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Matanuska Creamery milk sales are growing

Rindi White
Model dairy cows and displays brighten the retail area at Matanuska Creamery earlier this month on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Erni Herschberger fills pint containers with vanilla ice cream as Marie Mastrocola adds lids and moves finished products to the freezer at Matanuska Creamery.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Shoppers decide among varieties of ice cream, cheese, cheese curds, milk, butter and other products at Matanuska Creamery.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

WASILLA -- A year and a half into production, Matanuska Creamery officials say milk sales are up and they're working to make new lines -- think cottage cheese, brick cheese and half-gallon jugs -- available in Southcentral stores.

Karen Olson, general manager and co-owner of the creamery, said the company sells about 1,600 gallons of milk a day, about 3,000 gallons more each month than it did a year ago. The company's trademark yellow jugs are in Walmart, Fred Meyer and Carrs/Safeway stores in Southcentral, but most of those gallons are sold in the Valley.

"I don't know if that's because people in the Valley are more knowledgeable about it being local. We would hope that a few more people in Anchorage would realize that Point MacKenzie is pretty local," she said.

The Palmer-based dairy started up in 2008 after state-run dairy Matanuska Maid closed, leaving Valley dairy owners with nowhere to sell their milk.

The creamery used federal and state funding plus money company owners contributed to get started. Olson said the creamery wants to grow and is constantly testing new products, but it can expand only as quickly as money becomes available.

"We're undercapitalized," Olson said. "Sometimes people come in and they're a little impatient that we're not in cottage cheese and half-gallons."

Olson said the company started behind the curve. She believes some of the interest in local dairy products was lost when Mat Maid closed. But the creamery is catching up, and a growing demand for local milk is a promising sign.

In fact, she said, there were a few times in 2009 the company couldn't quite meet demand. Grocery stores had shipping problems that delayed deliveries from the Lower 48, and they asked for extra creamery milk to fill the temporary gap.

"We did what we could, but we couldn't always fill those orders," Olson said.

Milk provides about 90 percent of the company's income, but Olson said the creamery also sells cheese, cheese curds, ice cream, butter, half-and-half, cream and, to a few stores, ice cream base.

"We found that as long as the milk prices are so low and it's hard to compete on a large-scale basis with fluid milk, we've got to add some of these things to make the basic overhead," Olson said.

Most of those products are for sale only at the creamery's Palmer-Wasilla Highway store or at the Wednesday farmer's market at Northway Mall. Some are only offered in other stores.

For example, the creamery supplies gelato and ice cream bases for Wasilla's Gelato Kudrino and Anchorage's Marble Slab Creamery. A number of restaurants -- from Evangelo's Restaurant in Wasilla to Glacier Brewhouse, Sacks Café and Spenard Roadhouse in Anchorage, cook with Matanuska Creamery milk and cream. The company sells wholesale milk, half-and-half and cream to most of the coffee shops in the Valley.

"I really believe a lot of adults don't even drink milk unless it's with their coffee," Olson said.

Bricks of cheese are slowly getting onto local supermarket shelves, she said.

The company had to get proper labels and bar codes, but it can now be found at Natural Pantry in Anchorage, Three Bears in the Valley and at Wasilla's D&A Shop Rite.

Packaging is the big holdup for ice cream too, Olson said.

The company has 25 flavors, including birch syrup flavor made with local syrup, but can't yet afford to splurge on the special packaging required to get three or four local flavors into Alaska grocery store freezers.

For now ice cream is sold at the creamery store in plain white containers, or by the scoop at Pandemonium Bookstore in Wasilla.

Cheese curds, local butter and honey-butter (with Alaska honey) are held up by packaging also, Olson said.

"Things like that, that come in tubs, you have to meet special sanitation requirements," she said, citing tamper-proof packaging and hands-free machines as two examples.

The company hopes to solve the packaging problems this summer in time to offer cottage cheese, however. Olson said they plan to be offering half-gallons of milk by then also.

"Last summer we ran into the problem of the national milk dip that happens when kids are not in school. We bridged that by making more cheese. This year, we would prefer to bridge it by making half-gallons," she said.

Find Rindi White online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or call 352-6709.


By RINDI WHITE
rwhite@adn.com