CLINK. Out come the empty bottles, in go the full. Frank Coffey is delivering milk to homes just as he has for the past 33 years. Starting his day before the sun comes up, he serves some 600 customers a week who want fresh milk in glass bottles. These days are a bit different for Mr. Coffey and other longtime milkmen. Now the neighborhoods are like ghost towns with more people working, he says, and they keep their homes locked up. ``Years ago, we'd go right into the kitchen and put it in the refrigerator; we knew the whole family.''
Coffey works for Crescent Ridge Dairy in Sharon, Mass., founded in 1932 and still run by the Parrish family. Surprising to some, Crescent Ridge has been steadily growing: They have gone from one to 21 trucks, and now deliver to nearly 12,000 customers. Many other small dairies and milk delivery companies folded in the past 20 years, mainly due to the proliferation of supermarkets and convenience stores.
But as Dave Barberie, route manager for Crescent Farms, asks: Have you ever seen anyone in the express checkout line with a smile?
He may have a point. Most people who have home dairy delivery say the convenience, service, and quality make up for the cost. On the average, home-delivered milk can cost $1 more per gallon than in the supermarket.
Home-delivered milk accounts for only about 1 percent of total US milk sales - a drop in the pail. That's a far cry from 1963, when the share was nearly 30 percent. Small dairies can't afford to compete with supermarkets anymore. ``It's hard to make a buck at it,'' says Kirk Huffstetter, retail sales manager for the family-run Curly's Dairy in Salem, Ore. Labor and equipment costs are extremely high, he says.
``I think people are amazed that we're still doing it,'' says Rob Armstrong, vice president of the family-run Munroe Dairy in East Providence, R.I. Munroe has 8,000 customers and 21 trucks and drivers, two of whom are women.
But home-delivered milk may be on the upswing.
Winscot Inc., distributors of Anchor Glass's milk bottles - the only milk bottles manufactured in the United States - reports an increase in sales of up to 25 percent over last year. ``A lot of it's due to the problems with plastic,'' says a Winscot spokesman.
Oberweis Dairy delivers glass-bottled milk to 5,000 customers in West suburban Chicago. Ever since Earth Day (April 22), they have received an unusually high number of calls asking about home delivery from people concerned about the environment.
The Booles get their milk delivered ``so we don't make as much trash,'' says Kathy Boole, standing on the doorstep of her Medfield, Mass., home one recent Wednesday morning. ``It's definitely fresher,'' she says. ``We know it's not been sitting around on some assembly line.''
The glass bottle has tremendous appeal, says Robert Parrish, co-owner of Crescent Ridge, who's getting ready to go to his farm's well-known dairy bar. Glass is cleaner than plastic or paper, being nonporous, he says. Yes, bottles break, but generally one bottle is good for 50 deliveries.
Nostalgia warms people up to the idea of home delivery. Parents recall milk deliveries as children. Seeing the white milk, holding the cold glass bottle, taking off the cardboard-and-foil cap, and hearing the glug-glug-glug as it pours - these things bring people back.
But according to a survey by Munroe Dairy, it's neither nostalgia nor ecology but ``service'' that is customers' No. 1 reason for home delivery. ``It's a personalized business; it's unique,'' says Rob Armstrong of Munroe.
Is the milk really better and fresher? ``Grocery milk is probably a day older; could be two days older,'' says Dana Parrish, farm manager at Crescent Ridge, as he shows off the farm's cows. (They listen to rock music 24 hours a day so they will eat better and produce more milk.) The 60-some cows here are all Holsteins, save one, and account for only a small portion of Crescent Ridge's milk. Nearly 90 percent of it comes from Jersey cows in New Hampshire and Vermont. ``The Jersey produces less milk and more butterfat,'' making it richer, says Mr. Parrish.
Some people will stop home delivery because they feel the price is too high, says milkman Coffey, who raised his seven children on Crescent Ridge milk. ``But then a couple weeks later they're back because their kids won't drink store milk,'' he says, with a knowing grin.
Families are prime home-delivery candidates. ``As we have working parents becoming the majority of family structures, families are looking for quality foods in a convenient way,'' says Eleanor White, communications director of the New England Dairy and Food Council. Young families who are pressed for time especially appreciate home delivery, she notes.
But one person's convenience may be another's inconvenience. When two parents work, no one is home to bring in the milk, and it may spoil. ``We're addressing that,'' says Elaine Oberweis. Her dairy schedules deliveries for early mornings and Saturdays. Some Crescent Ridge customers freeze a plastic soda bottle and leave it in the insulated milk box. And some milkmen are given house keys or throw ice in the milk box with the bottles.
Mrs. Roland Hodge has had Crescent Ridge milk delivered to her for almost 60 years. ``It's an ordinary thing,'' she says, and ``always convenient.'' She adds: ``I have never run out of milk.''
Still, many question whether home milk delivery will survive. ``Good, service-type businesses don't die overnight,'' says Joe Fitak of Producer's Dairy in Fresno, Calif.
Mr. Armstrong of Munroe Dairy adds: ``This company has been here over 100 years. I would think we could go on for another 100 years.''