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Glass Milk Bottles Back on Line

Independent dairies have found a classic solution to a classic problem - how to differentiate their products

Lynne Ainsworth / Toronto Star 14jun99

 HAGERSVILLE - For older people it's a taste of nostalgia, for younger people it's a novelty.

For some of the remaining independent dairies in Ontario, it has proved an unlikely means to survive - milk in glass bottles .

For decades, this was the only way to get mass-marketed milk to the kitchen table. A generation ago cartons, jugs and plastic bags came along to push the milk bottle out of the supermarket cooler.

But glass never entirely died out. The appeal is simple - some consumers swear milk tastes better from a glass bottle, and looks fresher too. Unlike plastic or cardboard, glass doesn't alter the true taste of milk .

"Somehow it just tastes fresher," says Julie Morris, of Harrington, Ont., one of a niche market of Canadian consumers who prefer to buy milk in bottles .

The packaging is also attractive to environmentally conscious consumers. Unlike currents plastic jugs, the glass can be washed and used again and again without risking contamination to the milk . (On the other hand, critics point out that the reusable glass bottles eat up energy in the steam cleaning process.)

While the number of Canadian dairies bottling milk is small - two in Ontario and three in British Columbia - that's not the case in the United States where at least 125 dairies still sell milk in glass bottles .

Ironically, the North American supplier of glass milk bottles is a Canadian company, Stanpac Inc., of Smithville, Ont.

"Glass bottling has really kept us in business," says Barry Cochrane, of Cochrane's Dairy outside of Ottawa. "To compete with the big guys you have to be different."

For Cochrane's, a family owned business since 1939, different means selling milk in glass bottles , and delivering it to the doors of 1,200 homes in the Ottawa region.

Catering to niche markets is proving to be a key to survival for dozens of Canadian dairies.

Hewitt's still processes milk in cartons and 3 litre plastic bags, but Howard Hewitt could never completely give up on the idea of selling milk in glass bottles . In 1980, when the Hagersville processing plant was rebuilt, Howard Hewitt reserved a corner for a bottling room. He had a hunch consumers would be willing to pay a little more for a fresh bottle of milk .

Hewitt died before he could see his hunch played out, but his wife Marie and daughter Maureen were on hand in 1994 to watch the first bottle roll off the assembly line.

Sold in health food stores from Pickering to London, the bottled milk , along with a line of goat's milk , has become a trademark for the 112-year-old dairy operation.

Getting the milk back into bottles hasn't been easy. To begin with, bottle filling and washing equipment are, in a sense, industrial antiques. Finding working machinery that could be refurbished and converted to metric turned out to be a challenge.

The search took Hewitt across the province and then south to New York State where bottled milk has never really disappeared from grocery store shelves.

Then there was the task of finding a bottle for the Canadian market - a one-litre container that didn't exist back in the '60s when the company was bottling milk by the gallon.

Hewitt's has no minimum order, which earns them business from mom and pop stores Luckily for Hewitt's, Vancouver's Avalon Dairy had already invested $80,000 in new metric bottle molds and was willing, for a fee, to share it. "Glass is a good package, it always has been," says the Vancouver diary's Lee Crowley. "It's one of the few things that can be recycled for its original use."

Unlike other dairies, Avalon has always processed milk in glass bottles . But glass bottles had been hard to find. Half-pint, pint and quart bottles were snapped up by collectors.

In 1977, when metric became mandatory, the quart bottle was history. Unless it could produce a one-litre bottle, Avalon risked running afoul of federal regulations.

But bottles aren't the only thing that's keeping independent milk processors alive.

Lee Crowley, like the handful of other survivors among what were once thousands of small independent dairies, wonders what his family would do without the dairy.

"We're not here for the money. If it was all about money, I would have sold . . . long ago," says Crowley, a mechanic by trade. "You have to ask yourself, `What's life all about?' For me it's about doing a good job, being successful and not being pushed out."

It's the same kind of sentiment shared by dozens of other family-run dairy operators. "We can't compete with the big companies on price, but we give them a run for the money when it comes to quality and service," says Marie Hewitt.

Service means trucks may be on the road seven days a week; no minimum order is required by Hewitt's, something which draws business from mom-and-pop variety stores that some of the big dairies won't serve.

Steen's Dairy in Erin, Ont., has moved into the processing of organic milk . The market for organic milk in Ontario has been largely limited to shoppers who support small health food stores.

Up in cottage country, Kawartha Dairy is making a name for itself in the ice cream business. Eight new flavours, including Bear Claw, Moose Tracks and Apple Crumble, are being added this year to the company's 41-flavour line-up.

But don't bother searching for a litre of Raspberry Thunder back in the big cities.

Kawartha ice cream, like Hewitt's bottled milk , has a tough time making it into grocery stores where milk and ice cream processors have ties to the big retail chains.

But, says Crowley, "there are a lot of people out there who don't think big is best."

ICE CREAM TOO: Danielle Hayes, 19 months, drinks a milk shake at Hewitt's Dairy Bar on Highway 6. Roadside stands also help keep independents going. ROUND THEY GO: Milk gushes from the filling machines at Hewitt's Dairy in Hagersville. The 112-year-old family business revived the deposit system that permits containers to be used over and over.

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