Sandusky, Ohio — situated on the shores of Lake Erie midway between Cleveland and Toledo — is home to Cedar Point, the renowned amusement park that bills itself as “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” The Erie County seat is also a short ferry ride away from several popular Lake Erie islands. But less familiar to the many tourists who visit the area is the fact that Sandusky also lays claim to the oldest dairy company in Ohio: Toft Dairy.
Five generations of family leadership
Toft Dairy got its start in 1900, when Chris and Matilda Toft began operating a dairy farm in rural Sandusky and selling the raw milk to area residents. Eventually, the couple acquired a horse and wagon to haul cans of milk into the city proper.
In 1935, the Tofts purchased the retail dairy operations of Sandusky’s Oswald Dairy. By then, Chris and Matilda Toft’s daughter Edna and her husband Carl Meisler were part of the family business, as were their son John and his wife Esther. Around this time, Toft Dairy also began to pasteurize its milk.
By 1937, the third generation of the family got involved in the operation when Robert Meisler, Carl and Edna’s oldest son, began delivering milk while he was still in high school. The couple’s three other sons — Russell, Tom and Eugene — later joined the business as well. By this time, Toft Dairy’s milk delivery services had expanded to the point where the company needed several trucks.
In 1940, Toft Dairy moved to Adams Street in Sandusky, eventually acquiring nearby properties to allow for additional expansion. The company also began to homogenize milk and produce a limited selection of quality ice cream.
Following the retirements and deaths of a number of family members, Carl and Edna Meisler eventually assumed full ownership of the company. By this time, the fourth generation of the family — Tom’s son Denny, Russell’s two sons Ron and Dan, and Eugene’s son Chuck — was entrenched in the business as well.
That fourth generation saw the company through a period of rapid growth, explained Eugene Meisler, Toft Dairy’s former president and now a vice president/director. When he graduated from school and went to work for the dairy in 1957, Toft Dairy was still a home-delivery operation, and it competed with eight other dairies in the Sandusky area.
“I didn’t like the home delivery at all,” he said.
With the abundance of mom and pop grocery stores in the area, Eugene Meisler said he saw an opportunity to expand Toft Dairy’s operations outside the home-delivery channel. So he started knocking on doors. A small retailer in Monroeville, Ohio, agreed to carry Toft’s milk.
“I took more milk over there three days a week than my brothers did all six days on home delivery,” he said. “All returnable glass bottles. And that was the start of our retail sales.”
Toft Dairy then outmaneuvered its competition when it began packaging its milk in easy-pour plastic gallon jugs in 1968.
“We really took off,” Eugene Meisler noted, adding that most of Toft Dairy’s competitors still opted to package milk in big square paper cartons that made pouring difficult. Five years later, all of those competitors except one, Esmond Dairy, disappeared. Esmond Dairy eventually was acquired, but its parent company subsequently went out of business. That reality gave Toft Dairy bragging rights to being the lone surviving dairy processor in the area.
And the company continued to thrive. In 1986, Toft Dairy built a new 64,500-square-foot plant and headquarters facility on a large plot of land on Venice Road in Sandusky. Carl Meisler had paid cash for the property back in 1975, Eugene Meisler explained, in anticipation of further growth.
Now, 119 years later, that facility boasts almost 75,000 square feet (a 10,000-square-foot freezer was added in the 1990s). In addition to 70-plus flavors of ice cream (in single-serve, pint, 48-ounce scround, half-gallon and 3-gallon containers) and milk (in all fat levels, several flavors and sizes ranging from single-serve to 5-gallon containers), the facility produces soft-serve ice cream and yogurt mixes, cultured buttermilk, juice, fruit drinks and ready-to-drink tea under the Toft’s brand. The products are delivered to grocery and other retail outlets, foodservice operators, hospitals, schools, amusement parks, hotels, universities, distributors and other customers.
And Toft Dairy’s operation remains a family affair, owned and operated by the third, fourth and fifth generations. Logan Meisler and Morgan Miller, the son and daughter of the current Toft Dairy president, Chuck Meisler, serve as assistant vice president/corporate sales manager and marketing director, respectively. Josh Meisler, Denny Meisler’s son, is another a fifth-generation family member who works in the dairy — as the ice cream production manager.
Sourcing’s a family affair, too
What’s more, the 19 local farms from which Toft Dairy sources its milk — all of them less than 60 miles from the company’s operations — are an extension of the company’s family focus.
“The farms are family farms,” Morgan Miller explained. “They’re small. They treat their cows like their pets.”
The farmers also promise to use no artificial growth hormones, she noted, so Toft Dairy is able to label its products as being rbST-free — a big selling point for consumers.
That being said, Toft Dairy employs a field representative who visits each farm on a regular basis to ensure the operations continue to mesh with the company’s expectations, Logan Meisler added.
“He’s our eyes and ears,” he said. “He’s our inspector before the state and FDA inspectors get there, so he stays on top of everything.”
Engrained in the community
As the only locally owned and operated dairy processor situated along the roughly 120-mile stretch of Lake Erie between Cleveland and Toledo, Toft Dairy is a familiar name to many Ohio (and some Southern Michigan) consumers. And the company builds on that familiarity through its community-minded activities and partnerships.
“We love our community,” said Chuck Meisler. “When you live in the community, you want to help out where you can.”
Toft Dairy currently supplies milk and/or ice cream to approximately 60 local school districts, so giving back to the schools is a priority. One way the company does so is through its 15-year-old Teacher of the Month program.
“Every month during the school year, we invite people to call in to nominate a teacher who has impacted their lives or their children’s and is currently teaching,” Miller explained. “And we select one that has a great story and sounds like a wonderful teacher. We actually throw them an ice cream party.”
Outside the school arena, Toft Dairy has been known to create unique ice cream flavors under the Toft’s brand for special events in the local community. For example, it created Bicentennial Butterscotch Toffee ice cream to serve at Sandusky’s bicentennial celebration this past summer, Miller said.
Last year, the company created a Maple Salted Caramel ice cream to help the nearby town of Norwalk, Ohio — known as the Maple City — celebrate its bicentennial, Chuck Meisler added. And every year, it produces Watermelon sherbet and Cantaloupe ice cream for the popular annual Milan Melon Festival in Milan, Ohio.
“It’s grassroots; it’s fairs and festivals,” he said, noting that such creations are packaged in 3-gallon tubs for dipping and are limited to community events that bring considerable volume.
A partner of local organizations
For Toft Dairy, community involvement also means partnerships with some sizeable local organizations. One of those partnerships is with Cedar Point. The amusement park operates Toft’s Ice Cream Parlor on its midway; Toft Dairy supplies the ice cream, of course.
But the dairy processor also developed three unique ice cream flavors that salute specific Cedar Point coasters, Miller noted. The products, offered in 48-ounce cartons for retail and 3-gallon tubs for scoop shops, include Brownie Bandit, in honor of the Steel Vengeance coaster that debuted in 2017; Salty Caramel Fudge Truffle, which pays tribute to the Valravn dive coaster; and Chocolate Cookie Mint Madness, which celebrates the Rougarou floorless coaster. A fourth flavor, limited-edition Cedar Point Cotton Candy, captures the overall essence of the theme park and comes in half-gallon cartons and 3-gallon tubs.
In addition, Toft Dairy partnered with Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores and Islands organization to come out with Lake Erie Cookie Island Monster ice cream under the Toft’s brand, Logan Meisler noted. The organization’s logo, “Lake Erie Love,” is included on each half-gallon carton (the flavor is offered in 3-gallon tubs, too).
A number of other partnerships involve organizations located approximately 60 miles west — in the considerably larger city of Toledo. Two of those partnerships are with minor league sports teams: the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team and the Toledo Walleye hockey team. Toft’s ice cream is the official ice cream sold at home team events.
The partnership with the Mud Hens was extended to include an ice cream flavor created specifically for the team: Muddy’s Sea Salt Slam, Miller noted. It’s sold at retail in pint containers and half-gallon cartons and also is available for scooping at home games.
Other Toledo-based partners include the Toledo Zoo, which serves up Toft’s as its official ice cream, and the University of Toledo, which offers both milk and ice cream under the Toft’s brand. And a bit south of Toledo, Bowling Green State University also counts Toft Dairy as a partner.
Product development’s a team effort
In recent years, most of Toft Dairy’s new product development has been on the ice cream side of the business. As Logan Meisler explained, the milk and other beverage products “have been pretty standard year in and year out.”
The company looks to its ingredient suppliers as a starting point the in the new product development process, he noted.
“We note what we like from this supplier, what we like from another supplier,” Logan Meisler said. “Then we try to get samples in so we can create our own flavor.”
The suppliers are more than willing to help, Chuck Meisler noted.
“If they bring us good ideas, they know that we’re going to buy from them,” he said.
From that point, the process is a team effort, beginning with the family members working through ideas and costing.
“Once we have some ideas that we want to sample, we’ll include all employees, whether it’s the people in the office or the production team, and try to get as many opinions as we can,” Logan Meisler explained.
Working in Toft Dairy’s favor here is the fact that the company operates an ice cream parlor at the front of its facility. The popular parlor, open year-round, is staffed by two gentleman with a combined 80-plus years of service.
“When we come up with an idea, we ask for their opinions because they live it every day — they’re dealing directly with consumers,” Logan Meisler said. “And before we invest in packaging, we’ll test the flavor in our parlor and get feedback from the public.”
The company also relies on social media to get feedback on new and existing ice cream flavors, Miller noted.
“We do try to be very customer-based with what we come up with,” she said. “My dad always says … it’s not a strawberry market. So we don’t try to come up with a bunch of new strawberry flavors. We listen to our customers.”
Connecting with consumers
Outside of its community-related efforts and organization partnerships, Toft Dairy markets its products to consumers in a number of different ways. Perhaps the most important marketing vehicle is the company’s packaging. All Toft’s brand products carry the “Toft’s One Quality” logo.
“Basically, it says consistency — that we only put out our best products,” Miller explained.
In a nutshell, that means the company doesn’t offer a lesser-quality tier under a higher-quality tier. On the ice cream side, Toft’s Dairy does offer a line called Prime Time, but that line — generally sold in 48-ounce scround and 3-gallon containers — simply incorporates “fancier, more expensive ingredients,” Logan Meisler noted. The quality of the company’s “regular” ice cream, sold in half-gallon and 3-gallon containers (and for some flavors, in pints) is not in any way inferior to its Prime Time cousins.
In addition, Toft Dairy has its own fleet of trucks that delivers all but co-packed products to customers. And those delivery trucks, featuring colorful wraps, essentially are “moving billboards” for the company, Miller noted.
Speaking of billboards, Toft Dairy uses them, too, to market its products, Chuck Meisler said.
“We tie our marketing mainly to new items,” he pointed out.
Radio is yet another strategic marketing avenue.
“Recently, when new flavors came out, we had the whole iHeartMedia team in Toledo sample the flavors and talk about them on the radio,” Miller said.
Toft’s branded ice cream parlors also are invaluable for marketing efforts. In addition to the on-site company-run parlor and the one operated by Cedar Point, there’s a Toft’s Ice Cream Parlor in the nearby city of Port Clinton, Ohio. A former Toft Dairy salesperson actually took over operations of that parlor, Logan Meisler noted.
Eying steady growth
As they look to the future, Toft Dairy’s third-, fourth- and fifth-generation family-owners do not aim to become a dairy processing giant. But they are hoping to grow to the point where they are fully utilizing plant capacity — or even need to expand.
But like most other dairy companies, Toft Dairy faces some threats to its growth plans.
“Milk sales are declining every year,” Chuck Meisler pointed out. “So that’s a challenge for any dairy.”
And it’s becoming more difficult to sell into the increasingly “corporate” retail market, Logan Meisler added.
“When you talk to corporate-run retailers, not many of them say ‘OK, we’ll give you just that little area.’ That buyer wants the whole state or whatever,” he noted.
So co-packing partnerships will be increasingly important in Toft Dairy’s growth plans, Logan Meisler said.
“And schools have been a good area of growth for us in the past five years,” he said, adding that additional growth in this area would be welcome.
No matter the obstacles, the odds remain in Toft Dairy’s favor. After all, the family-owned company has been on a wave of steady growth for 119 years — thanks to a heritage of smart decision-making.
“They don’t just go off on a whim and try something,” Miller said. “Everything is calculated; everything gets approved by every family member.
“I think we have more heart in it,” she added. “We care; it’s our family history.”