Less than 18 months ago, Bradley Hellert thought he had hung up his milkman's cap for good.
Then came Covid-19.
The 64-year-old owner of Hillside Dairy was the last provider of home delivery for milk in Erie County when he decided to retire in December 2018. He was the third generation in his family to run the Akron-based business, and had served many prominent customers over the years. But times had changed and the demand just wasn't there.
Fast forward to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, and suddenly the demand is back. With almost 200 inquiries in the last few weeks, he's getting back in business, with deliveries starting on Friday.
"If any time was a good time to retire from retirement, it would be now," Hellert joked, quoting what one of his customers said to him. "The demand has been so great."
As before, he'll focus on serving customers in northern and central Erie County, as far south as Hamburg and Orchard Park, and north to Newstead, Grand Island, Tonawanda and Amherst.
The dairy's website is still up, so his web team just had to update it and put in an online ordering and payment system, and he'll work with customers who want to pay in cash. He already has 100 customers signed up as of Wednesday, less than 24 hours after going live.
"The snowball is rolling," he said. "It’s amazing how many people are responding to this."
This time, he'll have a couple of extra twists to his service. He's partnering with Upstate Farms to obtain the milk for his deliveries, but he's also going to offer other dairy products.
Also, he'll offer several fruits and vegetables from Tarantino Produce in Buffalo, and he teamed up with Butter Crumbs Bakery in Corfu to provide fresh-baked artisan breads and other baked goods. In all, he'll have 60 products available for delivery. He also distributes ice.
"We broadened the selection," he said. "We're responding to the customers demands for what they’re looking for."
He's also going to avoid any contact with his customers in light of current restrictions.
"The business was a personal service business," he said. "They're still getting personal service, but in a socially distant, responsible manner."
Hellert, his father and his grandfather had been delivering milk to customers since 1915, except for a 20-year hiatus from 1979 to 1998. At his peak, Brad Hellert had 265 customers, but that had dropped to about 60 when he retired.
He would still get a few inquiries now and then after that, but the interest really picked up a couple of weeks ago, when he started hearing from customers four to five times a day. Soon, he was getting 10 to 15 inquiries a day.
"At that point, I looked at my wife, and said, people are in need of things and I’m still able to do it. I still have the resources to do it," he said. "Why not go back and try to help people if I can? If I make a little money to supplement my Social Security, that's good, too."
He said a lot of people have been struggling with grocery deliveries through Instacart and other services.
"We hope that we can revive the milkman, and hopefully some of these folks’ buying habits may change, and they may reconsider the older, tried-and-true methods," Hellert said.
"If everybody goes away again, I’ll retire again," he said. "But if they stick around, I’ll stick around."