We must rewind to the 1920s. Brothers Max and Arthur Schwartz were the children of Eastern European immigrants, but also the very symbol of the American Dream. They grew-up on a farm in the Middle Village area of Queens, in an almost unimaginable time when New York City still had farms. This particular farm – and, by extension, the entire Steuben story – began with seven cows, which Max and Arthur’s father had purchased and stewarded to Queens from Manhattan by foot. One can imagine, with some romanticism, the little herd traversing the newly constructed Williamsburg Bridge.
In the 1920s, the brothers began hand-bottling the milk in their father’s milk house and delivering as far as the Scandinavian neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The vehicle – a single delivery truck filled with ice blocks – remains perhaps the most poignant symbol of the Elmhurst-Steuben heritage. This is precisely for the wonderful unlikelihood that followed.
By 1940, the brothers had graduated to a manufacturing facility in Jamaica, Queens. For its increased scale, the Elmhurst venture had lost little of its humility. Where there had been a single delivery truck years earlier, there was now a single building, used to fill glass bottles. This is in keeping with the spirit of our story. It is safe to say that the Schwartz Family has never forgotten where it came from; and for this reason has always known where it is going. Where it was going was in the direction of success, almost like destiny.
As the years passed, an unmistakable bustle began to build around Elmhurst Dairy; one that eventually came to encompass the entire New York metropolitan area – when all of the other dairies closed. In 1970, there were thirty. Today there is only one.
Equally symbolic, though, are the numerical proliferations associated with Elmhurst’s growth. That single delivery vehicle is now a fleet of 300 vendor-owned trucks, tracking in and out of Jamaica. The single building, meanwhile, has multiplied to six.
Indeed, Elmhurst became so successful that it multiplied its geography, also. It was in Prattsburg – significantly located in Steuben County – that the company established its Western New York satellite operation. This cheese plant soon began churning out the most delicious of yogurt, including the legendary LeShake.
It was as though to predict the “yogurt revolution” that has since overtaken the state; and Elmhurst was right there at the forefront. A few took notice, including a company called Kellogg’s. It was in the late 1970s that the multinational approached Elmhurst’s heir, Henry Schwartz, with a proposal for a joint venture. The resulting company, named Steuben Foods after the county of origin, was incorporated in 1980.
The Kellogg’s agreement was a massive success, resulting in Whitney’s, which many still consider the best yogurt they have ever tasted. Steuben Foods soon outgrew itself trying to keep pace with a national market. So, Mr. Schwartz went looking for a new home.
It was in Elma, a few miles outside of Buffalo, that Mr. Schwartz encountered the massive shell of a Western Electric plant that had been built and then vacated. A visionary by nature, he liked that it had more square footage than he might ever be able to fill. (Anyone who knows Henry will not be at all surprised that he has almost filled it; another of the many great multiplications that have defined Steuben’s history and heritage.)
The current Elma facility opened in 1985. There remain a few bright, almost Technicolor, photographs of family and friends parading through its now time-honored doors for the first time. No one quite knew the future then; only that there was a future. There was optimism in the crystalline sky, and the glint of sunlight upon the stainless steel silos, that day.
Then it all came to fruition – like the unraveling of a riddle – in 1991. A few pudding and yogurt ventures later, Steuben had gone aseptic.
An Aseptic Movement
Aseptic technology was a European taste that defied American logic – albeit in the most fascinating way. One could now take a milk carton, place it on the counter, open it months later, and consume perfectly fresh product. It was too brilliant not to work; it only required execution. In operating this challenging technology, Steuben proved that it could not only “execute”; it could break entirely new ground in process.
This – innovation and excellence in change – has been Steuben Foods’ identity ever since. We have broadened upon the aseptic idea, mastering new shapes and sizes, packages and products – almost in a continuous stream. The result is a 15-plus line, 500,000-square foot operation manufacturing everything from cartons to bottles; broths to nutraceuticals.
The world doesn’t stop, so neither can we. Innovation is always chasing in order to keep ahead. So, we are working diligently, as you read this, on new things: new products, new technologies, new values.
Thus, we reach an endpoint that is certainly not the end; of a story, perhaps beyond the imagination, but certainly not the aspiration, of a man ushering seven cows across Williamsburg Bridge; and two brothers circulating Queens and Brooklyn in their delivery truck.