Wade’s Dairy has been operating since 1893 and over the decades the company has been witness to every epoch-shaping crisis that has percolated across the political and economic horizons.
But despite the challenges of the Great Depression, two world wars, several recessions and assorted changes in the business landscape — including the shift away from home deliveries of milk, once a company staple — the Bridgeport-based, family-owned dairy and food products distributor has weathered whatever storm came along.
On March 16, company president Douglas Wade sat in his office and ruminated on the latest crisis to challenge his world.
“Last Wednesday and Thursday, we were servicing about 150 schools with their milk supply,” he said. “And by Friday morning, it was all done. And, so, we have about 7,000 cases of school milk in our coolers and on trailers that has no home right now. I just never would have believed that the schools could be here one day and shut down the next.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s decision to close Connecticut’s schools in response to the spread of COVID-19 left Wade with products carrying a very specific shelf life that would be long expired after the schools will be allowed to reopen.
“I’ve asked the governor’s office to allow us to freeze it, because I have the capability to freeze it all,” he continued. “And then whenever schools would come back, we simply thaw it and send it out. But they have yet to give me an OK on that because they’re concerned about the expiration date and having people on Twitter and Facebook saying, ‘We’re serving our kids outdated milk.’ ”
Wade acknowledged the milk not going to the schools could be donated to nonprofits serving those in need, but he pointed to his bottom-line needs.
“Yes, I can be donating, but I’m worried about our survival,” he added. “We can’t take a $50,000 hit on top of having no sales, and that’s about 40% of my business this time of the year are school sales.”
But that’s not the only headache Wade is carrying.
“And now my restaurant business is going,” he added.
The company’s footprint stretches in a 90-mile radius from its Bridgeport facility with clients in Westchester County and lower Putnam County in New York and across the borders into Massachusetts and Rhode Island. And while it is dealing with the sudden loss of key business outlets, it is also fielding requests from food retailers whose inventory was snatched up during the recent waves of COVID-19 panic shopping.
“Some of the store shelves are barren,” Wade said. “Costco ran out of milk and the Adams grocery stores are out of milk. They’re calling us — and we’re not their supplier.”
Beyond milk, the company has been supplying food retailers with a product mix ,which includes egg products, cookie and pastry mixes and single-serve juices. To Wade’s amazement, the retailers’ demand for bottled water has been overwhelming.
“We’re sending tractor trailers to upstate New York,” he said. “And this is the business that we’re not really in.”
Wade’s son, brother and two nieces are part of his workforce, which operates on a 24/7 basis.
“We’ve got a night crew that’s in here at seven in the evening and they work ’til three or four o’clock in the morning loading all the trucks,” he observed. “The drivers start coming in at 3:30 in the morning. We’ve got four tractor-trailer drivers that have gone back and forth picking up our milk in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s a busy operation.”
When the COVID-19 crisis fades into the history books, Wade has a challenge he is eager to take on: getting more people to drink milk.
“Drinking fluid milk has had a precipitous decline for many, many years,” he complained.