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McDonald's soft serve in Florida is made with handshakes and happy cows

Calves play with a rubber toy at the Milking R Dairy in Okeechobee, FL. Owners Sutton Rucks, Jr., and his wife Kris Rucks sell their milk to SouthEast Dairies cooperative, Edward Coryn of Dairy Mix in St. Petersburg buys it, transforms it into soft-serve ice cream base, and sells it to all the McDonald's. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Calves play with a rubber toy at the Milking R Dairy in Okeechobee, FL. Owners Sutton Rucks, Jr., and his wife Kris Rucks sell their milk to SouthEast Dairies cooperative, Edward Coryn of Dairy Mix in St. Petersburg buys it, transforms it into soft-serve ice cream base, and sells it to all the McDonald's. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Oct. 20, 2017

Floridians licked nine million McDonald's vanilla cones last year.

All those swirled, reduced-fat soft serves. All those drips caught just as they roll down the side of the cone's paper sleeve. All those car seats in receipt of the ones that escaped.

Those who saw the 2016 Michael Keaton film The Founder about McDonald's entrepreneur Ray Kroc have a vague idea that the multi-billion-dollar empire's success was about switching from real ice cream to something called INST-A-MIX, a space-age product like Tang.

Not true, at least not in Florida. In this era when fast-food restaurants are deft contortionists trying to convince us their products are wholesome, traceable, sustainable and — the ultimate buzzword — local, these vanilla cones are precisely that.

The milk McDonald's serves in Florida restaurants, and almost all the dairy in McDonald's vanilla soft serve, comes from Florida family farms. That milk goes to a cooperative. Then it goes to Dairy Mix, a St. Petersburg company that turns it into soft serve bases. Dairy Mix sells it to Florida McDonald's, plus Wendy's, Dairy Queen and independent mom-and-pops.

Little Dairy Mix struck the deal with McDonald's in 1958, strictly a handshake thing. That's 59 years of cones. And there's never been a contract, just a hope that it keeps working for everyone.

• • •

McDonald's cones start with cosseted cows.

One stands off to the side, looking a little lost as her colleagues are milked, a guy wiping each teat with a shammy before hooking them up two at a time to stainless steel cups.

"She didn't look right, so we kept her out of the milking," farmer Sutton Rucks says. When pressed on precisely what didn't look right, he says she looks off her game, "a little depressed." They'll have her tested before she's back in the lineup. It isn't just bovine telepathy: Each of the 1,500 dairy cows at Milking R Dairy Farm near Lake Okeechobee wears a neck monitor, a cow Fitbit that lets farm workers know if they've been laying too long, ruminating, in estrus.

Sutton Rucks and his wife, Kris, must be doing something right. In 2014 they won Florida's Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award, recognizing operations leading environmentally innovative farming practices. All waste from the free-stall barns goes to a three-stage lagoon system they've devised for recycling.

Hurricane Irma shredded a few bits of corrugated tin roofing, but otherwise Milking R Dairy Farm is idyllic, animals grouped by weight and age in a huge open calf barn. They chase each other and bat at red rubber balls on long strings. Each calf has a radio frequency identification tag that releases food for individual feeding plans. If a cow is piggy and tries for extra, the feeder gives it the cold shoulder. Adult milking cows get a mix of citrus pulp, dried grasses, ground corn and more, plus ground up cookies from a "bakery bin."

It's quaint, but high-tech: Milk is tested weekly and every year liver biopsies analyze whether there's an excess of anything in their feed.

"There are 100 dairy farms left in Florida, and 98 of them, their number is in my cell phone," Sutton Rucks says. He started milking in 1986 and his first big open-sided barn was built in 2004 to bring the cows out of the sun and reduce animal stress.

While there are about 125,000 cows in Florida and that number hasn't changed much, the cows and dairy equipment have changed hands — in many families the next generation is not interested in being in the family business. If more Florida dairies throw in the towel, seduced by high real estate payouts and easier work, Rucks says, the state will run a milk deficit.

Dairies have always been a regional product, servicing adjacent communities. The first dairies in the state were in the Dade County area because that's where the most humans were. Not so anymore.

"The laws of economics have milk driving all over the country these days," Rucks says, as a line of just-milked cows ambles by.

Big companies like McDonald's are helping keep family-owned dairies alive, and in turn those dairies are helping the Golden Arches' narrative. In the food business, your story is everything.

• • •

McDonald's is coming off a rough patch.

"To deliver sustained growth, we have to attract more customers, more often," McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook told investors in March. There have been wobbles in menu innovation — higher-priced sandwiches, fancy coffees to compete with Starbucks, health-conscious dishes and even kale. There has been a push toward sustainable sourcing, and they've committed to all cage-free eggs by 2025.

They have had to address customers' enthusiasm for "farm-to-table" and "local." With 35,000 outlets in 119 countries, sourcing locally is largely a pipe dream. Dairy is one of the exceptions, but as with all things it's about the bottom line. That handshake with Dairy Mix can be unshook when it doesn't suit the world's largest fast-food chain.

Wendy Uhls is a quality manager for dairy at McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. Yogurt, butter, fluid dairy and cheese, aerosol whipped cream — 85 percent of McDonald's menu items contain some dairy.

She manages 19 suppliers nationally. She spends her days talking about best practices and food safety. But today she is squatting in the calf barn while one calf wriggles its neck through the bars to give her a lick. Affection or hunger, who knows, but Uhls is happy to be out of the office and meeting with suppliers like Dairy Mix's Ed Coryn.

• • •

The book makes a low thud, as if the weight of three generations of dreams has lent extra density. Its pages are tea-yellow, its leather cover a lattice of silver duct tape.

"It's the bible," Coryn, 70, says from behind the desk, his gossamer hairnet like the nimbus in a Renaissance painting. "The Theory and Practice of Ice Cream Making."

His dad, Anthony Coryn, went to the Naval Academy but wore glasses so couldn't go to combat. He wanted to go into business for himself, flipped a coin: Heads it was Florida, tails it was California.

Heads. He borrowed money and bought Evans Brothers Creamery at 2150 First Ave S in St. Petersburg. Ed unfolds the oft-folded bill of sale. The year is 1948.

Anthony Coryn made his ice cream mix all day, then ran the soft-serve counter at Sno-Peak past Tangerine Avenue, the drive-up restaurant across the street from the Manhattan Casino in the segregated city. He finished his second job at 10 p.m., walked to the Cactus Bar with the evening's cash box, drank one beer and went home.

Dairy Mix added the silo alley in the late 1980s, an expansion with the warehouse and cooler in 1999. These days, tankers pull up as early as 4 a.m. and get hooked up to the pump, milk filtered before it heads inside for homogenization, pasteurization and mixing. There's a 10,000-gallon tank of liquid sucrose made from Clewiston sugar cane. There's a 6,000-gallon tank of corn syrup from Iowa (Florida doesn't have much corn).

Sixteen percent butterfat is super premium ice cream, above ten it's considered ice cream, 9.8 or lower it's soft serve. Dairy Mix does it all. The proprietary formulas are all in the computer. We watch the birth of 9,200 pounds of Wendy's Frosty.

Anthony Coryn lived into his 90s, visiting the factory frequently. Ed's thinking he may get hit by a train, or maybe die in a plane crash, but he's not thinking of retiring. The next generation is in place at Dairy Mix; Ed's nephew Robert Rouse, 28, heads up business development. Where once it was all ten-gallon milk cans, now it's pallets of LiquiBags, a lab with a Foss MilkoScan machine and trucks heading out to 900 McDonald's.

Ed Coryn comes on a tour of Miking R Dairy farm with McDonald's executives and franchisees. They observe the production of some of the day's 11,500 gallons of milk, tour the tanks where the milk is chilled as well as the lagoon system, frequently a magnet for hundreds of trilling sandhill cranes.

And after lunch at the Rucks' house, deli sandwiches and chips, they wait for the soft-serve machine to hum to life, one of Ed Coryn's LiquiBags poured into the top. They pull the lever and the soft serve swirls into cake cones. And everyone is happy.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.