Straus Family Creamery moo-ving from Marin, hoofing it to Sonoma County
Strolling past his company’s aging creamery in Marshall on Thursday morning, Albert Straus called to mind a pasteurized version of Willy Wonka:
“We’ve got ice cream here, yogurt over there, and there’s the butter room,” said the 63-year-old dairy farmer and CEO of Straus Family Creamery. “Our soft-serve ice cream is made in those vats.”
It won’t be for long.
On Monday, construction begins on the company’s new creamery, a $20 million, 70,000-square-foot structure in Rohnert Park. While the Marshall dairy plant produces 16,000 gallons of milk a day, the new one “will have the capacity to almost double that, and do it much more efficiently,” Straus said. That increased capacity is key: the 25-year-old company is expected to double in size over the next seven to 10 years, according to its founder.
With more and more North Bay dairy farmers switching to the production of organic milk in recent years, prices have softened considerably. Despite that glut, Straus Family Creamery has remained profitable, and is moving full speed ahead on its creamery upgrade.
“Albert has the perfect model for what consumers want today,” said Rosie Burroughs, an organic dairy farmer from outside Turlock. “They want to know their farmer, and they want local. Consumers are very loyal to him.
“He has developed an excellent product,” she said. “His ice creams are the best there are on the market right now.”
With its “strong niche” in the organic market, Straus’ company has insulated itself from much of that dairy industry volatility, said Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University. “Larger players working on volume and slim margins are more susceptible,” he said.
Straus grew up a few miles west of his Marin County creamery, on a farm with an agribusiness founded in 1941 by his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany. William Straus started his operation with 23 Jersey cows, each named for a friend or relative. Not everyone was delighted by this charming origin story.
Albert recalled that his Aunt Gertrude “took exception to having a cow named after her.”
Gertrude - the aunt, not the bovine - might’ve felt differently, had she known where all of this was going.
After graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo university in 1977 with a degree in dairy science, Albert returned to Marshall at a time of tumult in the dairy business.
Family farms were disappearing, replaced by far larger, industrial-scale operations. He took the road less traveled, transforming his family’s farm into the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi River.
In 1994, he started the Straus Family Creamery, a separate business that became both an iconic regional brand - best known for its clear glass bottles of milk with a layer of cream at the top - and pioneer in agricultural sustainability and the farm-to-table movement.
His decision to build a production plant in Sonoma County comes nine years after the company moved its headquarters and warehouse from Marshall to Petaluma, and six or seven years since Straus started seriously looking to replace the old creamery.
The Rohnert Park plant will employ 140 people, a few more than the number of workers at the Marshall creamery. The move will result in shortened commutes to work for the majority of those employees, many of whom live in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma. With Petaluma also the site of the company’s distribution center, the move will result in much shorter trips - on roads nowhere near as narrow or twisting - for the drivers of its 6,000-gallon milk tankers.
Straus Family Creamery sells its products in California and adjacent states. It’s not as big as the North Bay’s largest dairy producer, Sonoma-based Clover, but it never has tried to be.
Whereas Clover is “a Harvard Business Review case of how to make strategic decisions to become dominant,” Eyler said, “Albert Strauss is a master, a sommelier, the guru of milk.”
“Yes, we need to be profitable,” Straus said. “But we’re also motivated by our mission. We’re trying to create a farming community, and a food system that takes care of the planet.”
He’s been walking that walk for decades. Starting in the 1970s, the Strauses stopped using herbicides on their farm. Even then, Albert excelled at finding creative feed supplements for his cows, whether he was repurposing peels and pulp from an orange juice factory, or rice sake waste from a local distillery. Last June, at an international food summit in the Netherlands, the Straus Family Creamery was honored with the inaugural Sustainable Food Award, in the category of Sustainability Pioneer.
These days, Straus can be seen cruising around his ranch in an International Harvester truck powered, indirectly, by manure from his cows. Call it a patty wagon. Those 300 beasts produce nearly 4,000 gallons of manure daily, which is converted into compost and renewable energy by the farm’s methane digester. That contraption captures 9.2 million standard cubic feet of biogas annually, keeping some 1,645 metric tons of “carbon dioxide equivalent” out of the atmosphere, according to the company’s calculations. It also creates enough renewable electricity to power the Straus 500-acre farm.
That pucky-powered truck hums along quietly, in contrast to company’s giant milk tankers, which produce serious decibels. That’s one of the issues the company’s been working through with development officials in Rohnert Park, who’ve asked that the creamery complete some noise-reduction measures before the plant opens.
Rohnert Park enjoys a reputation as a business-friendly destination. “Unlike some jurisdictions, who are more obstructionist, we try to find a way to say yes, without sacrificing our standards,” said Jeffrey Beiswenger, the city’s planning manager.
The new creamery, not expected to open until early 2020, will be located just south of the Graton Resort & Casino, adjacent to the Press Democrat’s printing plant.
While the creamery will operate by day, “our busiest time is overnight,” said Troy Niday, chief operating officer of Sonoma Media Investments, the newpaper’s parent company, making Straus “a good fit for us as a neighbor.”
What of Straus’ old west Marin neighbors? Will he feel a pang of sadness, pulling up stakes from the bucolic hamlet where his company was born?
“It’s only the processing plant that’s moving,” he said. “The dairy farm where I live isn’t going anywhere. The cows are staying put. We’ll still have deep roots in Marshall.”
The Gertrudes would be comforted.
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or email@example.com.