The Milkman's Morning Rounds

Posted: June 16, 1986

It's 4:30 a.m.

A misty sky blankets the manicured lawns of a darkened Huntingdon Valley. Reflections from a crescent moon glimmer on plastic trash bags perched on curbs and on television antennas poking from rooftops. The chugging of the red-and-white Breuninger's milk truck breaks the stillness as it grinds up a small incline.

The headlights startle a squirrel bounding across the street, and the truck chugs past it.

Ray Franks, 59, yanks up the truck's hand brake, stands and faces the load of products - milk and juice, butter, eggs and bread - all neatly stacked in orange-and-brown crates. As he opens his folding door, the mild odor of damp, cold plastic containers drifts out into the chill morning air.

Grabbing a half-gallon of milk, a quart of orange juice and a carton of eggs, Franks jumps from the sputtering truck, stoops and places the breakfast supplies in a metal box on a doorstep. He climbs back onto his tiny car seat.

"More or less, it's been a quiet life," Franks says with a chuckle as he releases the brake. The truck jolts into gear.

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The quiet life that Franks has spent for the last 10 years as a milkman for Breuninger's Dairy in Upper Southampton has become even quieter. And the days are longer, he says. His route, which once took 2 1/2 hours to service, now lasts about six hours because his customers are farther apart than they were when he began, in 1976.

Winding his way through Huntingdon Valley, and the Bustleton and Somerton

sections of Northeast Philadelphia on a recent morning, Franks said the old- time occupation of bringing milk to the doorsteps of customers was dying.

Sixty years ago, businesses such as Breuninger's were the regular providers of milk and dairy products for consumers. Patronage, however, has dropped steadily since 1963, said a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board in Harrisburg.

In 1957, when the milk board began collecting statistics, home delivery made up 63.3 percent of dairy business across the state. In 1985, home delivery by dairies across the state was 1.3 percent of business.

The board, created by the state legislature in 1937, was designed to set a minimum milk price and to ensure a steady supply of milk to the consumer.

In 1986, Breuninger's Dairy's 100th anniversary, the company and its 25 milkmen who still make home deliveries bring products to the doorsteps of almost 7,500 homes, said Joseph DeFusco, general manager. Each of the dairy's 25 routes that serve homes has 300 customers, DeFusco said.

Breuninger's routes stretch from Bristol Township, Bucks County, to West Philadelphia and the Main Line.

However, dairy owner Ed Breuninger, 64, said he worried that home deliveries would one day vanish, leaving the company only its wholesale business to supermarkets, restaurants and institutions.

The reasons for the decline in home delivery, he said, are twofold. Not only are longtime customers paying lower supermarket prices, but dairies also are feeling a financial pinch because they are absorbing the cost of delivery.

Having a gallon of milk delivered by Breuninger's costs $3.48. The supermarket sale price for that gallon is about $1.90. The price for a gallon of milk in a convenience store, however, is somewhere between the two prices.

Breuninger said that when he began working full time for the family's firm in 1945, home delivery made up about 90 percent of its business; the other 10 percent was wholesale delivery to stores.

Today, Breuninger said, 5 percent of the dairy's business is home delivery and the remaining 95 percent is wholesale.

"I'm just as worried as Ford has been, and Chrysler," said Breuninger of the home-delivery portion of his business. "Today there is very little permanence. You just have to fight and work every year. You try to plan ahead; things change very rapidly.

"We're sort of in a future shock right now," he said. "No business keeps you (financially stable). You have to work with the business."

It's 5:10 a.m.

The Northeast Philadelphia sky lightens with the impending sunrise. Ray Franks steps from the milk truck. The new light weakens the headlights and casts the neighborhood in shades of gray and white.

After leaving an order on the step of a townhouse, Franks returns to the truck with a note that requests that the day's order include two dozen eggs. Opening the lid of each carton, he inspects for cracks. Seeing none, he carries the cartons to the customer's door, steps back in the truck and turns around in the cul-de-sac to continue his route.

"Your whole day is different in the daylight," he says, inspecting the sunrise. "At night, it's humdrum."

He recalls the workdays he has spent during his 29 years as a milkman - the last 10 with Breuninger's and the first 19 with Philadelphia-based Harbison Dairy, now owned by Southland Corp. of Dallas, owner of the 7-Eleven chain.

He remembers the days of milkmen guiding horses and wagons through the streets, when milk was packaged in glass bottles that clanked as the horses trotted over cobblestones, and when almost all people got their dairy products from a milkman.

In those days, the customs and the customers were different, he says.

"People used to have a shot (of liquor) out there for you. More or less, not anymore, though," he says. "They treat you real swell. They'd do anything for you. If they didn't like you, they wouldn't have you.

"You get to know their habits," he says of his customers. "You don't get to know them real chummy, just the surface."

Although the neighborhoods he is driving through are still asleep, Franks says the job is not a lonely one. Occasionally, he says, he spots someone.

Seeing a postal carrier on the corner, Franks pokes his hand out of the truck's open door, waves and bids him a friendly "Good morning." The mailman waves back. Franks shakes his head and says that seeing a postal carrier at this hour is unusual.

"They start later now," he says with a sigh.

Twenty-five of the 28 milkmenat Breuninger's - those who still make some home deliveries on their routes - begin their day by inspecting their trucks. They then check the orders they have to fill and load about 45 varieties of products, including milk, juices, sodas, yogurt, eggs and bread, into the trucks.

Many of those products are packaged with the Breuninger name by Lehigh Valley Farms of Allentown.

Not all the men work the 4 a.m. milk run, but those who do, like Franks, arrive at the dairy at 2:15 a.m.

Franks, who drives from his home in Northeast Philadelphia to the dairy's plant on Second Steet Pike in Upper Southampton, said the work was not as difficult as it was long and tiring. On the average, he said, he works 12 to 16 hours a day.

And, he said, to make it to work on time each day, he goes to bed each night at 7:30 p.m. He has a wife of 32 years, a son, 30, and two daughters, 29 and 25.

The salary of someone who delivers milk is drawn from a base wage plus commissions of 6 percent of wholesale collections and 12 percent of collections from home deliveries. As a member of Teamster's Union Local 463, the delivery person's average salary ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 a year, Breuninger said.

Franks' job and its inherent demands are well-known by Breuninger.

When Breuninger was 14, he began working for his family business on weekends and during summer vacations from high school. He attended Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School

and served in World War II before returning in 1945 to work full time with his father, Edward Adolph Breuninger.

His grandfather, Adolph, Breuninger said, "wanted to be in business so he got a pushcart and had a milk route."

"As soon as he could support his family with a milk route, he quit his regular job (at the Stetson Hat Co.) and opened a little store," Breuninger said. "By about 1890, he had a horse and wagon and was up and running."

The business began officially in 1886, Breuninger said, and in 1912 the company moved from North Philadelphia to Upper Southampton.

"My granddad started the business, my dad spent a lifetime in it," he said.

"In those times, dairying was a seven-days-a-week business. There were literally thousands of milk routes then. Today, there is no milk processed in the city of Philadelphia. They're all gone."

Darwin Moyer, director of consumer affairs and public information at the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board, attributed the rapid decline in home delivery by dairies to cost.

"From reports we got from dairies," said Moyer recently, "it was the cost of home delivery to consumers - putting men into the field, trucks, delivery, the stop and start, energy costs. It was just too costly for dairies to continue that operation.

"People don't mind saving a few pennies and buying from the grocery store," Moyer said. "It's not that the dairies aren't still producing the milk. It's just that they're not doing home delivery.

Breuninger, whose company is the only one based in the area covered by Neighbors that still makes home deliveries, agreed with Moyer.

He said he saw the decline begin about 20 years ago. Moyer said the percentage of home deliveries made by state dairies dropped from the 1957 level of 63.3 percent to 52.8 percent in 1963, and then to 47.5 percent in 1965.

By 1979, Moyer said, the percentage of home delivery on the state level had fallen to 9.1 percent of the dairies' total business.

"One of the big things here was the state regulation of minimum prices," Breuninger said. The minimum price of milk, set by the state at $1.81 a gallon to protect the financial stability of farmers, dramatically cuts into the profits the dairy makes, he said.

Of that state minimum price, Breuninger said, about 52 cents goes for processing, distribution, packaging and store costs. Then, he said, state and federal government fees, operation costs, labor and distribution costs are subtracted. The return from the set price to the dairies is minimal, he said, sometimes less than 1 cent a gallon.

Although Breuninger would not disclose the exact amount of profit he makes

from his $5 million-a-year business, he said it was "very small." In fact, he said that some years he lost money.

"Normally, what you do is hope for better years," he said. "You keep plugging, like the Phillies."

It's 6:45 a.m.

Ray Franks makes his last delivery to a luncheonette in a Northeast Philadelphia shopping center. So far this morning, he has collected no money

from customers who were sleeping when he first called. Now, he returns to the dairy in Upper Southampton along the same route, stopping to collect payments as he goes.

"If you notice," he says, "we don't run any milk. We just give it a fast walk. We found out if you start running, you end up just about crawling at the end."

Driving down Red Lion Road, now cluttered with early-morning traffic, Franks says the pre-dawn and early morning route gives him the chance to be alone, yet the time goes quickly because of the constant driving and stopping and delivering.

"You think about your family," he says of his morning rides. "What you said and didn't say. Mostly, you don't have time to think.

"You just think about what's ahead."

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