In California, the organic dairy brand Straus Family Creamery can be seen just about everywhere you turn. You’re probably familiar with their endearing logo of a happy cow dancing under a red banner that bears the name in big bold letters “STRAUS.” My family has even been a patron of Straus Family Creamery’s products and many times I have read their name when glancing into my fridge for a snack. Most of the time I closed the refrigerator door without even thinking who or what was behind the name “Straus.” I knew from the advertisement on their products they must be family-oriented and organic. The brand has become so pervasive that I recently became curious: why were so many food places inundated with their products and how did they sneak into my refrigerator all the time?
I e-mailed the Straus headquarters hoping to schedule a visit to their family-friendly farm. We got a response in a timely manner, but I was disappointed to learn that they don’t arrange farm visits due to the high demand of requests. She was kind enough to offer a visit to their offices in Petaluma, instead. I thought this was odd considering the sense of congeniality their advertisement and website exuded about their farms; but I was excited nonetheless to have an opportunity to see the behind the scenes happenings of the company.
My fellow San Francisco Food Warriors and I made the hour long trek to Petaluma to learn first hand about the Straus Family Creamery. Upon arrival we were instructed to “check-in” on a sign-in sheet because there was more than one of us present at their quiet office. The family vibes we were expecting to receive had immediately been dissipated and replaced with awkward distant relative vibes. We were instructed to go back to a daunting conference room with a very large computer screen hanging on the wall, where the Real Time Farms website had been pulled up. My nerves began to build as I silently realized this wouldn’t be like the typical friendly interviews I conducted with farmers and various food artisans throughout the bay area.
I expected to be conducting an interview to learn more about Straus Family Creamery, but instead our conversation began as what felt like a cross-examination of Real Time Farms and my internship. I’m not going to lie—I was pretty nervous. The skepticism surprised me, but soon enough it was our turn to ask some questions. I asked the usual questions for food artisans—about their history, farms, where they source from, etc. The responses to my questions varied; some were elaborated on while others seemed to displease our host, especially when we asked about whether or not the cows were truly grass-fed as they claim. We were told that the term “grass-fed” is only used for meat cattle; many times dairy cows are fed supplemental grain when the grass is too meager and lacking sufficient nutrients for cows. I was curious about their typical feed schedule, due to recent controversy regarding the presence of GMOs in organic grain feed for dairy cows. We learned from their website that they are strongly against GMOs, so we’ll take that at face value.
Our host was also very persistent in telling us that most of the information we asked about was on their website, and in our brief 14 minute interview we were told this four or five times. This was disappointing because the one of the main goals of Real Time Farms is to get a personal story behind the farms and food artisans. This is one of the things that sets Real Time Farms apart from so many other food guides; you get a true behind-the-scenes look at the people, places, and practices behind the food you’re consuming. It felt as though they would have preferred if we had gotten to know the Straus’ by simply touring the website like everyone else.
I was a little disheartened by the corporate side of the Straus Family Creamery, as it had less than the family, down on the farm feel I had hoped for. However, their company is very popular and successful for a reason. They were actually the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi, showing their trailblazing mentality and inherent dedication to sustainability and environmental awareness. I’d like to think it’s possible to be dedicated to environmental stewardship and be a successful company while still taking the time to accommodate curious people, like myself and my fellow Food Warrior Interns, longing for a deeper look into their farms and practices.
Winter 2012 San Francisco Food Warrior
This post is from one of the interns in the Real Time Farms Food Warrior Internship Program. These interns are collecting data, pictures, and video on the growing practices of our nation’s farms, gathering food artisans’ stories, and documenting farmers markets. We all deserve to know where our food comes from! Boring legalese we feel we must include: this was written by a real live person who has their own opinions, which we value, but that do not necessary reflect, though they may (or may not), reflect the values and opinions of Real Time Farms. That is for you to guess and us to know.
Hey Lauren. The Straus Dairy is at good as it gets. They are a class operation of the highest quality and standards. Do you have any idea what it takes to run an organization like Straus? Do you know how hard it is for an organic dairy to stay in business these days? Give them a break. Pick on someone else… like, maybe Monsanto. Thanks. Randy Ritchie
I’m sure they are and I respect what they do, as with any truly organic and sustainable company- with that being said, I was simply reflecting on and sharing an experience I had with them. After all, isn’t this about transparency and honesty?
About 20 years ago, I helped my older brother launch Straus Family Creamery – I handled the marketing, sales, PR, farmers markets and a bunch more. I haven’t been involved now for many years and, other than sharing the last name, have no stake or involvement in the business. However, at the time – from late 1993 to middle of 1998, I was living / breathing SFC (and then on a handful of occasions consulted on communications issues from 1999-2010).
While I have very few meaningful insights as to where the company is today, I can speak to the early days, as I was largely responsible for getting stores and restaurants to carry the SFC products from 1994-1998, and handled all the outreach and communication. In a nutshell, it was a back-breaking, grueling and exhausting process and took every last ounce of energy, creativity and perseverance.
Every day was a struggle to survive, and the pressure was extreme. Typical example – mom would call me on Monday mornings at 7 am, and ask me ‘How are sales today’? and i’d reply “MOM — it’s monday morning!! i don’t know yet!!” And I was a marketing director, without a team, with no marketing budget and, actually, no marketing experience either! (I had been working until then as a social worker with newly arrived Russian immigrants). Oh, and, at the time, few people even knew what ‘organic’ was – it was the early days, remember – and as early ‘pioneers’, I spent as much (or more) time educating as I did selling – educating consumers, media, retailers …
Anyways, how did SFC get into your fridge? Probably some combination of hard work, good luck, dumb luck, timing, community support, good will … but most of all, dedication. We believed in what we were doing, in the ability of a small farm and family to live our ideals, to use our products as a vehicle for environmental and social progress. And we were transparent, engaged, sincere and motivated, not least because especially in the early years, it wasn’t only the new Creamery business at stake, but the future of our family’s farm.
I relied heavily on working with journalists. Although not THAT long ago, it was still before the age of the Internet in any meaningful way. And we had ZERO money for advertising. So, in terms of communicating with the public, in addition to spending countless hundred (thousands?) or hours at farmers markets (fun) and in stores handing out samples of milk (ugh!), I learned how to tell our story via the media / journalists. And, over time, I came to understand and appreciate the fact that we weren’t really ‘selling’ as much as we were honestly communicating with people who were hungry for alternatives to what was available in the marketplace at the time,
And our story wasn’t just about milk, though of course that was the core. We were one of the very few companies and families taking on processing (i.e. homogenization), packaging (reusable bottles), conservation (protecting land from development), product quality (ingredients), farming practices (using organic as a minimum, not the maximum), advocating local, family farms, quality over quantity. At every opportunity, we engaged with our communities.
Most of all, for our early success, I credit my friends – people who generously offered their time, expertise, and love – and supported me through those early days of total insanity — my friend Loci who helped me start cleaning out the abandoned building that because the factory, my friend Ami who helped me at farmers markets, Tamara who advised me on press releases basics, Nancy (a farmers market customer who co-founded Craigslist) who created our first website, David my college roommate who lent me $$ so that I could make (and often give away) SFC T-shirts that my mom designed with her hand-painted artwork, and so many other too numerous to list here. My friends supported me, directly and indirectly, making it possible for me to survive that insanity, and to keep swimming until we reached solid ground.
The organic movement has radically changed since those early days, and most early pioneers have sold or been pushed out. When I look at SFC, they’re still fighting the good fight and I’m proud (7 deadly sins be damned) to have participated in its early success.