No Deposit, No Return, No Love

It was 5:30 a.m. and it was pushing thirty below outside the Kemps Dairy on Minneapolis’s North Side. Mike White whistled a sunny tune as he loaded milk crates into the back of his truck. Like Dick Gephardt’s dad, he’s a milkman. Unlike Dick Gephardt’s dad, he’s still on his route. He delivers five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year—in the snow, rain, heat, or humidity. “Just another day for a milkman,” White said, with a wink. “We’ve done this before.”

The milkman legacy runs three generations deep in the White family. It began with his grandfather, Emmett White, who delivered for the Ewald Dairy on Golden Valley Road in the late thirties. Back then, most of the deliveries were made by horse, although the first Divco trucks were just then going into service.

When people think about home delivery today, they picture mega-companies like SimonDelivers or Schwan’s, operating with hundreds of employees. Mike White is a member of a group of fifty independent milkmen. In a kind of nod to the new competitors on the block, the loose association is called Milkman Delivers. White thinks both the association and the competition are good for his own business, because they promote the idea of home delivery—an idea that has more or less vanished in a cloud of single-occupancy cars headed to the grocery warehouse.

The stars were fading from the blue-black sky as I followed Mike to the door of his first stop. It was a two-story house with a gray Volkswagen Passat parked in the driveway. “These people won’t mind if you come in,” he said. Mike and I walked right into the kitchen without so much as a knock. The mother of the household, Mary, greeted us as if we were family. She was still combing out her morning hair. “Girls,” she called. “Mike’s here.” Two girls ran down the steps to spy on us. “I love my milkman,” Mary said. “I just like it simple. Old-fashioned. I’m not into technology.”

Mike got hooked on the business as a kid. His father, Jim, took him to the dairy to watch the bottles getting filled. “We would grab a chocolate milk right off the line,” he recalled. He helped his dad pack the truck with ice and ran the glass bottles to the doorsteps.

Some of Mike’s customers have been with him for twenty-six years. A few are second generation—kids he watched grow up, now with families of their own. “I have all kinds of customers, from everyday people just scraping by, to some who have so many millions they don’t know what to do with them,” Mike said. He loaded cottage cheese for his next stop. Decades on the truck have made it possible for him to divine the empty spaces in the refrigerators on his route. “Some customers don’t even give me a list. I just put it in the fridge. They come home and it’s all taken care of.”

A typical day spans ten to twelve hours, and he carries as much as sixty pounds of dairy and frozen food into a customer’s home. “I wouldn’t recommend it for the non-hardy,” he said, stooping for a plastic crate. In almost three decades, he’s had a total of two weeks’ vacation. “I don’t break. I eat my sandwich as I go. No time for lollygagging.”

The snow crunched under our feet as we approached a Kenwood home. Mike pulled a doggy biscuit from his pocket. “Secrets of the trade,” he said, as two freshly trimmed poodles circled in the kitchen. Darla, a pretty blond housekeeper answered the door. There was an antique Ewald Dairy milk box at her feet. Milkman and loyal client chatted amiably, but Mike suddenly looked alarmed and stopped short. “I forgot something!” He jogged back to his truck, and Darla looked at me with a coy smile. “Sometimes he brings me a treat,” she confided. Mike returned with a box of orange creme bars.

Back on the truck, I asked him how the milkman was different from the dot-com upstarts, and he laughed. “We’re the guys who show up and the old lady asks, ‘Can you change the light bulb?’” he said. “We deliver. They drop the stuff off at the curb and run.”—John Tribbett