mid-2000s.

The company's commercial business has been boosted by a contract with HP Hood, based in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, one of the nation's largest milk and dairy product processors, giving it a wide variety of goods and access to name brands known by retailers.

Still, Wieczorek said, home delivery is part of the company's heritage. "It's the identity of where we were and you never want to forget that," he said.

As the business shrinks, there are challenges. "There are some individuals doing some home delivery," said Bruce Krupke, executive vice president of the Northeast Dairy Foods Association Inc., an industry trade group. "The difficulty is finding enough customers in a concentrated area that makes it worthwhile."

Nelson Ferrara, 69, a contract milkman who delivers for Crestwood, has fewer customers spaced farther apart than years ago, but has stayed busy.

Ferrara compares the relationship between himself and Crestwood as one similar to a franchiser and its franchisees.

The deliverymen manage their own routes, take orders from their customers and pay Crestwood for the goods. Ferrara and his fellow owner-operators have exclusive rights to sell their products and set their own prices while acting as the face of the company.

Battenkill Valley Creamery glass-bottled milk, one of the most popular items among home delivery customers, can run about $3.99 a half gallon. Overall delivery service fees are between $1.50 to $3 per delivery depending on the location. That compares with grocery store milk selling for roughly $3.80 a gallon -- but you have to get that milk yourself.

Besides the higher price of home delivery, another challenge is that Americans are drinking less milk. According to USDA Economic Research Service data, per capita "availability" of all types of fluid milk -- which the service says is a proxy for consumption -- was 29.7 gallons in 1975, compared to 21.2 gallons in 2012.

Part of the reason Americans are drinking less milk, said Roger Hoskin, agricultural economist with the USDA, is that weight-conscious consumers are opting for low-fat alternatives.

Wieczorek said that trend is why his company has increasingly turned to vendors who can supply milk alternatives, including brands such as Almond Breeze Almondmilk, Silk and Lactaid.

"What's really exploding are the organic lines, the almond milks and the soy milks," Wieczorek said. "That's really what's driving our sales.""Times are changing, but we don't want to change what the milkman always was," Wieczorek said. "We're going to take the old school and intertwine it with the new school but still have that old-school feel to it."

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