Ben Evans cashes in on the trendy market to deliver fresh, local dairy.
Set among the narrow old alleys of inner-city Fitzroy in Melbourne is Saint David Dairy. It’s a modern-day version of the “milko” that rattled around the local streets in the 1920s, delivering farm-fresh milk from the country to the city.
The tiny urban dairy – just nine by 26 metres and with a milk processor one-twentieth the size used by large-scale producers – launched in June 2013 and now has 160 clients, mostly within an 8km radius.
“I was very surprised at how fast we grew,” says the dairy’s managing director Ben Evans. “We were lucky to get in early with a few of Melbourne’s top cafes that roast coffee. It gave us a big head start.”
He says the cafes prefer the fresher, minimally treated milk as it performs better with their coffee machines. They also like the personal service from a local supplier.
Saint David Dairy is successfully tapping into the fashionable market for local produce. Evans tries to source his milk within a one-hour drive of Fitzroy to minimise food miles. Even the labels and packaging are from local businesses.
Just as appealing is how the dairy keeps the milk as close to its natural state as possible. It’s pasteurised and homogenised but not much more, and the short process chain means milk can go from farm to bottle within six hours.
Some of his family are fourth generation dairy farmers, and Evans learned to milk cows on his grandparents’ property in south-west Victoria. He also worked as a food technologist at Australia’s largest dairy firm, Devondale Murray Goulburn, and then at De Cicco Industries, a small Melbourne cheesemaker and Bega Cheese subsidiary. But for 10 years he had been mulling over the idea of creating his own dairy. To do it, he traded in his corporate life, and sold his apartment and car to buy his first refrigerated van.
“Most people starting out can easily spend a million dollars, which is a standard figure to set up a milk factory,” he says. Instead, Evans and his wife, Bianca, used free resources and labour from family and friends – and borrowed A$200,000.
Evans worked “crazy hours” and recruited the family to help paint the milk factory. “I flew to China and went around the country for two weeks visiting companies,” he says. “I found one to make my equipment, which saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Evans now employs six people and has two trucks that bring milk from Gippsland farms to the dairy on St David Street, which is too narrow for a standard milk tanker. He plans to expand into cultured butter and yoghurts this year, and eventually buy a dairy farm.
While the days of sleeping at the factory may be over for now, he still rises at 3am to keep everything on track. “Manufacturing is hard. It’s a high-risk activity,” he quips.
And he’s proud to be reviving a long-lost tradition. “There were 27 dairies in Fitzroy in 1920. We love the idea that there’s a dairy back in the street and so do the locals.”
One piece of advice
No matter what skill set you bring to the business, you have to learn to do everything yourself at the start, because that will allow you to sleep at night. Keep your overheads low and clean the toilet yourself.
This article is from the March 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.