April 1, 2006
by James Dudlicek
Return to business means Brown’s Dairy is here to stay as New Orleans struggles back from disaster.
In another month or so, the folks at Brown’s Dairy in New Orleans will start to get nervous again.
Hurricane season starts in June, and the Crescent City is still getting back on its feet after its run-in with nature last August. The city and its hometown dairy were buffeted by Hurricane Katrina, and though questions still remain about the future of New Orleans, century-old Brown’s isn’t going away anytime soon.
The threat of tropical storms is second nature to New Orleanians. “Every year you have one, two, seven, eight — we have a lot of them,” says Kennon Davis, general manager of Brown’s Dairy, owned by Dallas-based Dean Foods Co. “Up until then, the storm comes in, two days later we’re back up and running.”
But this time, even the most meticulous of disaster plans wasn’t quite enough to cope with the August 29 onslaught. “You get the trucks fueled, get as much product out of the cooler and onto the trucks as you can, fill the silo and just ride it out,” says Davis, a 35-year veteran of Dean/Suiza and its predecessors, the last 12 years at Brown’s. “The biggest damage that we had was from the wind.”
Then the levees were breached and changed the rules of the game, putting the collective forces of Brown’s Dairy and Dean Foods to the ultimate test of strength, organization and dedication to rebuild a company that just weeks before had as its main concern the celebration of its 100 years serving the New Orleans community. Anything that could have happened did, all at the same time. It became a lesson that processors located in areas prone to natural disasters would be wise to learn, or at least think twice before declaring themselves ready for anything.
Dairy Field visited with Brown’s plant on Baronne Street just five days before the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras and saw a company and a city poised for rebirth.
Juggling Your Life
“The water from the levee breaches stopped about two blocks away — we were very fortunate,” Davis says. The brunt of the damage at Brown’s came from looters in the short term; the impact of several weeks without power on stocked coolers became evident later.
Many residents, desperate to flee the flooded city, hot-wired the Brown’s truck fleet, dumping loads of milk into streets and parking lots as they made their escape. Company vehicles were recovered weeks later, abandoned in various parts of the city and across the South.
Others took aim at the plant. “They trashed all the offices, broke all the glass — it was just ransacked,” Davis says. “From the outside you couldn’t tell, but when you got inside, it was pretty depressing.”
While hell was breaking loose in New Orleans, Brown’s managers and employees who had fled were making contact with sister company Foremost Dairy in Shreveport and trying to get business moving again before they were allowed back into the city. Employees sought dry ground in Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas, Memphis. “Wherever they ended up, if there was a Dean Foods plant there, they could go to work,” Davis explains. “They may not be doing there what they did here, but they were given a job at the same rate of pay.”
Davis wound up in Baton Rouge, where he and his team set up a command center at Foremost Dairy to coordinate Southwest Region business in the post-storm melee. Using a government pass, he was able to return to New Orleans on the Saturday following the storm. Because of looters and a lack of power, the plant was in no condition to resume operations. So Davis arranged for the trucks that hadn’t been stolen to be moved up to Baton Rouge. Dean’s Oak Farms Dairy in Houston and Foremost Dairy in Shreveport became the primary suppliers for the Brown’s market area.
“You were juggling your life. We brought in raw milk from Houston, Shreveport, Birmingham — anywhere that had a little bit of excess capacity,” he says. “We were buying fuel from anyplace we could find it because there was a shortage. … Then we ran into a resin shortage. The plants at Oak Farms and Barbers would say, ‘I’ve got enough resin to run until 5 o’clock this afternoon.’ They cut out half-gallons for a while and ran all gallons. They tried to get creative to get enough product to serve the customer.”
When power was restored six weeks later, Davis and his team began the unenviable task of getting the plant cleaned up and running again. “When we had shut down [before the storm], we were through our cleanup, so the machines were clean. If you went into the production room, it looked pristine,” he recalls, noting the office saw much worse damage from looters. “The cooler, I was really impressed with. The cooler temperature after almost a week was still in the 40s, which amazed me — the integrity of the room was good. But once it started warming up, it just got worse and worse and worse. September in New Orleans might as well be July in Dallas.”
Davis’ team decided to pour a new floor in the cooler, which had undergone significant expansion in 2002. “We were afraid that the spoiled milk may have permeated the concrete, so we put a new floor in there as a precaution,” he explains. “We needed to protect the integrity of future products.”
With that completed, the cooler reopened on November 1. “We were bringing product in and redistributing it,” Davis says, explaining that the flow of product from sister plants was outpaced by demand; the arrival of Hurricane Rita a few weeks later, while far less destructive, further restricted production. “We ended up turning to three of our competitors and they bottled milk for us, for which we were very appreciative. When times are tough, the industry pulls together to take care of one of their own.”
During the effort, lab personnel cooked daily meals for plant and construction workers; meals are still provided on Fridays.
About three weeks later, the plant started processing again. “When we closed down, we went through our full cleanup to be ready to start back up in a day or two,” Davis recalls. But though the machinery was left in good shape, the extended downtime left its integrity in question. “We basically rebuilt everything in the building. Any machinery that needed an overhaul, we overhauled it. We rebuilt the fillers. We took advantage of the time we had because we couldn’t do anything else. When we opened back up, the plant was in far better shape than it was when we closed. Not that it was in bad shape when we closed it, but we had an opportunity to do the things that kicked us off on good terms. We’ve come out swinging.”
By the time the plant was ready to start bottling again, enough employees had returned to New Orleans to run the business. “I issued a memo that everybody would be doing different things,” Davis says. “We had the schedule and just started plugging names in of people we knew that were here. In some cases, we gave people different jobs, whatever the need.”
Of the 304 employees on the roster before the storm, all but one have been accounted for, Davis says — not bad, considering the population of the seven-parish New Orleans area is down about 30 percent since being displaced by the storm. “Currently we have 209 [on the job], and I would guess 95 percent of them were employees prior to the storm,” he says. “So we’ve had a good comeback rate.”
Some of the work force is living in about two dozen FEMA trailers the company had set up in a nearby neighborhood. “We estimate about 40 percent of our employees lost all they had,” Davis says. “I have nothing but admiration for the men and women who came back during that first week. Personal situations were put aside, and the dairy’s best interest became foremost in people’s minds.”
The Perfect Storm
Operating on the Gulf Coast means having a detailed disaster plan in place and ready to implement at a moment’s notice, and Brown’s Dairy is no exception. The Brown’s disaster plan includes notifying employees of a shutdown 24 to 36 hours before landfall, filling silos with water or milk, lining up emergency generators and fuel needs, locking down the facility and setting up security.
Brown’s procedure was carried out to the letter, but as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, Mother Nature doesn’t like to stick to the script.
“While we didn’t have that much wind damage, there was an awful lot because of the levees. It was just a disaster,” Davis says. “The city became Dodge City, I guess. When I got in Saturday [after the storm], I ran into some police friends of mine, and they had shotguns, pistols — they looked like they were headed for the OK Corral.”
Producers in the area took a hit as well. “The majority of our milk comes out of the parishes north of the lake. They had all kinds of power problems. Some farms probably didn’t get any power for a month,” Davis says. “The damage over there was not from water, it was from the trees. There’s a lot of 80-foot pine trees, and they were like matchsticks all over the place — huge mountains of debris. I assume a lot of their milk just went down the drain. The milk that they could get out got diverted to plants that were running milk for us.”
Distribution facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi were impacted in various ways, depending on their location in relation to the path of the storm. The Bogalusa branch was down for a few days due to fallen trees and power outage. “Gulfport just got slaughtered,” Davis says. “Thibodaux did well other than that we didn’t have enough milk to send them. Retailers I talked to [in that area] said they had a great quarter, just because they were open.”
Other customers were in areas where residents were slower to return. “If you don’t have employees, you probably don’t have customers either because everybody’s scattered. You think, well, we’ve got to be there because they’re open, but there might not be any customers anyway, so what’s the need?” Davis says. “Probably the biggest challenge during the whole thing, other than trying to take care of the employees, was finding product and getting it in at the right time.”
Compounding the challenge was restricted communication, with both land lines and cellular phone service impacted. “We set up phone lines in Dallas, put out fliers and did some advertising on radio and newspapers, saying to call Dallas and we would get the message to Baton Rouge,” says Susan Meadows, vice president of marketing for Dean Foods’ Southwest Region.
Davis continues: “When we set up the offices [in Baton Rouge], trying to get our land lines fixed so we could interface with the corporate office, all the repair people were tied up. Just a normal work order would take almost three weeks. You don’t realize how handcuffed you are when you don’t have access to these phone lines. Just the little things that you don’t expect, they just nail you.”
When Internet services came back online, Davis found hundreds of e-mails waiting for him. And when postal deliveries resumed, he received a Christmas card — in February.
“The city is slowly, slowly, slowly getting back on its feet,” he says.
Back to Normal?
As for Brown’s, production is back up to about three-quarters of its pre-Katrina levels with about 70 percent of its employees. “We’ve got just enough to do what we’re doing. We’ve added business as it comes back on line, but there are parts of the city that it will be years before anything happens with them,” Davis says.
Meadows adds: “Places we served before are gone, so we’ve got to worry about route structure … People who feel nostalgia and are proud of Brown’s heritage patronized our business and supported us. Are we now going to have a lot of transplants who don’t know the Brown’s name? So, we’ve got real challenges ahead.”
Challenges also include being even better prepared for the unexpected. “We have a good plan that’s worked in the past,” Davis says. “I think if we end up with another one coming this way, we’ll do a few things differently, because those things aren’t unexpected now — they’re a good possibility. Nobody could have told you this was going to happen. The fact that the dairy stayed dry means that we’re on a little bit higher ground than some other places, but to be honest with you, we didn’t know that. … You’ve got to think it through and figure out what you’re not thinking about. You can always plan your evacuation, you always plan your time, you know how to notify your customers. I think the city’s probably going to err to the side of caution if another one comes this way. Instead of evacuating 48 hours [before], they’ll probably do it 72 hours. I think we’ve just got to anticipate that. And hurricane season starts June 1 — here we go again.”
Also starting again are preparations for Brown’s Dairy’s 100th anniversary, with community events planned for October. Folks from corporate on down feel it’s important to carry out the celebration, albeit late, “to announce that we’re back,” Meadows says. “Everything we geared up for marketing for ’05 was all about the celebration — all our ads and billboards, everything was talking about that 100th year. Then we had to kill everything, and any ad money we spent in the last quarter of ’05 was on newspaper ads to our [displaced] employees, trying to find them, letting them know what’s going on and ads to our customers that we were back. We really haven’t done anything since then. So now we’re thinking, by the end of the second quarter, we’ll start all of our marketing efforts up again for that October celebration.”
That’s a good sign not only for the company, but for the city, which suffered a huge economic hit at the hands of Katrina. “I’ve had a number of folks in the city government commend us for being back. Orleans Parish has lost such a big chunk of its tax base that anybody that does stay and does come back is welcome relief,” Davis says.
As DF wound up its visit to Brown’s, tourists were streaming into New Orleans for Mardi Gras. With the theme “Phoenix Rising” and shortened by a few days in deference to the storm’s impact, the annual bacchanal was being looked to by city leaders as a crucial boost to hometown morale. Fat Tuesday, the final day of Mardi Gras, is a holiday for Brown’s as well; the plant is near a parade route, blocking truck movements in and out.
“The city needs some good news,” Davis says. “The city’s got to rebuild its image in the country because it’s got such a big tourist base. Mardi Gras should send a pretty good message to the people, the conventions and so forth that have come to New Orleans that the city’s OK. We’ve just got to get through it, but it’s going to be a while.”
1905 – Company is founded as Brown’s Velvet Dairy by Benjamin Christian Brown. Dairy becomes the largest independent milk and ice cream manufacturer in the Gulf Coast region.
1993 – Brown’s is sold to Dallas-based Southern Foods; ice cream business sold to Minneapolis-based Marigold Foods (Kemps).
1994 – Purchases and consolidates Acadia Dairy, Thibodaux, La.
1996 – Expands route structure to northern shore of Lake Ponchartrain.
1997 – Expands routes to southern Mississippi.
1999 – Brown’s becomes part of Suiza Foods’ Southwest Region.
2000 – Expands routes to southern Alabama; Brown’s Velvet Dairy changes its name to Brown’s Dairy, updates packaging on its entire product line.
2001 – Becomes part of Dean Foods’ Southwest Region.
2002 – Major vault expansion adds 10,000 square feet of storage.
2004 – Merges with Barbe’s Dairy, Westwego, La., making Brown’s the only New Orleans-area dairy; Barber Dairy’s Mobile, Ala., operations merge with Brown’s.
2005 – Brown’s Dairy celebrates its 100th anniversary.
PLANT AT A GLANCE
Location: New Orleans
Year opened: 1932; several additions since then.
Size: 120,000 square feet
Products made: Milk, cream, buttermilk, skim mix and fruit drinks totaling 210 SKUs.
Capacity: 1.5 million gallons monthly; HTST 7,000 gallons per hour.
Lines: Two gallon fillers, one half gallon/quarts/pints, one half-pint, one quarts (half and half, 10-ounce paper), one bag-in-box/325-gallon totes.
Cooler storage: 13,000 square feet.$OMN_arttitle="Phoenix Rising";?>