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Milk money

Perry Rodocker, 34, has been a delivery man half his life. He's hauled bread, doughnuts, lumber and beef.

But there's something special about being a milkman, he says. Maybe it's the nostalgia, the reward of being part of a tradition that's as wholesome as milk itself.

Or maybe his love of the milk business comes from his customers _ like John Delaney, the 90-year-old St. Petersburg man who has had milk delivered to his home since the 1930s. And there's 92-year-old Marie Pagano of South Pasadena, who tells Rodocker he's "better than a son."

"There's a lot more to being a milkman than delivering milk," said Rodocker, a milkman and one of the owners of Suncoast Home Delivery Inc. in St. Petersburg. Suncoast delivers bread, juice and milk products in Pinellas, Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties.

"I get to see people _ I get to be part of their lives."

The company has serviced Tampa Bay since 1923, when it had 23 routes and dozens of competitors. Today, the business is apparently the last home milk deliverer in Florida, with just four routes and 1,300 customers.

Over the years, a succession of owners has tried to make the milk delivery business survive. Suncoast was scheduled to close last month until Rodocker and four co-workers pooled their money to buy the business from Velda Farms Inc. of Miami.

These newest owners think they have found a way to make milk delivery profitable in an age of convenience stores and 24-hour groceries _ even if it means alienating the customer base that has kept the business alive for years.

Gear the service toward two-income families with multiple children and no spare time, the new owners say. And don't waste time and gas delivering to people who order only a few products each week.

To reach its goal, Suncoast has started a weekly minimum delivery order of $7 for new customers.

Like any company that revamps its marketing strategy, Suncoast's plan carries a risk. The company is sacrificing the old and familiar for something new, yet uncertain.

The familiar is Suncoast's loyal customer base _ elderly people. They make up about 65 percent of the company's business and enjoy their milkman's visits, but seldom buy $7 of Suncoast products each week.

"A lot of these people I go to are shut-ins, and they may not hear from their relatives in months," Rodocker said. "But I want them to know that I'm there for them."

Take John Delaney, the 90-year-old man who has been a milk delivery customer for 60 years. He still places his metal milk box on the front porch each Wednesday morning.

But most weeks, the box goes unused. Instead, Delaney greets the milkman at the door.

"I like this guy," Rodocker said, rounding the corner in his refrigerated Ford truck and stopping in front of Delaney's home. "He always has his box out, but he likes it better when I knock and say hi."

On a recent Wednesday, Delaney answered the door in his shorts and socks, thanking Rodocker for the milk order _ two half-gallons of homogenized whole milk, as always. Delaney's weekly order totals $3.70, short of the new $7 minimum.

Suncoast will continue deliveries to some of its most loyal customers, like Delaney, even if they don't meet the minimum. The company is choosing which low-volume customers to keep based on the customer's relationship with the service and how far Suncoast must drive to make the delivery.

Historically, the milk deliverers have gone blocks out of their way to deliver one quart of milk. But those days are over, the owners say.

The company's new owners admit this is a risky tactic but a necessary one. Cutting off a faithful customer base can be dangerous, especially when you're uncertain whether new customers can be found.

A strategy to survive

Jim Miller has heard this tune before. Same song, different lyrics.

As an agricultural economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dairy Division, Miller knows what has happened to milkmen.

Home milk delivery found itself struggling in the 1960s, Miller said, as most families shifted from milk on the doorsteps to milk on the grocery shelves.

Pick a theory for why it happened, he said _ more women began working outside the home, grocery stores became more popular and convenience stores competed for the milkman's business.

Whatever the reason, most dairies closed their home delivery operations. In 1963, 30 percent of the milk sold in the United States came from milkmen, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. By 1993, home milk deliverers held only 1 percent of the sales.

A few operations survived as independent companies. But like Suncoast Home Delivery, the businesses relied on older customers, who order relatively few products.

Without family customers, milk delivery companies suffered. Since much of a milkman's operating cost is tied up in gas and truck maintenance, the cost of stopping at a low-volume customer's home is often more than that customer's order.

"These were the customers that killed milk delivery in many places," Miller said.

The $7 minimum order is a smart move for a milk deliverer trying to target families, Miller said. But convincing parents of milk-guzzling kids to sign up for milk delivery will be the most difficult challenge.

"If somehow you could arrange a route so you had all the large families on the street as your customers, you could have a profitable route," he said. "The problem is, those families tend to be the ones who want to save a couple pennies by hauling it home from the grocery."

Prices vary, but generally Suncoast's prices are higher than those at local grocery stores but less than prices at some convenience stores. A price check in St. Petersburg last week showed that customers paid $1.41 for a half-gallon of milk at Publix, $1.59 at 7-Eleven, $1.85 through Suncoast and $1.99 at an Amoco station.

Still, Suncoast's Rodocker said his service is cheaper in the long run.

"Have you ever heard of the $40 quart of milk?" he asked. "That's when you go into the grocery store to buy a quart of milk, you pick up some other items, and by the time you're through the checkout you've spent $35 or $40."

Will Suncoast Home Delivery make it?

If enthusiasm makes money, it will. But time will tell whether families in the Tampa Bay area find home delivery as convenient as Suncoast thinks they will.

For now, Suncoast deliverers run their four routes in 20-year-old milk trucks that bear the name of a previous owner. But they have big plans for their small operation.

Once the business is off the ground, Rodocker said, Suncoast hopes to have newer, bigger, better trucks. Sixteen new routes. Beepers for the drivers, a line of frozen foods for the customers and an updated advertising campaign. And someday, maybe even cellular phones.

Newer, bigger, better.

Sound optimistic? Mike Finnerty, another company milkman and co-owner, prefers to call it "lofty ambition."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Milk money

To order delivery or to get a price list, Suncoast Home Delivery's phone number is 823-7374.

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