AE Dairy: Celebrating 90 Years of Dairy Delights
By Ann Foster Thelen
Since 1930, Anderson Erickson Dairy has been making its signature, delicious dairy products right here in Iowa. Their milk comes from family farms in Iowa, and in less than 24 hours, the milk is transformed into fan-favorite products – cottage cheese, dips, chocolate milk and eggnog, a holiday season favorite. Milk, with nine essential nutrients that are necessary for good health, is a core ingredient in many lovable foods and recipes, during the holidays and throughout the entire year.
Miriam Erickson Brown is the CEO of Anderson Erickson Dairy in Des Moines. Photo courtesy of AE Dairy.
Miriam Erickson Brown, AE Dairy CEO, embraces her role as the guardian of the iconic dairy’s brand while building on the strong legacy of quality, excellence and product innovation. She recently spoke to a group of agricultural leaders and reflected on the company’s 90th anniversary, what it’s been like to lead a company during a global pandemic and how trends impact product development.
Let’s all toast – with a glass of ice-cold milk – to AE Dairy on this milestone of providing undeniably dairy goodness!
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AE Dairy reached a significant milestone this year; how has the company evolved over the past 90 years?
Erickson Brown: Our goal has always been to help customers enjoy the goodness and the taste of dairy the AE way. It was the foundation of how the company was built, and it’s still true today. AE Dairy was founded in 1930 by my grandfather, Iver Erickson. AE Dairy survived during the depression at a time when there were over 150 other dairies with operating permits in just the greater Des Moines area.
Today, we’re a third-generation family dairy, with approximately 400 employees. We make 250 products, including milk, juices, three different lines of yogurts, cottage cheese, sour cream, dips, eggnog, ice cream mixes, and other items in our one plant on the east side of Des Moines. Consumers can find AE products across Iowa, along the borders of Illinois and Nebraska, south to Kansas City and north to just over the Minnesota border. We focus on excellence and the ultimate customer experience.
We have heard that when Iowans who have moved away come back to the state for visits, they often take a cooler full of AE products back home. What makes AE’s products so special?
Erickson Brown: We love hearing those stories! AE is a different kind of dairy. All our products are made with specially selected ingredients, such as European cocoas, real vanillas at two and three times the standard amounts, fresh cream and milk from Iowa family farms. The intentional way we make our products takes time, patience, expertise and flexibility. AE products are continually evaluated on taste and performance, consistency and overall appeal in our on-site laboratory and a weekly Thursday taste test with our management team and owners. We do countless things to ensure our products are hours fresh and just right for our customers’ enjoyment.
Go behind-the-scenes at AE Dairy’s Thursday taste test. Also, just in time for the holidays, try AE Dairy’s Egg Nog Trifle dessert.
2020 has been a challenging year for nearly everyone. What are some of the specific challenges AE has faced this year?
Erickson Brown: We work every single day to guide AE to a place of strength and purpose. Like many others, we faced unknowns during the year. The pandemic closed down many customers overnight, while increasing grocery store sales restored milk purchases to a five-year high, all during the very first week of COVID closures.
Then we had the August derecho, which caused a power outage for about six hours, followed by a decreased power supply for the next 24 hours. When you deal with a fresh product like milk, that can present a significant problem, but I’m proud of how we managed it. Hurricane Laura blew through the south, leaving packaging and resin shortages for all of us to manage in its wake.
We have a just-in-time inventory, which means everything we make is fresh. Packaging products in advance isn’t an option for us unless it’s maybe a day or two with culture items like yogurts or sour cream. When the pandemic began, our finely tuned organized process came to a screeching halt overnight, and we dealt with unheard-of demands. I prayed for our employees’ safety so that they could continue to bring dairy products to families who were depending on us. They needed a constant. I wanted that to be us in our own small, little way.
Tell us more about how COVID-19 challenged your business.
Erickson Brown: In thinking about all the different ways that the coronavirus has impacted us at AE, I realize it’s also disrupted the personal way we like to do business. For example, we have a team of employees whose job is to hand out product samples in grocery stores. These are new flavors, seasonal products or customer favorites. When COVID-19 hit – almost immediately – grocers closed their salad bars, removed their self-serve bulk food items, and stopped allowing any in-store product sampling.
We introduced four wonderful and unique flavors of lactose-free yogurt in the untimely month of March. Unfortunately, without our sampling team, we could never get those off the ground and discontinued those products in early fall.
How does AE continue to stay relevant in a market that can often be crowded with trends and fads?
Erickson Brown: We are living in a time when there are major shifts in the way people view food, family, the environment, social responsibilities and the list goes on – all of which influence our consumers’ mindsets before they even buy a gallon of milk. The fact that three decades of scientific research supports dairy products’ role in overall health is reassuring to us at AE. Still, we spend a lot of time helping our customers understand the benefits of dairy and especially the benefits of real milk.
Flavor trends, consumer preferences, and purchase behavior are always changing. I call it the big tornado. Whole milk has overtaken 2% as the most popular white milk; 10 years ago, we would never have predicted this surge. Cottage cheese and eggnog are trendy products with millennials as compared to their parents. We are always working on new products and love to combine current trends with dairy. We have a long and successful history of product and flavor firsts in our industry. Dark Chocolate Milk, Milk Nog, Sea Salt and Pepper Cottage Cheese, and Mexican Hot Chocolate Yogurt are examples of ways we found current trends with dairy products.
AE Dairy product lines. Photo courtesy of AE Dairy.
How does AE ensure its customers have a wonderful experience with its products?
Erickson Brown: We are fortunate because Iowa’s farmers supply us with the best milk anywhere in the U.S. Hands down, they have access to the best quality feed, and their expertise is second to none. However, in producing dairy products, you can use the same formula every time, and there will always be slight differences in the way a product turns out. That’s why we depend so heavily on an employee’s experience, training and intuition while making and packaging our products. Making dairy products is part art and part science, and our employees embody the AE brand.
For example, we generally make cottage cheese the same way, yet the cooking and the culture and times always vary. Environmental factors, such as the weather, the age of the cultures, and even the room’s humidity, can cause slight differences in how the product develops. Our goal is always to address all these things before they reach customers. Our dedicated employees help us make that happen. We can’t run our business without the creativity, ingenuity and intelligence of committed employees who understand our purpose and are not satisfied with mediocrity.
If the process of creating, making, packaging and delivering dairy products becomes more important than our customer experience, then everything we do quickly becomes irrelevant.
Vintage Egg Nog carton, photo courtesy of AE Dairy.
Eggnog is a holiday favorite for many. What makes it so popular?
Erikson Brown: Millennials love eggnog, and we’ve seen the popularity growing. In the last three years, eggnog has been written about in the Wall Street Journal and national media. It’s one of those consumer behavior things that couldn’t necessarily be predicted, and you’re thankful when it comes your way. When it comes to eggnog, the most frequent question we receive is, "Are those eggs pasteurized?" Of course, I say, "Yes, they are; they have to be."