Ken Voelker is Elmhurst Milked’s Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development. He brings twenty years of dairy experience and 30 years of retail grocery experience to the company, having started his career at Tops Market in 1988. After successfully running his own business for nine years, Ken joined Sorrento/Precious Cheese as a product manager and then lead the marketing initiatives of Upstate Niagara Cooperative for ten years prior to joining the Elmhurst Milked team. He lives in Lancaster, NY with his wife and two children.
Caryn Hartglass: Hey everybody how are you doing? I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food. It’s May, it’s May, the lovely month of May, woo! Okay I have been thinking and talking and writing all day about food and now we’re going to do it again for another hour because this is what I do and this is what I love to do. I love sharing information about healthy delicious food, food that’s good for us, food that’s gentle on the planet, food that’s kind to nonhuman animals. And I know a lot of people have challenges when finding access to healthy food and I like to promote companies and businesses that make access possible for more. And I know that transitioning from consuming animals to plant foods is challenging for many people. We talk about all different kinds of ways to make that easier here on this show and we’re going to continue to do that right now. I am going to bring on my guest for today; Ken Voelker is Elmhurst Milked’s Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development. He brings 20 years of dairy experience and 30 years of retail grocery experience to the company, having started his career at Tops Market in 1988. After successfully running his own business for 9 years, Ken joined Sorrento/Precious Cheese as a product manager and then led the marketing initiatives of Upstate Niagara Cooperative for 10 years prior to joining the Elmhurst Milked team. He lives in Lancaster, NY with his wife and 2 children. Hi Ken, how are you today?
Ken Voelker: Hi! How is everything going today?
Caryn Hartglass: Very good, so I want to know more about you and I especially want to know more about Elmhurst Milked, and I’m realizing as I’m saying it it’s not that easy to say!
Ken Voelker: It’s a little bit of a tongue twister.
Caryn Hartglass: It is! Yeah so Elmhurst Milked, one of the things that got me excited about learning about your company, well a number of things, I’m vegan and I’m always excited to hear about plant-based businesses but this is especially interesting because it started as one business and then morphed into another, I want to learn more about that, but also because the business started very close to where I live in Forest Hills Queens, it started in Elmhurst Queens but I understand you’re upstate New York.
Ken Voelker: That is correct.
Caryn Hartglass: Anyway, so tell us the story!
Ken Voelker: Great, well yeah! Elmhurst was founded approximately about a hundred years ago as a family owned dairy and after 92 years of successful business our CEO Henry Schwartz decided it was time to look to the future and lead a plant-based revolution by creating clean labeled vegan products. These products are just as delicious and nutritionally robust as conventional milk. Henry and his father Max and his uncle have tremendous amounts of dairy experience and he wanted that the alternative and not just flavored water with additives to make it look like milk, he wanted the nutritious benefits of taking a handful of nuts in every glass. So Henry Schwartz decided to close Elmhurst Dairy in part due to declining sales and ongoing industry loses and in part due to a deep faith he had in the future of plant-based foods. So it’s really a visionary that Henry Schwartz is and looking at vegan nutrition and producing the highest quality that we can with our plant-based products.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds very good and tasty to me, I’m continually saying that the 21st century is all about that, where we are going to find more and more ways to make the foods we love that normally had animal ingredients and we can still make the same products or better with plant ingredients.
Ken Voelker: Absolutely and we really wanted to prove that plant-based beverages can be more and just as nutritious as dairy beverages without being fortified with added vitamins and minerals or loaded with stabilizers, gums, or emulsifiers typically that you find in other nut-made beverages on the market place. So we really refocused our energy and resources on vegan nut milks and how to use a patented cold-milling technique called milking, when we talked about being a tongue twister earlier about Elmhurst Milked it’s really about, as I indicated, it’s the milking that allows us to produce the nut milk that contains full nutrition of each nut in a creamy emulsion. So we have about four times more nuts than our competition. Our competition has about four nuts in their typical almond in every glass, 8 ounce glass, we have 18. Our cleanness really comes from the nuts itself; it doesn’t come from emulsifiers or stabilizers and xanthium gums. We really just process the entire nutritional value of the nut.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah and I was looking on your website and you have a simplified graphic about what’s going on and it makes it seem, it seems pretty simple and wholesome. Your almonds for example, most of them come from California and it talks about how other nut milks are made from a paste, but you don’t do that?
Ken Voelker: No actually with the journey of the almond from farm to table actually starts its way in California, all of our almonds and our walnuts come from Southern California and after many months of growing in the orchard they’re picked, washed, and packed into old containers and then they’re ready for their journey across the country to our processing facility in Albany, NY. So many of the nut milks out there are made from industrial paste which is rehydrated at the processing plant, we actually bring in the whole almonds and walnuts; they’re shipped whole from our farmers.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m really curious about this transition from dairy milk to nut milk, so was it more of a like a business decision because the founder saw more profits in plant milk or was there an acknowledgment about not wanting to use animals anymore in the product, do you know what the motivation was?
Ken Voelker: Yeah there were several different motivating factors, as we’re aware since 2012 the dairy industry white milk retail sales have been in decline about 3.5% per year. Being the oldest dairy in New York, New York City, and the next closest dairy about 80 miles away it just became financially very difficult to compete in that marketplace from a dairy perspective with the declining milk sales. And then the owner’s really deep faith he has in the future of plant-based foods and plant-based nutrition is really the two foremost reasons why Elmhurst decided to get away from the dairy, the cow’s milk, into vegan nutrition and vegan plant-based foods.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to talk about the word milk for a minute. I’ve been a vegan for almost 30 years and I’ve been drinking all kinds of plant milks from that time and I love cooking and preparing foods and I’ve had no problem at all substituting plant milks in place of dairy milk in any recipe, it’s very easy one to one, you never really taste the difference in a baked product for example or sauce it’s easy, but at the same time I’ve never confused my plant milks with my dairy milk because I use the word milk and I know there are a number of representatives in congress who were trying to not make it legal to call a plant milk “milk”; they only want to use that word for the dairy beverage. You aware of that and how do you feel about that?
Ken Voelker: Yeah, being in the dairy field for a long period of time I am aware of some of the consumer confusion in the marketplace about the milking technique and basically our patented process is a cold-milling technique that we coined “milking” that allows us to produce non-dairy milk containing all of the nutrition of the nuts in a creamy emulsion. So basically we’re actually milking the nuts from a standpoint that we’re taking all the nutritional benefits from the nut and providing the consumer and the end-user actually all of that nutrition.
Caryn Hartglass: But you don’t mind the word milk being used because it’s not from a cow.
Ken Voelker: Correct.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I mean there are some people who are actually trying to make it not legal to use the word milk for nut milks and bean milks, its crazy!
Ken Voelker: Yeah and like I said the key advantage of our milking process is it can produce a whole foods drink, it extracts all the nutritional benefits of the nuts in a clean form, and again we don’t use stabilizers or emulsions so it’s a clean process in the form of actually taking the nuts and the water and then grinding the product, pressing and filtering and then filling the product into a clean emulsion.
Caryn Hartglass: So I’m curious if there are lots of dairy distributors in New York and I imagine they’re feeling the same economic depression in milk consumption, are other dairy companies interested in your process?
Ken Voelker: Well at this time we’re currently in our test market and we’re in Southern California in Gelson’s and Bristol Farms, and we’re currently testing in Publix down in Florida and Georgia. Currently we’re in test market and the product is performing better than our initial expectations so we’re very happy and we just launched our website online that gives us an opportunity for consumers to check out and actually purchase through our e-commerce site at Elmhurst1925.com where you can learn all about our particular products. As far as getting that home delivery you know milked almonds, milked hazelnuts, milked walnuts, and milked cashews directly for home delivery, direct to your doorstep.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that sounds like fun, home delivery to your doorstep just like in the old days.
Ken Voelker: Ha-ha, absolutely, we’re bringing back some of the heritage we have here in Elmhurst, we’ve been around like I said almost 100 years from a dairy farmers now to vegan nutrition so we’re excited about what the next 100 years look forward as far as products that are nutritious and delicious for the vegan consumer as well as every consumer that may have some lactose issues and are refraining from cow’s milk. It makes a great product on its own or in cereal or as smoothies based upon the protein benefits of utilizing the whole nut and extracting all the nutrition from the various nuts that we have. So our protein value is a lot higher than our competitors and it’s very close to dairy milk for the protein value.
Caryn Hartglass: How about other products, do you think Elmhurst Milked might be making yogurt or cheese in the future?
Ken Voelker: Yes, through the ingredients and the products that we have we’re allowed to through this emulsion be able to get into ice cream bars, potentially get into yogurt, get into cheese, any type of dairy alternative type segment I think we have the ability to do with the technology that we have at our facilities here in Elmhurst.
Caryn Hartglass: You know I talked about the word milk before, in California you cannot use the word cheese if you’ve made the product from nut milk, so there are some companies that call their nut cheeses cultured nut products, and it’s nutty! Yeah, okay, well that’s wonderful. I’m so glad to have discovered you, now you’ve mentioned that you are in test markets, does that mean you’re not that easy to find right now?
Ken Voelker: No we’re available in 1100 Publics stores down in the Southeast; we’re starting to slowly move up the eastern seaboard, we’re located in Gelson’s and Bristol Farms on the west coast, and we’re due to launch some larger retailers in September to be determined, you can check out our website for those new additions as they come on, and we’re in the process of looking at new innovative products to go into various different channels. We’re looking at a potential barista blend for food service application, so we are going to be in a lot of different coffee shops, we will be in bodegas, we will be around the Publix down in the south like I mentioned, and we’re continuing to expand as soon as we figure out that we’ve got everything perfected because the one thing that Elmhurst is all about is quality and the experience the consumer receives when consuming our products, not only with all the nutritional benefits that we give but our transparency and our promise of transparency. We tell you everything about the farms that we source our products from; we’re not hiding anything, we use only whole ingredients, we have 5 ingredients in our products which would include the nuts, filtered water, some cane sugar, some salt, and some natural flavors, and we never use industrial fillers like I mentioned. So we’re all about transparency, we’re all about sustainability, we’re all about trying to inform the consumer of the right choice, and being able to provide all the necessary information to make a well informed decision at the shelf.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay well that sounds fantastic, I’m so excited to have learned about you, I’m glad you’re in New York, and I hope to see more Elmhurst Milked products, if I ever learn how to say it comfortably ha-ha! Elmhurst Milked, Milked walnuts, Milked almonds, Milked cashews, and Milked Hazelnuts, right?
Ken Voelker: Yes, that’s correct. See you’re getting to be an expert right away, you’ve learned how to say Milked hazelnuts and Elmhurst Milked!
Caryn Hartglass: Practice makes perfect, well thank you Ken for joining me on It’s All About Food!
Ken Voelker: Thank you very much, I appreciate your time.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, take care! Well, that was Ken Voelker of Elmhurst Milked and the timing is perfect, I hear the Mr. Softie truck coming around in my neighborhood and as I’ve said many many times I dream of the day when Mr. Softie will be made of plant-based ice creams instead of dairy-based ice creams, and maybe Elmhurst Milked might provide some of that for them. We’ll sound find out, won’t we?
Transcribed by Lydia Dearie, 5/24/2017