Why a Near Century-Old New York Dairy Switched to Making Nut Milks

For nearly eight decades, Henry Schwartz helped keep New Yorkers’ fridges flush with milk cartons from the family-run Elmhurst Dairy. Photo courtesy of Elmhurst.

Editor’s note: We kicked off our first annual Food Loves Tech event last summer in Chelsea—here’s a recap. We’re bringing a taste of the food and farming future back this year, but just across the East River at Industry City. Leading up to the event, this story is part of an ongoing series about technology’s effects on our food supply.

For nearly eight decades, Henry Schwartz helped keep New Yorkers’ fridges flush with milk cartons from the family-run Elmhurst Dairy. Although the century-old institution closed this past October, the 82-year-old forward thinker plans to continue filling people’s cereal bowls with nutritious, opaque liquid. But this time, his customers will include those with lactose-intolerant and vegan diets, under the new brand “Elmhurst Milked.”

Since he was a child, Schwartz has never strayed far from the family industry. Often he could be found voluntarily helping his father and uncle, Max and Arthur Schwartz, the founders of Elmhurst Dairy, bottle the milk from 200 dairy cows daily. Other times, he was with his grandmother, Dora Krout, on her dairy farm, Juniper Valley, in the Middle Village. After attending college at the University of Vermont to study Dairy Technology, Schwartz made his way back to the family-run dairy, where he eventually took over as CEO.

“They say that you either go ahead and have it in your genes or you learn it, right,” Schwartz wrote in an email. “Well, I guess I had both cases.”

Elmhurst Dairy serviced the metropolitan community with pasteurized fluid milk for decades, supplying its product to 1,400 public school and over 8,300 grocers. But the Schwartz family saw the beginning of the end in 1987, when a federal ruling invalidated a provision in the state law, which had been used to prevent a New Jersey dairy from selling milk in the Big Apple. Although Elmhurst held on for nearly two decades, Schwartz eventually realized he was fighting an uphill battle as the last dairy in New York. By November 2016, Elmhurst Dairy had closed its doors.

While Schwartz said it was bittersweet to close the Jamaica, Queens plant, the coincidental timing of the plant-based revolution most likely assuaged the pain. Daily consumption of milk across all ages has plummeted, from 1 cup of milk to 0.6 cups between 1970 and 2013. Meanwhile, recent reports have found that almond milk’s popularity is on the rise. In 2016, the data and measurement company Nielsen noted that almond milk sales had grown 250 percent in the previous five years.

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The current “milked” line includes almond, walnut, cashew and hazelnut beverages. Photo courtesy of Elmhurst.

Andrew Novakovic, an agriculture economist at Cornell University, isn’t surprised that the Schwartz is jumping ship to the non-dairy beverage sector. He could see that after closing the plant, “the Schwartz family looked around, saw they were good at putting white liquid into plastic bottle and paper cartons, and thought “Why don’t we do that with another liquid?”

At the new campus in Elma, New York, which is home to Steuben Foods, another Schwartz family-owned company, Elmhurst Milked will focus on providing a wide-range of nut-based beverages, with help from culinary innovator Dr. Cheryl Mitchell. The current “milked” line includes almond, walnut, cashew and hazelnut beverages. By using a patented cold milling-process, the employees are “milking” nuts, which extract the oils, proteins, fats and fibers and eliminates any necessity for vitamin fortification. The products are currently available at grocery stores in Georgia and Florida, but nationwide online shipping will allow hometown fans to get a taste of what their former dairy is bottling today.

My predecessors were dairymen (and dairy-women), but they were also innovators,” says Schwartz. “They went from storing cans of milk in ice-filled bathtubs and hand-pasteurizing milk in small batches to selling bottled milk and high-quality cream to thousands and thousands of New Yorkers… I think they would understand and respect my decision to continue to innovate.”