Neighborhoods in Asheville once brimmed with fleets of bright yellow- and black-striped trucks that delivered dairy products from Biltmore Farms straight to people’s front porches and iceboxes. For nearly 100 years, this was the norm, until the mid-1980s, when the company shut down its bottling plant in the face of modern refrigeration and the dominance of supermarkets.
Odds are, milkmen will never again be our sole source of dairy as they were in the 1900s. Nonetheless, Jonathon Flaum, founder and owner of Farm to Home Milk, sees home delivery as an act of service and, within that, an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness, connection and even poetry. Starting in April, Flaum’s business will resurrect the home delivery route — in a truck that doubles as a vehicle for cow-moo-nity.
“My grandfather grew up in the Bronx in the 1920s and used to tell me stories when I was a kid about the iceman and the milkman. He told me how everybody knew everybody, and how his entire world was within eight blocks. No car, TV or telephone was necessary — your neighbors were your friends, entertainment and refuge. I wanted a life like that after leaving my corporate job.” says Flaum, who worked as a corporate speechwriter for 12 years before starting his business in 2011. “It wasn’t superpractical. It was a poetic idea.”
To get started, he connected with a few area dairy farmers, most notably the Hostetler family from Wholesome Country Creamery, which has supplied grass-fed and minimally processed milk for wholesalers since 1979. He got his first tiny delivery van, a 2011 Nissan NV, and met with the original Asheville milk maven, the late George Cecil, who greeted Flaum’s idea with equal doses enthusiasm and skepticism.
“[Cecil] wished me well and was really glad we were doing it, but he thought we’d have a real hard time making a living,“ says Flaum.
When the business launched, Flaum got huge support from the community, most of whom hadn’t experienced the joy of a milk truck in decades — or ever.
“It was a family ritual that we would all look forward to,” says Margaret Gibbs, one of Flaum’s first customers. “When my two kids knew it was delivery day, they would constantly run out and check the metal cooler to see if the milkman had been to our home. … Being able to meet him, hearing the stories of where the milk comes from — it felt so good to have that. It was a great connector.”
Wholesale buyers have also played an important role in the business. Flaum says relationships with grocery stores, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants are what’s allowed Farm to Home Milk to stay afloat financially. Today, he shuttles an average of 1,200 to 1,400 gallons of dairy products to them weekly.
But it turned out that Cecil was right about home delivery. Halfway through 2016, Flaum had to end the service.
“There’s a time when you’re so busy that you have to be practical,” he says. “We were all mutually sad to have to stop it, but something had to give. We were so busy trying to figure out the best systems to get the milk around town … and it was clear the wholesale was what was going to make the business sustainable.”
“We were totally heartbroken,” says Gibbs. “We totally understood where [Flaum] was coming from … but it took us a while to remember to buy milk. And everything we bought was so inferior.”
Nearly three years later, the Gibbs family can rejoice once more with a creamy, cold glass of the good stuff.
“In the last six or seven months, I’ve finally had more time to take a step back from the business,” says Flaum. “I have great employees who have taken leadership, so I have had to put out less fires on the front lines.”
With this extra time, Flaum says, he wrote a lot of poems about his grandfather along with his own experience as a milkman, and that reflection inspired him to bring back the home delivery.
“We really want to have that same sense of service, care and community connection. Why I want to return is there’s something about bringing products to someone’s house, particularly milk and glass. You’ve got to keep it cold and fresh and deliver it mindfully. That was a great practice … doing it in such a way that people feel gratitude,” he says. “I see it as a way to insert poetry back into the business, approaching it as an act of service, dedicating one or two days a week to give the community a taste of what it’s like to have a milkman.”
A new box-style, 16-foot Isuzu delivery truck will also serve as a literal vehicle for the poetry Flaum seeks to create. In a collaboration with local designer Jenny Fares, Flaum has wrapped the truck with the phrases “Compassion is Possible,” “Everything is Singing” and “Today is Happening.”
“I was like, you know, we’re essentially driving a billboard around town. So what message do we want to send? That’s where those phrases come from,” says Flaum.
“Right here and now we can greet each other in the simple and present moment of what’s in hand — in our case, it’s a bottle of milk. Our focus in this next chapter of business is the way of delivery itself, to allow it to awaken us and the customers we serve to something that my grandfather took for granted 100 years ago: intimate community connection without the need for pretense or appointment,” Flaum reflects.
Farm to Home Milk resumes delivery service on Monday, April 15. In a new partnership, Button Bagels and its specialty cream cheese will also be available for purchase. Initially, delivery will be available in the 28801, 28802, 28803, 28804, 28805 and 28806 ZIP codes along with a special route in Burnsville. Sign up for dairy deliveries and learn more at farmtohome.deliverybizpro.com.