Avalon Dairy has made a name for itself as the oldest, continuously operating dairy in British Columbia. But oldest doesn’t necessarily mean the largest. Over its 100-plus years in the business, Avalon has had to struggle to compete with the big boys.
In 1906, Jeremiah Crowley and his family came to Vancouver from the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland for what he called “a better life.” They purchased a small plot of land and used the six cows that came with it to start Avalon Dairy. Four years later, the dairy’s number of cows had more than tripled, and the Crowleys were well on their way to creating one of Canada’s most beloved dairies.
Despite the decision to remain small and family owned, Avalon has managed to stay successful in a difficult market, thanks especially to its greatest resource: its customers. “The consumers are responsible for keeping our brand alive,” says Gay Hahn, CEO. When Avalon Dairy’s eggnog was pulled from the shelves of Capers, an all-natural store, because of its artificial rum flavouring, it was the consumers who got it back. “They just kept asking for it, so Capers had to put it back in,” Hahn says. “Our consumers know that we give them quality products, so they stay loyal. We think of them as family, and feed them as we would our own.”
Avalon Dairy is small compared to other dairies in the area, currently employing just over 40 people (the larger companies number their employees in the thousands). “These major national brands come in, take over, and kick you out of stores,” Hahn explains. “We can’t afford to go as low as they can on prices. We don’t get kickbacks.” And unlike the larger dairies, Avalon doesn’t buy shelf space in stores, either. “Once again, it’s really up to our customers to keep us in demand,” Hahn adds.
One of the ways Avalon has been able to set itself apart from the competition is by producing certified organic milk, something it started doing in the 1990s. Today, more than 90 percent of its products—which include milk, butter, sour cream, yoghurt, cheese, eggs, and ice cream—are certified organic. “Going organic has really helped us grow,” Hahn says. “We even recently built a new, 50,000-square-foot facility.”
In fact, it was Hahn who first wanted to explore making Avalon an organic company. “I went to the owner and told him that I’d seen people rushing to buy organic products at a local farmers market,” she says. “I started going to seminars, took an inspector’s test, and in 1999 we put our first organic milk on the market. We started with 25 cows, and now have more than 200.”
But going organic has not been without its challenges, either. The process of certification requires that every step must be traceable, from the cow to the consumer. There are also other stipulations, like pulling cows from the production line for twice the amount of time a nonorganic cow would have to be pulled if they are sick. “Our farmer keeps a holistic doctor on-site, and we must pass a major inspection once a year, as well as a surprise visit,” Hahn says. “Everything has to check out before we can be recertified.”
Avalon’s dedication to its consumers can be seen in everything from its effort to create a more natural, wholesome product, to its great attention to detail, like the glass bottles it packages its milk in. And no matter how large the competition grows or how much it lowers its prices, Avalon always has its secret weapon: “Everyone says we have the best chocolate milk in all of Canada!” Hahn says.