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End of an era: Last milkman in Erie County makes final deliveries

For most of the last century, three generations of Hellerts have personally delivered glass bottles of milk to families and businesses in Erie County.

Their customers have included members of the Schoellkopf and Jacobs families, former strip-club owner Rick Snowden, and current Empire State Development Corp. CEO and developer Howard Zemsky, and even The Buffalo News.

"We’ve had customers from all walks of life, from bona fide millionaires to plain average folks with food stamps to middle-class folks," Brad Hellert said.

But all that ends this week, when Hellert completes his last rounds and retires.

"I just felt the time was right, and better to go out on top," said Hellert, 63, owner of Hillside Dairy in Akron. "The milkman is kind of just a nostalgia thing. It’s not an essential part of anyone's life. It’s just something from a bygone era."

Hellert, his father and his grandfather have been bringing milk to customers since 1915, with a 20-year hiatus from 1979 to 1998. At his own peak, Brad Hellert had 265 customers from Akron and Clarence to North Buffalo and Tonawanda, and even as far south as Orchard Park.

For the last two decades, Hellert would leave his home at 3 a.m., get to Buffalo to pick up the milk arriving from Pennsylvania, load his truck, and start his delivery routine. He would finish by 4 p.m., and be home by 5 p.m.

But that business has now dwindled to about 60 customers, "and most of them are over 50 years old," Hellert said. Many of his clients died in the last decade. And it's getting tougher to compete with supermarkets and large dairy companies, especially now that stores like Wegmans and Walmart offer home delivery of groceries.

Hellert plans to wrap up home deliveries on Thursday and commercial deliveries on Saturday.

The past lives on for two dairies with home-delivery milk routes

Hoover Dairy in Sanborn, which focuses on Niagara County, is now the last glass-bottle milk delivery service in the entire Western New York region.

"The milkman is two generations removed from its heyday, and people have forgotten what the milkman was all about," Hellert said. "The customer base has just continued to diminish over time."

The decline of the milkman is mirrors the fate that has befallen many other service-oriented businesses over the years, as the tide of commercialization, consolidation and scale have overwhelmed the smaller mom-and-pop companies that once dominated the landscape. There are now far fewer players in the industry, and they're spread out over larger geographic regions, with milk shipped hundreds of miles for sale and consumption.

At one time decades ago, Hellert noted, there was a dairy in every community, but "hundreds of them have gone by the boards over the last 50 years." In 1960, 300 licensed milk dealers operated in Erie County alone, but now there are just over 200 in the entire state. And for the first time ever, according to a 2017 agricultural statistical bulletin that Hellert cited, more of the packaged milk sold in New York state came from outside its borders than from inside.

"So the New York dairy industry is not dominated by New York milk bottlers. It’s from milk from outside New York state and marketed here," Hellert said. "It’s a real strange anomaly for a large milk-producing state."

Today, Heller said, there are only two major milk bottlers in New York state east of Albany — Upstate Niagara Cooperative in West Seneca and Byrne Dairy in Syracuse — and two niche glass bottlers, Hoover's Dairy in Sanborn and Pittsford Farms outside of Rochester.

Indeed, even though Upstate is locally based, Hellert's milk came from a family-owned dairy in Pittsburgh called Schneider's Dairy, because it was less expensive. "I could have milk shipped in from Pittsburgh and purchased cheaper than I could drive 10 miles to Upstate's loading dock in Cheektowaga," Hellert said.

Similarly, most small independent convenience stores and grocers have given way to regional or national chains, which look for large-scale suppliers to service their entire network of locations. And supermarkets are now offering home delivery programs, taking away yet another niche.

"It’s a far different world than when my grandfather and father operated the business," Hellert reflected. "Now it’s down to me and there’s nobody to pass it on to."

Hellert's grandfather started working in the dairy business for Hellert's great-uncle Albert Schalge in 1915, delivering milk for the family farm. Three years later, Schalge sold the business for $600 in November 1918 to H. Morton Perry, who began his own horse-and-cart milk deliveries. That was the forerunner of Perry's Dairy, and later Perry's Ice Cream.

Coincidentally, Hellert's cousin, Jayne, is now married to Brian Perry, chairman of Perry's Ice Cream. "It's a small world," Hellert remarked.

Hellert's grandfather returned to the dairy world four years later, forming Hellert's Dairy in 1922 to deliver milk, ice and coal for heating. Hellert's father joined him in the business after graduating from high school in 1935, and the company continued operating until it was sold in 1979 to Charlap's in Hamburg.

"This was a highly personalized service business, where you almost became part of the family of your customers," Hellert said. "I don’t think that milk was the most important thing for my customers. It was me being there every week and checking on those people who may not have had anyone else to check on them. The milk was secondary."

Hellert, who grew up in the business, worked for the family firm from age 7 until 22, when he "got out" after the sale to Charlap's. He had been a senior at Canisius College when his father died suddenly in 1977, two years before the sale.

After that, Hellert said, he did "a variety of other jobs," working at his mother's pizza restaurant in Batavia, and operating another small pizza delivery restaurant in Akron for several years. He also worked for the Gioia Pasta Co. from 1990 to 1991.

But "over time, I missed the dairy business and wanted to get back into it," he said. So he bought Hillside Dairy in July 1998 from former owner Gary Fix, whose father and uncle had started it in 1934.

"It was my family’s legacy," Hellert explained. "I’m a great history buff and traditionalist, and I just wanted to carry on the family’s tradition. I don’t know why. It’s my destiny."

Now he plans to take his first family vacation in 22 years. And he and his son will spend a few years restoring and repainting an antique milk truck that his grandfather bought in 1951, so he can drive it in parades and "play the milkman instead of being the milkman."

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