Dairy Town: Two New Bern companies — Maola and Cow Cafe — carry on the eastern North Carolina dairy tradition

By CHRISTINA COOKE
Our State magazine
June 2014

Photo by Millie Holloman Photography

Mildred ice cream

“We speak cow language here,” says Mildred Green, also known as Mrs. Moo, sitting on a cow-patterned chair in front of a black-spotted freezer containing buckets of ice cream with names like Moonilla, Peanut Udder Cup and Gooey Cowphooey.

After long careers in dairy, Mildred and her husband Jim, 63 and 70 respectively, opened Cow Café on Middle Street in downtown New Bern in 2004. The shop offers 20 flavors of ice cream made in five gallon batches on the premises, plus an array of food items like “gourmoo wraps,” “cowsadillas” and “chicken cordon moo.”

On a warm Friday morning, a line of mothers and children stretches past the life-sized heifer in the front window and toward the glass cabinet of porcelain cow figurines by the front door. Kids peer into the ice cream freezers, trying to decide between chocolate and fruit and the blue kind with M&M’s, and the two employees behind the counter scoop and pack and exchange frozen treats for dollar bills.

Seated around a table in the back, Durward and Judy Small and their daughter Tracy finish their Udder Pecan waffle cones. Every week for the last seven years, the Smalls have driven an hour and 20 minutes round-trip from Kinston specifically to patronize Cow Café.

“They’ve got the best ice cream in the state,” Durward says. “And they’re the nicest people down here.”

Cow Café has roots in New Bern’s long and venerable dairy tradition, which dates back to 1935, when Maola Milk and Ice Cream Company opened its doors on the north side of town.

Mildred herself worked at Maola for 34 years, starting with a data processing job straight out of high school. Over the years, she worked numerous positions — at human resources, sales and marketing, even publishing a company newsletter called “The Maola Moos” — before becoming executive vice president in the early ’90s, a post she held alongside her husband, the vice president and general manager.

Mildred established the original Cow Café in 1994 on the factory premises. Also bearing Holstein spots and cow language, the shop sold Maola ice cream and cow souvenirs and was a hit among the neighborhood kids, who would flock to it during summers and after school.

The dairy industry in Eastern North Carolina has changed dramatically since then, however: dairy farms have all but disappeared from the coastal plains, and Maola, once the last independent dairy processor in North Carolina, was purchased by an out-of-state co-op in 2003.

After the sale, the Greens retired and Cow Café closed.

The following year, though, the couple re-opened the establishment on their own — this time downtown — with an expanded menu in a space four times as big.

“Once you work at a dairy, its part of you forever,” Mildred says, before standing up to greet the busload of senior citizens entering the shop. “Cow Cafe provides us opportunities to stay connected.”

“Hello folks! How you doin’?” she says, pulling out a chair for one of the women and helping her to her seat. “So glad to have ya’ll!”

***

Follow North Craven Street upstream along the Neuse River, and you’ll pass a Salvation Army and several vacant lots before reaching a cluster of low-slung white buildings surrounded by meticulously manicured bushes. Refrigerated trucks bearing the Maola logo — looping white script over a sideways red oval — rumble in and out of the parking lot on the river side of the property. Here, for the last 79 years, milk has been trucked in from dairy farms, processed into various products and tested for quality multiple times, and trucked out to schools, hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants across the state.

Harvey Barnes founded Maola in New Bern in 1935, purchasing it from a man named F.E. Mayo, who owned a Coke bottling plant and named the dairy by combining his last name, “Mayo,” with the name “Coca-Cola.”

When the company first started, five employees ran the operation out of a single building, delivering ice cream on two trucks they refrigerated by packing ice around the sides. Over the next six decades, Maola multiplied in size and capacity. By the early 2000s, the company employed around 500 people in New Bern and at distribution centers throughout the state, and it processed more than 80,000 gallons of milk a day and 1.5 million gallons of ice cream a year.

Maola treated its employees extremely well, Mildred says. In 1952, the company established a profit-sharing plan that distributed among employees a portion of the profits. Later, it offered stock options granting part ownership to employees who bought in. A Maola newspaper ad from ’91 pictures an employee named Dennis Moore wearing a hair net and standing, hands on hips, in front of a milk-processing machine. “Dennis acts like he owns the place,” the caption reads. “He does.”

Mildred fondly remembers the company’s community-building efforts, like an annual event called Family Fun Fest. Held in the field near the factory, managers would subject themselves to a dunk tank, employees would participate in a talent show, and different departments would square off in a softball tournament. “It was a very family-oriented, team-spirited organization,” Mildred says.

New Bern residents like Jean Boyd also have fond memories of Maola during its early years too. In the 1950s, Boyd remembers, the Maola milkman would stop by her house twice a week to swap the empty glass milk bottles with money tucked inside them for fresh bottles full of milk. “If you wanted cream,” she says, “you’d leave a note — “Some cream, please” — and he’d leave you cream.”

Though Maola had stopped milk delivery by the time she was raising her family, Boyd remained a loyal Maola customer. “I have four healthy children because of Maola milk,” she says. “Maola has been an important part of our community. It’s been a big part of New Bern.”  

***

Times have changed in the dairy industry since Maola’s founding, however. For one thing, dairy cows have all but disappeared from the eastern North Carolina landscape.

Although Craven County boasted around 15 dairy farms in the 1950s, most of them had shut down by 1960, according to Julia McCoy Bircher, whose father Woodrow founded McCoy Dairy 15 miles west of New Bern in 1947. Starting with 12 cows and growing to 115, McCoy Dairy supplied Maola with milk from 1950 to when it closed in ’93.

Julia says dairy farming — a grueling 15-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week occupation — proved too much for many of the small operations in the area. “Our dad never missed one morning or evening milking in 10 years,” she says. “No matter where we went, we were back by 4:30 in the afternoon.”

Her husband Jack, who worked the farm for a decade, says aside from the workload, a few other factors contributed to the disappearance of independent dairy farms across eastern North Carolina. Many farmers found growing corn and beans a more profitable use of land than raising pastures for cows. Additionally, most small operations could not afford to keep up as federal regulations became stricter and as larger operations began to automate, then consolidate.

These days, Jack says, small farms don’t have a chance unless they live in an area affluent enough to support a specialty product. “We’re a global economy now,” he says, “and that’s one of the reasons there are no more dairies in Eastern North Carolina.”

The dairy processing industry followed a similar path. By the early 2000s, all the independent dairy processors in Eastern North Carolina — Pine State Creamery, Coble Dairy, Carolina Dairy included — had either been purchased by larger companies or gone out of business.

In 2003, Maola, too, decided to sell.

“We realized the industry was changing,” says Mildred, who was among the decision-makers. “We were up against very large dairies, and we were a smaller dairy. We could see the future being fierce competition.”

As a buyer, Maola leaders settled on Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, a Virginia-based marketing cooperative owned and operated by more than 1,500 dairy farmers from Pennsylvania to Alabama. They felt the co-op had “the same kind of philosophy as we did,” Mildred says, “being a good business but also being a good employer and community member.”

Maola today employs more than 400 people in New Bern and at 13 distribution centers across the southeast. Receiving milk from dairies across the Mid-Atlantic, it continues to process and distribute dairy products like milk, whipping cream and half and half, though it no longer makes ice cream at the New Bern plant.

Kevin Roberts, president and CEO of the New Bern Area Chamber of Commerce, describes post-acquisition Maola as a “good corporate citizen,” always willing to supply milk and ice cream products during events held by the chamber or library or various nonprofits. “Maola helps us when we ask them,” Roberts says. “They’re quite a bit more advanced than they were in the past, but through it all, it’s just been Maola; they’re up the street, and if we need them, we call them.”

***

In a tiled room with glass windows near the back of the Cow Cafe, employee Dunja Vukicevic mixes a batch of Gooey Cowphooey, a chocolate ice cream flavor packed with caramel and chocolate chunks.

After the base containing cream and sugar, which they procure from a company in Massachusetts, has cooled to 20 degrees in a large metal machine called a batch freezer, Vukicevic uses a long-necked spoon to stir in the caramel and chocolate goodies.

Four times a week during summer and up to twice a week during winter, cafe employees mix the shop’s flavors using detailed recipes, about 15 five-gallon batches at a time.

“We know, just from being in the business for a long time, who makes the best ingredients,” Jim Green says. “Heath Bar pieces are Heath Bar pieces, but if you’re going to make mint chocolate chip, the best mint on the planet comes from Italy,” he says. “We buy our mint from Italy.”

Also, while the USDA requires that ice cream contain at least 10 percent milk fat, Cow Café’s product boasts 16 percent, putting it on par with brands like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s.

“Most commercial dairies make 10 percent — it’s legal, they can call it ‘ice cream,’ and it’s as inexpensive as they can make it,” Jim says. “When you get into 16 percent, you’re into really premium ice cream — and it’s low calorie, of course,” he adds, laughing.

Once the tub is full with the treats mixed in, Vukicevic places it into the hardening freezer, which will drop it to 0 degrees over four hours. (The longer it takes to harden, the more ice crystals form, and the poorer the quality, Green explains. Many companies take 12 to 18 hours to harden their product.)

“We try to price it as reasonably as we can,” Jim says, “but our object is to make the best ice cream we know how to make.”

During its ten years in business, Cow Café has become a beloved fixture in New Bern’s historic downtown. As the Greens and their employees serve up MooBerry Mousse and Cowpuccino Fudge mixed by hand just 10 steps away, they reconnect their customers to a time when dairy farms dotted the eastern Carolina landscape, and when frozen desserts were made in town by people they knew.

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