Cream of the Crop

Springing from pastoral roots, Byrne Dairy has grown to be a household name in this part of Upstate New York. Now with an aggressive expansion plan in full swing, the homespun convenience chain is adding a robust foodservice platform to the menu.

Mark Byrne, CEO and president of Sonbyrne Sales Inc., watched a customer move to the register to purchase three containers of milk.

Sonbyrne is the retail arm of Byrne Dairy, a fourth-generation family business based in Syracuse, N.Y. Area residents are probably more familiar with its convenience brand: Byrne Dairy Stores.

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This day, the customer was shopping at one of the company’s new prototypes—a 4,400-square-foot store that opened July 2018 in the town of Geddes, near the western border of Syracuse and a short distance from the Great New York State Fairgrounds.

Shifting his gaze to store employees who were busy at the store’s deli counter, Byrne explained the woman represents a typical customer of the convenience chain.

“We’re a destination,” Byrne said. “Some people might drive 10 miles to get our ice cream or our milk products. That’s our biggest advantage: our dairy products. A lot of the schools have our milk, so kids grow up on it. Not to mention, our stores have been around for more than 50 years.”

Whether you are coming off a highway in greater Syracuse, or visiting one of the smaller communities located around the Finger Lakes region, most people can direct you to one of the company’s 59 store locations—many of the newer stores are topped off by striking green roofs, making them appear like farm buildings.

The new stores—the interiors and floor plans are often laid out by the CEO himself—reflect the proud local industry that thrives here. According to the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, agriculture is a crown jewel for the Finger Lakes regional economy in particular. There are nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland in the region, where farmers produce approximately a quarter of New York’s total agricultural output.

Moreover, the stores amplify the partnership that Byrne Dairy enjoys with area farmers. Some of the biggest farms in the region supply milk to the company’s expansive dairy operation. In turn, farm workers frequent Byrne Dairy Store locations to fill up on the various flavors of ice cream made locally, or the meaty sandwiches that are constructed in one if its growing number of delis, or just to pick up a carton of eggs.

Byrne agrees there’s a happy synergy at work.

Perhaps more importantly, this same synergy has made the family business a profitable enterprise. As the chain develops a more robust foodservice model, growth is in the cards.

It appears to be a winning hand. As more c-stores are trying to attract customers to their foodservice and category offerings with buzzwords such as fresh-to-table, eco-friendly and locally-sourced, these same concepts are natural commodities for Byrne Dairy Stores, generating a loyal customer base over the decades.

The result?

“Our foodservice percent of sales is constantly going up,” Byrne said. “We plan on building 10 stores in the next 12 months.”

DAIRY BEGINNINGS

Byrne Dairy is a fourth-generation, family-owned company that has been operating since 1933, when it was founded by Matthew Byrne. With a focus on homegrown quality, the plant started out bottling and delivering milk to New York State families by horse-drawn wagons.

The company is run jointly by Mark Byrne, who oversees the convenience segment, and his brother, Carl Byrne, CEO and president of Byrne Dairy and Byrne Hollow Farm. The company provides dairy products to approximately 9,000 retail customers in 35 states. Expansion has dictated wholesale changes in the last 86 years, including:

  • The first offering of Byrne’s products in a convenience setting happened when the company launched its first convenience store in Central Square, N.Y. in 1954. • Byrne Dairy in 1977 underwent a major expansion of its product line by developing its own line of quality ice creams. This addition would expand the business dramatically—both for the dairy business and on the convenience side.
  • Just 11 years later, in 1988, the company launched an extensive expansion and modernization to meet growing customer demand. The expansion ultimately increased the company’s milk production capabilities by 25%, enabling Byrne to manufacture its own plastic bottles.
  • Byrne Dairy in 2009 invested $28 million to expand its Ultra Dairy plant production as well as its technological capabilities. The expansion included commissioning a new Sidle Precis PET single-serve line for milks and creams with a 140-day shelf code.
  • Just recently, further investment and expansion resulted in the construction of a 75,000-square-foot plan in the town of Cortlandville. This facility is dedicated primarily to the manufacture of Byrne Hollow Farm yogurt and to promoting agri-tourism.
  • Now, with several Byrne family members filling vital roles at the dairy complex, the company recently broke ground on a $24 million expansion of its Ultra Dairy plant.

However, its basic blueprint remains with local suppliers.

“Our Byrne Dairy milk tanker trailers pick up milk from more than 100 local, independent family farms, many of which have sold exclusively to Byrne Dairy for more than 50 years,” said Carl Byrne. “The relationship is based upon quality dairy and trust.”

Today, Byrne dairy makes its own Greek yogurt, conventional yogurt, sour cream, milk, cream products, ice cream and even cheesecake.

DOING DELI

Nearly every full-service Byrne Dairy Store location has a window where customers can walk up in the spring, summer or fall to purchase a hand-dipped cone or another ice cream treat. Considering the company’s organic roots, this seems a natural complement to its operation. Another aspect that required more trial and error has been its expanding foodservice program.

To bring more light on its food offerings, Byrne Dairy created its own deli concept. Today, 44 store locations have been reconfigured to include its deli, offering fresh sandwiches, salads, pizza, wings, hamburgers and other items.

All the meats are locally sourced and Byrne holds suppliers to the highest standards.

“We buy the best quality meats you can buy and we freshly slice them in the store daily, so we don’t buy them prepackaged or pre-cut, which is a much better product,” Byrne said. “One of our typical deli sandwiches have eight ounces of meat. We buy the best. We’re not going to be the cheapest sandwich, but we’re going to be the best.”

The sandwiches are piled high with fixings and meats harvested from local producers. Its deli slogan, “Because It’s Fresh” speaks to customers when they come inside. While the deli concept has taken a foodservice front seat, other offerings remain a driving force when it comes to foodservice sales. Included is bakery offerings. Shelby’s Donuts is another Byrne Dairy creation, with many stores now carrying fresh donuts and cookies made in its Syracuse bakery. Mark Byrne named the bakery and its line of products after his daughter, Shelby, more than 20 years ago.

Ken Cooper, director of foodservice for Byrne Dairy Stores, has been with the company about 12 years. Over that period he and the executive team have ensured that quality is part of the overall operational equation.

“Consistency is our top priority,” Cooper said. “Making sure that every employee gives every customer, whether you are in this location in Lafayette or over across in Rochester, the same exact sandwich, the same slice of pizza—even down to the coffee—so everyone is getting the exact same product.”

To ensure that level of consistency, Byrne Dairy Stores employs retail district managers and foodservice district managers who work in each store to train store managers and employees. Every manager—and even maintenance workers must be ServSafe certified.

ServSafe is a food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the National Restaurant Association.

To further their training methodology, Byrne and his executive team devised the “Mighty Fine Challenge,” a six-month contest to determine the top managers in terms of foodservice and store excellence. It recently honored and awarded several store and foodservice managers with prizes for their participation in the event meant to grow sales, increase gross profits and control labor hours.

Damon Fitzgerald joined Byrne Dairy 10 years as an assistant manager. Now a foodservice manager, he was recently named foodservice manager of the challenge contest. Evaluators looked at his store, which was judged on things such as store cleanliness and other operational areas.

“The biggest challenge in making sure everyone is doing what they should be doing,” Fitzgerald said. Lisa Ward, general manager, was named the top store manager after all the scores were tallied. As the top managers, Fitzgerald and Ward received new Jeeps.

SPACE RACE

As sales have grown and the c-store chain is expanding; plans to grow are ongoing.

Byrne Dairy Stores doesn’t typically buy older locations because of the unique store footprints the retailer often requires to double the cooler and freezer spaces to accommodate its wide array of dairy and ice cream products.

A prominent example is the store at 5829 Route 20, Lafayette, which at 7,000 square feet might be considered a large neighborhood market. Featuring an expansive kitchen, fresh produce, eggs, and of course, dairy products, the store space is larger than a typical Byrne Dairy Store.

There was a grocery store in this town, but it closed, Byrne said. “When we built this, we decided to build it a little bigger.”

Legacy sites are being updated or replaced with refurbished stores, which offer some version of its deli space.

“This past year we closed five stores, but we don’t close very many—that we take out of the market,” Byrne said. “We usually replace a store with a new model, so our business has grown, but not so much our store count. In the stores we replace with a newer model we typically quadruple our inside sales.”

The company is constantly putting money back into its store operations. Not only is the retailer upgrading its stores, it’s tweaking customer-service programs including a revised company app and loyalty program. One program that’s popular is the Byrne Dairy Debit Pay, which works like a debit card. Whether you’re in the store or at the pump, the card is securely linked to a customer’s checking account and payments are automatically deducted with no fees.