Food

The milkman cometh

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One of the hardest parts of Jim Pastor's job is convincing people that he exists: He's a milkman.

"The reaction is always the same," Pastor said. "People say, 'Really? A milkman? Like in the old days?' They always have a hard time believing it."

Pastor owns a Santa Ana-based delivery service that contracts with Rockview Farms, one of the largest family-owned dairies in Southern California. Each week, Pastor and his team of 14 milkmen drive their refrigerated trucks to more than 4,800 homes along routes in Los Angeles and Orange counties. They arrive in the wee morning hours and dash up to the front door, leaving behind cartons of farm-fresh milk, cheese, eggs, bread, butter and more.

There is a premium, of course: A gallon of milk delivered by Pastor is about 20 to 30 cents more than you'll find it at the store. But business has never been better. Relying largely on word-of-mouth, Pastor picked up 300 new residential clients just last month, and he's planning to expand home-delivery routes into Marina del Rey and Santa Monica.

The food world's rallying cry of recent years — "eat local, eat organic" — is lending new life to local dairies such as Downey-based Rockview Farms, which keeps its own dairy cows in Chino and other parts of Northern California and processes its own milk, including a line of organic dairy products. Using local advertising, word-of-mouth or old-fashioned door-to-door sales, these dairies spread the word that home delivery is not a thing of the past.

Freshness is their calling card: That milk lands on your doorstep in as little as 48 hours after milking, says Carole Roquemore, the director of marketing for Rockview. The dairy's business model eschews buying placement on supermarket shelves and instead focuses on home delivery and independently owned markets. In all, Rockview delivers milk and dairy products to more than 7,500 homes in the Southland.

"I like the idea that we are supporting a local business, and a local dairy," said Joanne Irish of Long Beach, who has been on one of Pastor's routes for a decade now. "We love milk, and I just got tired of schlepping milk around." But she said she was really sold on the taste. "I know this sounds crazy but we actually did a blind taste test with supermarket milk and the fresh milk. You can really taste a difference."

Being a milkman is all that Pastor, 52, has ever known. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he had no idea what to do after high school when he got a job with a dairy to do "shagging": Paired up with a driver, Pastor would provide the nimble legs that would jump in and out of the milk truck and dash up to the front porches to speed up delivery. "It was a great way to stay in shape," he said.

Soon, he became a driver, and then realized he had a knack for business and customer service. (When a longtime customer was hospitalized not long ago, one of Pastor's employees visited her, and brought a bouquet of flowers and a card.) He and his wife, Sherri, bought their own route in 1979 and began building their business from there.

The back of Pastor's refrigerated truck is stacked high with milk crates filled with products that reflect the demands of picky customers who are used to getting what they want when they want it. Between milk, soy milk and Lactaid, there are 16 varieties to choose from. There's also half-and-half, buttermilk, sour cream, smoothies, eggs, sliced cheeses, pies, quiche, nine-grain bread and other artisan baked goods from Picket Lane Bakery in Orange County, as well as coffees, scones, turnovers, cookies, bagels, fresh pastas and fresh-squeezed orange juice from other sources. Another new addition to the line are seasonal fresh fruit and vegetable boxes from Tanaka Farms.

And if there's something else that his customers want, Pastor says, he'll get it.

"In this day and age, you have to have variety to stay in business," he explains with a shrug.

To most Americans, the milkman is a symbol of simpler times, when dairy farms were commonplace and markets weren't. In the 1940s and '50s, many American families received home delivery of milk and other daily necessities, said Jim Carroll, president of the Massachusetts-based International Home Delivery Assn.

In those days, double-income families were a rarity and the milkman was a common part of the landscape: The milk truck could make its rounds all day long, because Mom was sure to be home.

Supermarkets and corner convenience stores changed all that when they began cropping up in the 1960s. They cut into the milkman's business in part by slashing milk prices to get customers in the door.

But the milkman never really went away. He hung on thanks to customers who lived too far from a supermarket, had kids who went through milk like water or were reaching their twilight years and no longer wanted to lug around heavy containers. In the Northeast, Carroll said, the inclement weather is a boon for the milk delivery business.

There are some key changes. Gone are the nostalgic milk bottles — they're too heavy, too dangerous and too costly. And today's milkman (and he's almost always a man) doesn't wear a uniform suit, squeaky black shoes and a spiffy cap — he's more than likely to wear shorts, running shoes and a ball cap.

Not that you're likely to catch a glimpse.

Pastor and his crew assemble around midnight on a Santa Ana loading dock, stock up their trucks and are soon on their way. The nocturnal delivery enables the milkman to beat traffic but also allows the milk to be delivered — and brought inside — before everyone heads off to work for the day.

Since deliveries happen so early in the mornings, when the air temperature is still cool here in Southern California, refrigeration is not always a necessity: Most deliveries are simply placed on the front porch right outside the entryway, or on a nearby chair, because early-bird customers plan to scoop them up and bring them inside shortly after delivery. Other customers — read: those who like to sleep in — leave out a cooler, or a traditional milk box that keeps their dairy treats cool.

As the owner of the delivery service, Pastor does not have a regular route but fills in when someone is sick or on vacation, or when a route is otherwise unstaffed. Drivers leave detailed log notes for one another, such as "Customer likes milk left on chair." He oversees 12 routes, which each include 80 to 150 stops a day, Monday through Saturday, and can involve 140 miles of road.

Here's how it works for Pastor's customers: They sign up for regular delivery — it can be as frequent as twice a week, or once every other week — online at http://www.wowdelivery.com. They also get an order form of available goodies. If they want something special, they leave the order form out by the door. Customers pay by credit card or check, and there's no extra charge for delivery

On a recent weekday morning, Pastor pulled his refrigerated truck into a leafy cul de sac in Santa Ana — "the best part of being a milkman is that you can park on the wrong side of the street and no one cares," he joked — and dashed up to the front porch with two half-gallons of milk. Between the darkness — it was not quite 6 a.m. — and the lack of a porch light, Pastor had to squint to read the order form that had been left out: "Cottage cheese, butter and a chocolate Danish."

He headed back to the truck and did a little "shopping" in the back, then returned to the front porch, placing all the goods inside a red cooler left out for this purpose.

By the time most of his customers stumbled onto the front porch, still groggy, to find their milk and fresh eggs, Pastor would be long gone.

"If we're doing it right, no one ever sees the milkman," he said.

rene.lynch@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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