Two years ago, Colin Steele and his wife thought they had conceived of the ideal product: ice cream made from all local products. Most important would be the use of milk straight from the cow. The business would be called A Perfect Flavor and would be customized ordering. That settled, Steele began to look into how to incorporate raw milk. And that’s when it got difficult.
“If I would have known how hard it was when I started, I don’t think I would have done it,” he says. In Virginia, selling raw milk is largely illegal, though that’s not the case in 28 states.
Adding to Steele’s difficulty is the scarcity of milk processing plants. Decades ago, small areas like Charlottesville and Waynesboro (where A Perfect Flavor is produced) had their own dairies. But as the industry has become more and more regulated, big companies have been able to buy smaller competition and stamp them out. Consolidation means that there are only six or seven milk processing plants in the entire state.
Because of regulatory hurdles and the complexities of the market, Colin Steele had a difficult time finding local milk for his ice cream business.
As a result, Steele decided he would process his own milk. That meant getting certified by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).
“To start like this with no knowledge of the business, they were taking a real chance,” says Carroll Jones, one of four inspectors Steele ultimately had to satisfy. “We met with them several times even before they found the building.”
According to Jones, once they found a site, they then had to go over the plans for the building with VDACS. For instance, the floor where the pasteurizing would take place had to be graded and its drains protected. Then Steele had to purchase a pasteurizer—which typically costs between $15,000 to $30,000—that alone must be inspected every three months to make sure it is up to snuff.
An additional challenge was finding a raw milk supplier. Most dairy farmers in the area must sell their milk through a co-op, which ships the milk to a processor. The process was hampered by the state of milk production in America. In the summertime, heat in Southern states severely cuts down on cow’s production of milk and has created a system where much of the milk produced in Virginia ends up in the Southeast. As a result, most of the milk bought in area stores comes from as far away as New England. Organic milk is even further removed.
After bugging the nearest co-op for six months, Steele says, they finally found a nearby dairy farmer named Dan Holsinger.
“He gets just a little dab,” says Holsinger of Steele. That dab is acquired when Steele visits Holsinger’s farm to get milk straight from the cow’s teat. That same day, it is taken back to A Perfect Flavor, where it is pasteurized and used in ice cream.
Finally, Steele and his wife were able to open this past February and have already had success with their high-end product. They were nominated for a breakthrough award from the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and were recently added to Virginia’s Finest Directory, a listing of producers and processors located in the state who offer a vast array of products that are “the best of the best.”
VDACS’ Jones is still impressed A Perfect Flavor decided to process their own milk: “It was a big step to start a business like that.”
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