Beloved Milk Pail Market Returns as a Pop-up

Kai Rasmussen loads up a car with a bag of food on May 16, 2020.  (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered many small businesses, but in a rare positive tale, one merchant is making a come back in a slightly different form.

The Milk Pail Market began in the early '70s as a drive-thru dairy. During its 45 years in business, the Mountain View family business morphed from drive-thru dairy to a walk-in specialty food shop. In June of 2019, after years of toughing it out on a rapidly changing San Antonio Road, the market closed its doors.

Then COVID-19 came. Since the shelter-in-place orders, the Milk Pail Market has opened back up — in pop-up form. It’s finding new life by going back to its roots as a drive-thru, from a warehouse around the corner from its San Antonio Road location. Customers order ahead, and can drive-thru and pick up a produce bag or an essential box of groceries (curated by theme) and a few add-ons like frozen croissants.

The Milk Pail’s rebirth goes beyond its convenient drive-thru architecture. The neighborhood landmark leveraged its long ties with a community food service providers to fix a food distribution system that hasn’t worked during the shutdown.

“We can work with the vendors so that they're not stuck with product that they otherwise would have to throw away due to expiration,” said Kai Rasmussen, 26-year-old daughter of Milk Pail owner Steve Rasmussen. “Being part of the ecosystem is really important — to keep things moving.”

Sponsored

Kai is now running the current version of the Milk Pail revival — continuing in her father's footsteps.

Vendors aid the Rasmussen's business with supplies originally intended for restaurants and grocery stores. After restaurants shut their doors, many were stuck with bulk items that would normally be sold to restaurants.

But rerouting that food to the Milk Pail took some planning and knowledge. Rasmussen has been reading about food systems and is taking the Edible Schoolyard class at UC Berkeley. Her experience working at the Milk Pail market also gave her a better understanding of how small businesses operate.

“It all just clicked,” Rasmussen said.

In March, Rasmussen sent out a survey to her email list of customers. In less than eight hours, she received 1,800 responses — nearly all expressed enthusiastic excitement for the Milk Pail's revival.

During the pandemic, buying groceries and essential food items has taken on a whole new level of importance for everyone.

Meal kits have reportedly surged during stay-at-home orders and community-supported agriculture boxes have also seen a boost.

Broader questions concerning food and groceries remain: Should you shop at Whole Foods despite reports of workers diagnosed with COVID-19? Should you order local food to support the restaurant industry or buy grocery items delivered via Instacart or Amazon? Or, should you sign up for community-supported agriculture or a meal kit like Blue Apron or Sun Basket, or just brave the grocery store yourself?

Addressing those fears in its own unique way, the Milk Pail pop-up is providing a hybrid option including themed boxes, like they did on May 16 with all the ingredients you'd need for a homemade pizza, or the option of a community-supported agriculture-style produce bag.

The team at the Milk Pail Market pop-up drive-thru is ready to place items into cars. (Courtesy of Kai Rasmussen)

Milk Pail started their first week with 200 "essential" boxes.

“It's been very liberating, I think, to not be confined to the store,” Rasmussen said.

Milk Pail Market closed their brick-and-mortar location in June 2019. The green awning building still stands, now surrounded by development at the San Antonio Road location, nearby the current pop-up grocery pickup in Mountain View. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

Kai Rasmussen credits her father Steve with building the community through his “quirky personality and knack for interacting with all kinds of people.” Kai said her father is willing to try anything — and to think outside of the box. Steve Rasmussen would often bring people together to try new foods. “He just instilled in the business this completely new way of bringing food into people's lives,” Kai said.

“My dad was also very active in spreading the word on cheese and kind of bringing the passion of cheese to the people," Kai said.

Photos of the Milk Pail Market drive-thru around 1975. (Courtesy of Kai Rasmussen)

Technically, the Milk Pail Market on the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street was actually the second one. The original location, in Castro Valley, had dairy processing in Hayward. Steve’s father immigrated from Denmark, and in his new home he continued the family business of processing and manufacturing dairy products.

“I definitely have a different perspective on food I think, than he does,” Kai Rasmussen said. Her current version of the drive-thru is not the same as the '70s version, because times have changed, she said. But, “We've maybe not even come that far in terms of thinking about new ways to get food.”

“Who knows, maybe there'll be some variation on this in the future. Another 45 years from now,” Kai added.

Contents of an essentials box from Milk Pail Market's pop-up drive-thru on May 16, 2020. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

“That sense of community is still so strong,” and orders have doubled since they began. The Milk Pail is an example of a small business that is part of a network larger than themselves — providing food to customers through connections to vendors, who themselves have connections to independent producers.

For now, they’ll keep doing the pop-up, and Kai Rasmussen says they might experiment with pop-ups in different locations as well. Though she’s not sure what the future will hold, Kai said she’s “optimistic that this model can actually survive — even post-pandemic.”

Sponsored

For those interested in ordering, the shop opens Tuesday at noon for orders, and pickup is on Saturdays.