Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The milkman hasn’t totally disappeared, after all.
Every morning, 28-year-old Alex Gomberg drives from New Jersey to Brooklyn before the sun is up. He loads his truck with wooden crates of seltzer in hand-blown blue and green bottles. His early-morning rounds scoot him past brownstones and hotels, where he drops off the fizzy deliveries.
Gomberg launched the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys in 2013. He was a graduate student who learned the trade from his father, granddad, and great-grandad. The three older generations all worked on the seltzer circuit as part of Gomberg Seltzer Works, frothing the bottles of carbonated water and delivering them throughout Brooklyn. Theirs is the last seltzer factory in New York.
“We’re bottling nostalgia,” he explained to the New York Post. “We still use the bottles from the 1940s and 50s, we still use wooden crates, and we hand deliver them,” he told CityLab.
But the business model had to adapt a little bit. Gomberg says that his family’s company once gained publicity primarily through word of mouth. Today, he says, he has to reach out through email or Facebook to court commercial and residential clients. “We’re the newest old business around,” he adds.
Preserving heritage industries
In a work culture increasingly full of freelance workers, itinerant jobs can help keep industries alive. Take, for instance, the antiquated knife-sharpening truck, cruising neighborhoods to lure home cooks outside brandishing dull utensils. The New York Times waxed poetic about one Brooklyn grinder, Mike Pallotta, in 2006, writing:
For four decades, from the time he was a 5-year-old Brooklyn boy riding beside his father, Mr. Pallotta roamed the neighborhoods of New York in his father's green Chevy truck, sharpening the knives and scissors of homemakers and barbers for whom the arrhythmic clanging of his bell was an essential part of the music of the street.
Fifty years ago, Pallotta said, 20 of his relatives were sharpening knives. He estimated that there were only a half-dozen trucks serving the whole city by 2006.
Old-school products, high-tech delivery
The milkman has, in a way, become a poster child for jobs lost to history. Door-to-door milk delivery goes back to the 1930s, but today they exist mostly in our grandparents’ stories and in black-and-white photos.
At mere cents a bottle, home delivery was a convenient alternative to buying milk at the store. Then, as it got easier to buy groceries at the supermarket, demand for the milkman began to dwindle. In 1963, nearly 30 percent of American consumers had their milk delivered, according to the Department of Agriculture. That dropped to 6.9 percent by 1975 and then to just 0.4 by 2005, The New York Times reported.
Yet that desire to have groceries conveniently delivered to your door persists—and both tech companies and grocery chains have capitalized on the demand. These days, you can buy mayonnaise, coffee, and other essentials with the click of your mouse from services such as Amazon Prime Pantry, Instacart, and Peapod. For those who need a refill the moment they run out of an item, Amazon rolled out its experimental Dash buttons earlier this year.
Peapod, one of the oldest online delivery services, caters to 280,000 customers a year, with volume and sales increasing by about 25 percent annually, according to The Produce News. In its home city of Seattle, Amazon controls 40 percent of online groceries, The Guardian reports. Amazon Prime Pantry is also available in Japan, Germany, and Austria, and the service recently launched in the U.K.
Smaller companies are also tapping the on-demand economy to engage customers. In Ireland, a group of entrepreneurs launched My Milkman, an app through which users can request delivery by a local milkman. In Stamford, Connecticut, Doorbell Barbers—hailed by the local Daily Voice as the “Uber for haircuts”—dispatches barbers to dole out close shaves and trims at offices and senior centers. And, as CityLab has previously reported, the zTailors app can be used nationwide to summon a fix for an ill-fitting garment.
Instead of erasing these industries, the on-demand economy has actually helped their proprietors carve out a new niche for old bottles of seltzer.