Beach Classic: The Little Dairy That Could
Milk production doesn't readily come to mind when one thinks of the beach, but it's what Lewes Dairy has provided for locals and others for nearly 90 years.
Owner Chip Brittingham bought a share of the family business just two years after he graduated from high school. He has been working at the dairy “since three days before I could walk,” he says. Photograph by Steven Billups www.sbillupsphoto.com
At The Buttery restaurant in Lewes, the French berry torte wouldn’t be complete without a dollop of heavy whipping cream from the Lewes Dairy. It’s so crucial to the dish, the cream even gets its own mention on the menu, something that customers notice. “It creates a dialogue,” says manager Lisa McDonald. “They see that on the menu and ask about it.”
McDonald credits the cream’s high fat content with making the dish. “It’s creamy, smooth, velvety. It just whips up better,” she says.
The folks at The Buttery aren’t the only ones who feel strongly about the topping. It’s a staple in kitchens throughout Southern Delaware like The Back Porch Café and Big Fish Grill in Rehoboth Beach and the Second Street Grill in Lewes.
As popular as the cream is, it’s just one of the offerings at Lewes Dairy on Pilottown Road. Milk guzzlers can enjoy all of the favorites, from skim milk all the way through whole, and seasonal treats like eggnog.
The company started as a dairy farm in 1919. In those days, things were done by hand and as a family. There was no electricity on the farm. Benjamin Franklin’s great invention wouldn’t modernize production until 1922.
The dairy’s earliest offerings were unprocessed milk, cooled by water, which was then hand-poured into bottles with a pitcher. The family had to be innovative in those earliest days to keep their business alive. “They pretty much begged, borrowed and traded back then,” says owner Chip Brittingham. After all, the competition with other dairies was intense. Sussex County was dotted with local farms that raised their own cows and processed their own milk. The Brittingham family was so dedicated to the milk business that even the youngest family members pitched in. “The kids sold milk on the way to school,” Brittingham says.
That opportunistic and innovative spirit became a family trait that was passed down through the generations. Around the time that Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean and the Empire State Building emerged as the world’s tallest building, the family business found a new way to grow. During the early 1930s, the dairy was the first one in the beach area use new technologies like refrigeration, cooling systems and pasteurization.
All of these changes happened under the oversight of Brittingham’s grandparents, Emory and Grace Brittingham. After Emory died in 1933, Grace took over operation until 1942. That year most of Grace’s 10 sons left to serve in World War II. Production was put on hold.
The dairy reemerged on the other side of the war on July 23, 1946, when it once again opened its doors. Led by sons Archie and Weldon, there were even more changes. The first to go were the heifers. The brothers decided to focus solely on processing milk, not keeping a herd to produce it. The next thing to go was home delivery. By 1955 the door-to-door milkman had become a thing of the past. Instead, tractor trailers delivered the white froth to stores, where customers could pick up their own milk in gallon-sized jugs.
Since then, it has been business evolution as usual for the Lewes Dairy. Chip Brittingham, who has been working at the dairy “since three days before I could walk,” bought a share of the business in 1963, just two years after he graduated from high school.
“I would do whatever a kid could do to get in the way,” he says with a laugh. The days usually started at 5 a.m. and would go until whenever the work was done, 14 to 16 hours later. The long days haven’t changed much over the years. “It’s a small family business,” he says. “You do what has to be done.”
Small family business sums it up right. For all of the changes the dairy has seen, the fact that it’s been under the thumb of a Brittingham has never changed. The staff will fluctuate a little, but usually hovers around 21 employees. But the company’s modest size can be deceiving. At the close of a very long week, employees will have processed about 30,000 gallons of milk, most of which comes from farmers in Sussex County. The products, from skim milk to eggnog to heavy cream, is then distributed to restaurants and shops from as far south as Washington, D.C., to as far north as Elkton, Maryland.
So what does the local flavor mean for milk and dairy products? To Brittingham, it means a freshness that you can’t get from a gallon that spent two days traveling down I-95. “It’s in just about as good shape as you could get from an old neighborhood milk plant,” he says. The reason lies in the company’s size: “Smaller companies keep a better product.”
Staying small has also spelled success. After 88 years, the Lewes Dairy is still thriving. It’s one of only two dairies left in the state, and is the only one south of the C&D Canal. (The other dairy is Hy-Point Dairy Farms in New Castle County). Lewes Dairy is, according to the Brittinghams, “the little dairy that could.”