This article originally ran in the
Dallas Observer's DINER section.


By Betsy Thaggard


Yes, there are still milkmen in Dallas. You just have to get up early to see them.

Don Kirkpatrick wakes up between 2:45 and 4:30 a.m. to make his morning deliveries of Borden products. (That's the first thing people want to know when they learn he's a milkman--what time he has to get up; the second is whether all those stories they hear about deliverymen are true.) His routes take him through Lake Highlands, north to McKinney and Allen, and all over Irving and Las Colinas. In 14 years of delivering dairy products and such, he's been adopted by enough families to fill Texas stadium. "Some houses, they have the coffee mug on the table waiting for me, with the sugar already in it," he notes.

Of course, Don's the type of person anyone would welcome into their family: an upright kind of guy, as they used to say back in the days when milk came in clear glass bottles with the cream snuggled up under the paper cap. Don's only 31, but he seems trained in the old school of considerate, personal service. He knows the names of his customers' kids and pets, he sends them Christmas cards, he even has keys to some of his customers' homes. Just like family.

Nowadays, the milkman--the whole home delivery concept, for that matter--seems like an anachronism, part of the Father Knows Best world of traditional family life. Houses and apartment buildings used to come equipped with milk boxes outside the kitchen door. In that era of less-modern conveniences, housewives relied on the twice-weekly delivery of milk and other perishable staples.

But times and attitudes and priorities are changing for companies and customers. We've already lost the Manor Bread man and other home-delivery services for good, and the number of milkmen is falling, with more retiring than signing on. Dairies see greater profits in supermarket sales--only Borden, Oak Farms, and Cabell still have home delivery--and shoppers find lower prices in store brands. Still, the 400 customers on Don Kirkpatrick's routes appreciate convenience, fresher milk, and the "Thank you, Don" written across the monthly bills by his wife and bookkeeper, Susie. "They must think I have the best handwriting," he grins. Good manners, too.

The morning we rode along with Don on his Irving route, it was 28 degrees at 4:45 a.m., but the streets were dry and the truck was heated, and Don learned long ago to dress in layers for his eight-plus hours of work. Don believes "it keeps you healthy, working outside with the temperature changes. I haven't taken a sick day in 14 years. I think that's why I have such loyal customers. They know I'll be there."

It's a good thing it's cold: until almost 7 a.m. when he makes his first box stop (actually entering the house to drop off the goods), everything's delivered to the doorstep. "These customers like their milk delivered to the back door," he says at one stop. "I'll take it anywhere they want it. Except the roof. I won't set it on the roof." You can almost hear him thinking he'd do it anyway if someone asked.

The first few stops are pretty routine orders: a gallon of whole, a gallon of skim, a dozen eggs, which Don has inspected for cracks. These gallons of milk are his bread and butter, so to speak. There's a 69-cent profit margin on gallons, even at Don's price of 11 cents below Borden's suggested retail for home delivery. (Tom Thumb's everyday price for a Borden gallon is $3.29; Don charges $3.34.) His customers are becoming more health-conscious, he says; he's selling more low-fat milk, and more yogurt to his higher-income accounts.

As the route progresses, he'll deliver other items, both dairy and non-dairy in nature. His order pad lists a variety of milk products, juices, cheeses, yogurt, and margarine. Then it gets really interesting: Crave a custom-made pizza? State your preference of toppings, and next milk delivery day, you'll find a fresh-frozen pizza from an Irving pizzeria in the fridge for $4.79. Out of laundry detergent? Don's got 10-pound boxes on the truck for $8.98. Local water taste funny? Spring water's on the list, too. Also, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, cold cuts, and the one that puzzled us in younger days: "novelties," which translates to ice cream sandwiches at $3.50 a dozen-box.

"In the long run, (home delivery) saves me money at the grocery store," says Vivian Walker, a customer in the pre-dawn hours. Don greets her dog George as he enters the kitchen. "Saves me time, too," she adds. "I'll go to the grocery store just for a gallon of milk and come out $44 and 30 minutes later!"

Most of Don's new customers are referrals from standing customers. They'll hear from a neighbor what's available and that it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. "Sometimes, they just see me driving by in my truck, and call the number on the side there," he says. And sometimes, it's all in the family, like one man and his son-in-law, living half a block apart. He points out his next stop. "You see generations grow up on a route. She was living at home when I got this route four years ago. Now she's moved off and is about to have her first baby." Sounds like a new generation of referrals is about to begin.

The question is whether there will be any home delivery by the time that baby's grown. Don says he's the next-to-youngest independent contractor delivering Borden products in the Dallas area. According to Cynthia Tucker of Borden, many of their 22 current milkmen (there are no women delivering Borden these days) are planning to retire in the next decade or so. As the ranks decrease, home delivery areas will not be restaffed as their drivers retire.

There are no benefits like insurance or credit unions available to independents. The hours are long: 12 to 14 hours some days, between deliveries and distribution center business. Recently, Borden revised its vacation policy, necessitating tighter scheduling for a driver's vacation days. They work all holidays except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 4th of July.

These independents do their own books and collections, estimating their orders and income each month and hoping to balance out. "You have to be on a route for awhile before you get the ordering right," Don says. After 14 years, he often ends his delivery day with as little as a case left over. He figures each stop costs him around 25 cents in time and truck wear.

The other thing that might spell the demise of the milkman is the truck problem. The International Harvester line was discontinued several years ago when IH collapsed and reorganized under bankruptcy. The new company hasn't left its delivery truck owners completely in the cold--some parts are still being manufactured--but drivers have learned to be scavengers, finding "new" body and mechanical parts on wrecked and worn-out trucks. Don's 1972 IH Loadstar 1600 has 212,000 miles on it. "You can't hardly wear one of these trucks out. As long as you can get parts, you can drive it forever." (Good thing: at last notice, Chevrolet was still making delivery trucks, selling at a price comparable to a mid-range Mercedes.)

When he hasn't had time to forage for parts, Don's had to make do: driving his route without headlights, using his emergency flashers to make his presence known; loading the milk in his own pickup when the delivery truck needed repairs; doubling up his routes when a broken fan belt left him without heat during the January ice-over. That was the week Don watched his truck slide half a block down a glazed street before coming to a (blessedly) safe stop.

He estimates he logs about 600 miles a week, and the truck, and its repair bills, are all his. Last year, a couple of extraordinary foul-ups cost him $10,000 in maintenance and repairs. He carries his own insurance, and uses up more than $1,500 worth of tires every 12 months. Still, this job's the one for him "as long as I can make a living and find parts for my truck."

One thing's for sure: Don Kirkpatrick's job isn't threatened by lack of customer support. People stand in their front doorways and wave when Don tells them a reporter's riding around with him; some yell their praises across the front lawn: "He's fabulous!" "Couldn't do without him!" and so on.

Of course, he's earned the kudos. Going beyond the call of duty for his regulars, Don has lit an attic furnace and rallied Borden for a home delivery price decrease. (Price increases are one of the main reasons people cease home delivery.) Don's real good at straightening refrigerators to make the order fit, too. And he even knows there's still an Elsie the Cow at Borden, a relative of the original ol' bossy.

The customers respond. At Christmas, they load him down with candy, cakes, and other baked goods ("You could make up a recipe book from all the things I've gotten," he says), as well as shirts, sweaters, and year-end gratuities.

But probably the nicest thing Don Kirkpatrick receives is customer loyalty. One worried woman saw a new person riding in Don's truck, and sent her grandson out to ask Don if he was leaving the route. Long-time customers ask after his 12-year-old son, Eric, who sometimes rides along during vacations, and after Susie and eight-year-old daughter Jamie, who once made the jail delivery with her dad.

Yes, it sure can seem like family in this business. Don walks through the back door of one of his stops, announcing himself with one word, "milkman." Inside, the customer interrupts her phone conversation: "Hold on a minute, will you? Don's here."

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