Purity Dairies keeps nostalgia with home delivery

Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 1:00am

Kelly Linton has fond childhood memories of the milkman's weekly visit in the 1960s to her family's home. Fortunately for her, the milkman never became some faded character from the "Leave it to Beaver" era.

For the past 11 years, Kelly and husband MacRae have expected a weekly knock on the door early in the morning from a Purity Dairies milkman. He'll come into the kitchen of the West Nashville home to unload six gallons of milk into a large refrigerated machine.

Besides the opportunity for a nostalgic personal connection during the week, Purity provides an almost indispensable service to a household with four teenagers, she said.

"It means we have a pretty steady supply of milk. I never run out," Linton said, adding that her parents and one brother also get the service.

Purity Dairies has been delivering milk to customers since its founder, Miles Ezell, commenced his first route with one truck in 1926.

Ezell Dairy was incorporated as Purity Dairies in 1945 and set up operations at 360 Murfreesboro Road in Nashville. Through the decades, the home-delivery trucks have continued to roll, even through a dairy farmers strike in 1951.

In 1962, the company transitioned from delivering milk in original glass bottles to plastic-coated milk cartons and then, 10 years later, to the now-familiar yellow plastic milk jugs.

Of the 150 companies represented by the International Dairy Foods Association, only 15 in the country run a home delivery service, Purity being the only one in Tennessee, according to association spokeswoman Katie Koppenhoefer.

"It's been a family tradition for us and it's something that's been a fun business," said Mark Ezell, grandson of the late founder and now president of the company.

Ezell said by age 4 he wanted to be a milkman after getting visits to his boyhood home. By age 9, he knew he wanted to be in charge of a dairy. He put in time as a delivery man and as head of the delivery division before taking the helm.

The home-delivery business is not exactly Purity's bread and butter. There's no extra charge for the service and products are sold at suggested retail prices.

Ezell said home delivery accounts for less than 2 percent of the company's approximately $145 million in gross annual revenues. Most of its business is focused on sales of dairy products to grocers and other retailers in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.

"The community service and the building of our brand awareness and loyalty have been more important to us. Home delivery is not something we're going to be able to make a lot of money on," Ezell said.

Purity runs 11 routes in the greater Nashville area, delivering to about 6,000 to 7,000 customers, some once a week and others twice a week. A variety of Purity products are offered, including cheeses, ice cream, lemonade and spring water.

Purity's 19 drivers are out the door between midnight and 3 a.m. to make their deliveries to most customers by 7 a.m.

The drivers establish on their neighborhood routes valuable personal contacts that benefit the customers as well as the company, Ezell said. Drivers earn extra commission on their routes by knocking on doors and signing up new Purity customers. They also can pass valuable customer feedback onto the company.

But Ezell said one of the company's main motivators is to provide a community service to those who are elderly, infirm or otherwise immobile and unable to regularly get to a store.

"We market home delivery as a convenience. We have everyone from older folks who don't get out much to busy, two-income families that could use the convenience of not having to stop by a store," Ezell said.

The company prides itself on uninterrupted service - every day except Christmas - and through all kinds of weather.

"Really and truthfully I'm not aware in last 20 years when the weather has shut us down," Ezell said.

In fact, during the recent snowfall that blanketed Nashville, Purity drivers were among the few brave souls who took to the icy roads in the pre-dawn hours.

"From about 2:30 to 6 o'clock, me and the paper boy were the only ones fighting the streets," said Steven Anderson, a route salesman. He said he likes the job because of the independence it allows.

Some of the drivers have been with the company for more than a decade - some longer - and retirees have been very hard to replace, said Brandon Taylor, retail sales manager for Purity.

"It's really hard to find the right person. We interview so many people and turn so many down," he said. "You have to be physically able to do the job. Whether it's hot or cold, you're gong to freeze and burn up. You have to be very friendly and customer-oriented. You have to be a good sales person operate with integrity."

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