Entrepreneur delivers milk - and nostalgia

Innovation: With home delivery of dairy products, a Howard County business offers convenience and a taste of the past.

January 13, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Jeff Semmont is nostalgic for a time he has never experienced.

The 32-year-old from Ellicott City thinks fondly of times when residents could leave their homes and cars unlocked, and daydreams about a drive-in movie theater and restaurant where teens can hang out.

So it is no wonder that when Semmont sold his dry-cleaning delivery business, he settled into a job that harks back to days gone by.

Dressed in a starched white uniform, driving a refrigerated truck and carrying gently clanging glass bottles, Semmont is a milkman.

His company, Udderly Delightful, is less than a year old and serves about 150 homes in Howard County with weekly deliveries of milk, eggs, bacon, yogurt and other dairy products.

Much about the business reflects Semmont's fondness for simplicity.

"I guess what attracted me was the old-fashioned business way," he said. "The presentation is so neat. It's like getting a little present at Christmas."

Although dairy home delivery is more common in some parts of the country - one dairy in Illinois has tens of thousands of home-delivery customers - milkmen are rare.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 0.5 percent of Americans had milk delivered to their homes in 1999. In 1963, nearly 30 percent did, according to a report from the agency.

But in recent years, a handful of small home-delivery businesses such as Udderly Delightful has sprung up throughout the country, started by entrepreneurs who liked the nostalgia and saw customers who would pay for the convenience of home delivery.

Most companies charge a small delivery fee, and several extend their products beyond dairy and breakfast fare. Locally, one other company, Potomac Dairy in Montgomery County, provides the service.

Susan Ruland, spokeswoman for the International Dairy Foods Association in Washington, said that most often, a dairy provides delivery, but services such as Udderly Delightful have worked in some areas.

"It fits very nicely in with the whole idea of the busy consumer. The idea of home-delivered groceries has caught on in some areas," she said. "If there's a demand in the local market for this kind of a niche service, it will happen."

For Semmont, everything had to be in keeping with his notions of what the job once entailed. He delivers four days a week, rising at 3 a.m. and carrying his package of cold dairy products in half-gallon and quart sizes to his first customer by 4 a.m.

His company patronizes other small local companies. Hormone-free milk, yogurt, cheeses and eggs come from South Mountain Creamery, a small dairy farm in Frederick that bottles some products in half-gallon glass jars. Coffee comes from Pfefferkorn's in Baltimore, freshly baked breads from the Breadery in Ellicott City, orange juice and bacon from Lancaster County, Pa.

Dress whites

Semmont arrives at his customers' homes in a white button-down shirt and white trousers. In colder weather, he dons a black jacket, its back emblazoned with his company's pink-and-white logo.

On delivery days, the all-white uniform is quickly soiled as he runs in and out of the refrigerated truck and kneels to empty and refill milk coolers as he travels from house to house.

He seldom catches a glimpse of his customers: Most are sleeping.

But he talks to them on the phone, and occasionally one rises early to watch him exchanging empty bottles for full ones. One customer's 10- year- old daughter set her alarm to be sure to watch Semmont delivering the milk.

"When I talk to people about what I'm doing, people always smile. They remember the milkman. They remember what he looked like," Semmont said. "Hopefully I'm providing for their kids an opportunity to grow up with the memory."

He said he started Udderly Delightful in March with nothing but a notion that people would appreciate the novelty and his services. Previously, Semmont and his wife ran Halo Dry Cleaning, a service that picked up and delivered laundry, for seven years.

But when his wife became pregnant with their third daughter last year, she decided she could no longer work the long hours.

Semmont handles the business alone, while his wife raises their growing family. After a four- to five-hour delivery route, he returns to their townhouse and begins tallying customer orders, preparing new bills, paying vendors and creating the next week's orders. Slightly more than 150 customers keep Semmont busy, but 250 would fill his roster, he said.

`All about service'

Semmont's prices are a little higher than those in grocery stores - for example, a pound of bacon delivered is $3.99 compared with a brand regularly priced $3.39 at Safeway - and he charges $3.15 for each delivery (but requires no minimum order), but his customers say the service is worth the cost.

"He is all about service," said Denise Eden, one of his first customers. "A lot of people could take a lesson from him about customer service. He's always got a smile on his face. He gets to know you. Just little things that tell you he has listened to you."

She said she is impressed with the products he carries, too.

"The flavor is incredible and the color - there is a difference. I never thought I'd be so excited about dairy products," she said.

"My parents had a milk person, and to have it come back and be just every bit as good is phenomenal."

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