SUGARLOAF, Pa. (AP) – Paul Dagostin pulled his pickup truck alongside the barn at the Bloss Farm in Hollenback Township last month to pick up nearly 600 gallons of raw milk for the Milkhouse Creamery.
Within hours, the cream would be separated for ice cream and eggnog, while the remainder of the processed and now pasteurized milk – whole, skim and otherwise – would be bottled and ready for sale in its three shops and other retail locations.
The Milkhouse, which opened as a small, craft ice cream shop inside the Bowl Arena in West Hazleton in 2017, began bottling and selling its own milk and cold tea in July.
While many businesses buckled under the state shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Milkhouse managed to adapt and expand through the crisis.
Business owner Dagostin, who hails from two lines of dairy farmers, including the Pecoras in Sugarloaf Twp., wanted to start bottling milk in early 2020, bolstered by a state grant to aid local dairies.
But acquiring and restoring the vintage processing and bottling equipment needed and the retooling of the former Pecora’s Dairy took longer than expected.
Then, the pandemic brought statewide shutdowns and shortages. Milkhouse, which had been selling another dairy’s bottled milk until its own small-scale operation could get up and running, shifted gears.
Dagostin and his son-in-law, Erik Maselkevich who serves as production manager, wanted to do door-to-door deliveries someday, but realized now was the time.
Milkhouse literally brought back “the milkman” with products delivered to people’s doors when many couldn’t risk going out for their milk and dairy products.
The business was overwhelmed with orders in the early days of the pandemic, but determined to service as many areas as possible as phone lines rang constantly in early March.
People as far as Danville and White Haven to the west and east and Pottsville and Wilkes-Barre to the south and north requested deliveries. The business focused on different towns each day.
As shortages eased and the state slowly reopened, deliveries began to slow, but Dagostin had learned of another opportunity, he said.
The former Fairchild’s Dairy and Store on Orange Street in Berwick was available, and the same store that once competed with his grandparents’ dairy, Will-O-Bett, also in Berwick.
Milkhouse wasn’t ready to start bottling its own milk yet, and wanted to wait to make the move, he said. The owners agreed to hold the business, he said.
“It was a blessing,” Dagostin said.
In July, Milkhouse opened the Berwick location the same day they began bottling their own milk, Maselkevich said.
Deliveries began to wane as the state and country reopened, but the new location with their milk in glass bottles took off, he said.
Dagostin and Maselkevich debated whether or not to do glass bottles early on, but a Facebook poll showed people longed for the old-school dairy.
They knew that they’d be making an investment in the glass bottles, as they’d need at least three bottles for each customer, Maselkevich said. One bottle would be at the customer’s home, another going through the wash and sanitization and a third filled waiting in the cooler, he said.
Milkhouse bought bottles with the creamery’s name on them, but then had to buy plain bottles to keep up with the demand. People also brought in bottles from long shuttered dairies that they had in their basements, Dagostin said.
If the bottles’ lids were the same size, Milkhouse used them, running them through the same wash and sanitization process as their own bottles, Maselkevich said. Dagostin pointed out that they wouldn’t use bottles from an existing dairy, and returned bottles to the Lancaster dairy, whose product they used to sell, as they came in.
Seeing the old bottles being used again tickles Dagostin, who enjoys the nostalgia as much as the customers seem to, he said. Many want to say that they’re recycling the old bottles, but they’re really re-using them, he said.
“Nothing thrills me more than to see a 50-year-old bottle, cleaned, sanitized and still being used,” Dagostin said.
They’ve seen bottles from area dairies and even one from the Rolling Acres Dairy in Jerome, Somerset County, he said.
“I think the timing was right on this,” Dagostin said. “The health scare … helped us, because people wanted to know where their products were coming from.”
Milkhouse had already decided to work with the Bloss Farm, because its cows produced quality milk with a consistently high butterfat, which lent itself well to its ice cream base.
Owner Jeff Bloss was happy to work with the Milkhouse, and the cooperative that he sells the majority of his milk to agreed to let the small operation take some of the raw product.
The deal with Milkhouse helped Bloss through the pandemic, which has seen milk production change, he said.
Bloss was cut off at 85% of his production base in March, and sales to Milkhouse helped to stabilize the price of milk for him, as the operation takes 15 to 20% of his product.
“We should be taking all of it,” Dagostin said, adding that he’d like to see a local product stay local.
Milkhouse sells its “old-time dairy” products from the Sugarloaf Township, Berwick and Wright Township locations, Maselkevich said, and some area stores and farm markets began carrying the products.
Milkhouse’s West Hazleton location closed, but Hazle Park Meats in the borough and Tarone’s Market in Hazleton now carry Milkhouse products, as does the Crest Haven Farm Market in Danville and Broyan’s Farm Market in Nescopeck.
Milkhouse placed picnic tables outside its Sugarloaf Township location along with a play area for children to draw people in, and teamed up with area food trucks, which also benefited from the partnership, Dagostin said.
“I’d like to have that every weekend,” he said. “But the food trucks are hard to get now.”
Dagostin wouldn’t mind expanding the business again to do food, possibly a food truck of their own, Dagostin mused.
For the moment, the Milkhouse was preparing for its first Eggnog Fest earlier this month, when food trucks were to return as they celebrated the return of the family recipe for the thick, spicy yuletide dairy treat. And eggnog was available at all of the Milkhouse locations.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.
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