Milking it

Peter-Cullinane

By Terri Cluckie

It’s hard to imagine a time before the chocolate milk frenzy; when the dairy aisles were quiet and shelves were actually stocked with what you were looking for. It was just over one year ago that it all changed.

So how could it be that a small dairy producer in Auckland knew exactly what we were all missing? Something that we ourselves didn’t know we were missing? Like the carrot on a stick, Lewis Road Creamery dangles the chocolate milk in front of us and we keep reaching.

From the get go, the cat-nip indulgence has been hard to come by. Finding a bottle in the fridge of your local supermarket is like a scene from a cartoon: beaming lights beckon you forward, drooling, arms reaching.

Even though production has been amped, Lewis Road still isn’t meeting demand meaning so many of us are tragically left without. So how did they do it? How does a company with little to no marketing cause such frenzy with a product as simple as flavoured milk?

“It was just one of that phenomenon that burst on the scene. Social media picked it up, radio picked it up, television picked it up, print picked it up and it just became a sort of feeding frenzy,” says owner and founder, Peter Cullinane.

“I can, hand on heart, say this wasn’t intended, but the fact that we didn’t have enough product gave it a cache that fed on itself as well. So the fact that you couldn’t buy it, or that when it hit the shelves it came off them straight away, that
certainly fuelled the frenzy.”

It’s hard to imagine, but before the launch of the chocolate milk last October, the team at Lewis Road were actually concerned that no one would want it. “In the first week we were able to make 1,000 litres and our concern was, would that be more than we can sell and if it was, what were we going to do to get rid of it? We thought, well there are going to be a lot of happy pigs out there on the farm being fed chocolate milk,” says Peter, laughing.

Those concerns were obviously quickly dashed. The company now produces 50,000 litres a week of the chocolate milk alone. New flavours were launched in September, coffee and vanilla, to try and ease the pressure off of the chocolate while the company was expanding into the South Island.

True to what seems to be the Lewis Road way, this, of course, hasn’t happened and they’re now producing 30,000 litres a week of the new flavours on top of the chocolate, something Peter believes is helping them reach only 50 percent of the demand for their products.

The milk craze has created familiar stories, and some of us may even have witnessed it firsthand. Just like the Cronut did in New York, people queued for the product, some stores had to introduce buying limits and with that came the security guards to make sure people weren’t buying more than their fair share. But why? Probably because it’s just that good.

Quality comes into our conversation more than a few times. It seems to be engrained in everything Peter does, says, consumes. When the idea for the milk (or any of Lewis Road’s products for that matter) came about, it couldn’t just be the same old stuff. “It has to be in a way that hasn’t been done before,” says Peter. He doesn’t do things by half.LRC-Flavoured-Milks

His quest for quality is really where the whole thing started. Lurpak was always his butter of choice, but one day at his local supermarket he stopped to wonder why he was buying butter made on the other side of the world. Why couldn’t he get what he was looking for from New Zealand? In a nutshell, Lewis Road Creamery was formed just like that and his butter followed soon after.

That was 2012. It’s now three years on and, as well as butter, his fledgeling company produces organic white milk, cream, flavoured milk and the latest creation, kibbled grain bread. Peter missed the good old days of hearty grain bread so he recruited a friend and renowned baker, Malcolm North, to create its own. And why not? Lewis Road is bringing quality back to the table one product at a time, steadily shifting them into cult status.

And what is a cult status without the following? Lewis Road has had an open community of fans, or ‘Roadies’ as they call them, since the beginning thanks to social media. Their Facebook page has over 120,000 likes at this point in time and the community is always buzzing. But this isn’t just luck; timing was everything for Lewis Road.

“If we turned the clock back maybe even five years ago, it just wouldn’t have happened,” explains Peter. “For a kick off we wouldn’t have been listed. It would have been an idea but rightly the supermarkets would have said ‘what sort of pull are you getting with this product?’ But with social media, all those rules are changing in front of our very eyes.”

The community Lewis Road has created is as paramount to its success as the products are. The team make it their mission to respond to every query on their Facebook page within an hour, and it’s not just a quick thanks either – it’s a personalised response to each and every person.

Peter describes their social media activity as a ‘badge of honour’ for his staff because they take so much pride in it.

The inner community of employees at Lewis Road is just as tight knit as their online one. During our conversation, Peter read out an email he had received at midnight from a member of staff enthusiastically explaining that she had hit a 96 percent response rate on their Facebook page. That is dedication.

But it’s not forced. This is a real passion for what they do. Lewis Road has carved a footpath for itself based on quality ingredients and an honest relationship with its customers.

Just take one look at their Facebook page and you’ll witness the outpour of love they receive hourly. Not many brands achieve that on a daily basis, but it’s something Peter truly believes is of utmost importance now.

“I think it is the difference between winning and losing,” he says when asked about the value of social media. “I think it is of extreme value to business now and I don’t think businesses recognise it.

“I just think that the opportunities now have never been greater for new businesses to start and to connect hard with their customers. I’ve said this before, but so many of the old rules are now being thrown out the window and new rules are being written, and it’s the new businesses that are writing them.

“I think that a lot of businesses can understand the changes at a theoretical level, but they just can’t somehow realise them, whereas new businesses can. So my view is the time has never been better – so go for it.”

Being a new company itself, Lewis Road is a prime example of throwing away the rule book. But Peter himself is no stranger to dealing with the big time and the way things used to work.

He started his career in the New Zealand advertising industry and by 1994 was running one of the top three agencies in the country, before becoming Saatchi & Saatchi’s New York-based chief operating officer three years later.

It’s no surprise then that Lewis Road’s small but nimble team have dealt with their meteoric rise to Kiwi fame well. “What we’ve learned from the rapid expansion is that there is a huge demand for innovative, quality products that everyone had given up on.

“I’ve always had this theory that, as the world’s biggest exporter of dairy products, we should be exporting the world’s best dairy products, which I don’t think is where our focus as a country has been. We owe it to ourselves to be producing outstandingly good dairy products.”

With Lewis Road, Peter is heeding his own advice. The focus right now is on perfecting product supply in New Zealand before taking it elsewhere, but when they do, there’s no doubt it will go down a treat.

With any luck, it won’t be long until our own dairy aisle dreams come true and we all get a taste of the hype. We’ll just need to keep pacing the fridges until then.

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