A 19th century work ethic with an Instagram account: a Buffalo milkman rides again

It had been more than a year since the truck had made him a living. Hellert was retired from his decades-long job as a milkman. He made what he’d thought was his last delivery on December 29, 2018, retiring as the last milkman in the Buffalo, New York, area.

But that was before Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, made it so that grocery shopping was a fraught enterprise, with many Buffalo-area residents unable or afraid to walk down supermarket aisles and risk catching the potentially lethal virus.

Speaking to CNN on Thursday while sifting through a stack of papers with milk and grocery orders, Hellert recalled his decision to go back to work.

“If ever there’s a time to retire from retirement, it’s now,” Hellert recalled thinking to himself. “You could help a lot of people.”

Hellert may have retired, but he hadn’t yet taken down the website for his company, Hillside Dairy of Akron, a small village outside of Buffalo. As the virus started to spread across Erie County, Hellert said he started getting emails from people who had found his old website, asking if he still delivered.

“At the beginning of this, I was getting two-to-three inquiries a day,” Hellert said. That quickly became eight or more inquiries a day.

“I looked at my wife, I said, ‘Well, I’m still physically well enough, I still have the truck,” he said.

“She looked at me kind of ugly and said, ‘You’ve already made up your mind,'” he recalled with a laugh.

He decided to start up the old truck and mentioned his decision to a local reporter at the Buffalo News. He had 1,158 customers sign up within three days’ time.

“I’m one old milkman — at 65, almost — with a 20 year-old-truck,” he said.

And after just one day of deliveries, the truck wouldn’t run. The diesel engine’s high-pressure oil pump had failed.

Hellert said his future daughter-in-law lent him money from her upcoming wedding budget to cover the cost of the tow, and the garage, to which he’s been taking the truck for years, repaired the engine on credit.

With the help of his community, the milkman was back on the road.

“The ‘We’re all in it together’ thing sounds trite,” he said Thursday. “But we are all in it together.”

1,400 orders in two weeks

To that end, Hellert said, restarting his business has truly been a community effort. Two business partners soon volunteered four additional trucks and drivers between them to supplement Hellert’s vehicle. A young friend runs his Instagram account, where one can find press clippings along with photos of Hellert and his truck.

Hellert said he had 60 regular customers when he retired. Since reopening, Hillside received some 1,400 orders in two weeks.

“It was like a tornado going around my head,” he said with a laugh.

He’s still trying to find his footing, sometimes falling a few days behind on orders, but he said the response from the community has been largely positive.

He said one customer sent him a note that read, “Thank you very much for doing this.” Attached was a $100 check.

“It’s just been so gratifying,” Hellert said. “We’ll drive down the street and people will wave and give a thumbs-up.”

At a time when people are encouraged to stay at home and limit their social contact, Hellert acknowledges he’s providing something beyond milk and groceries.

“The people who are shut in are so happy to see someone coming to their door,” he said. “It’s really heartwarming.”

“It’s the personal touch, the service you don’t get from an order on Amazon,” he continued. “They’re getting a taste of the 19th century work ethic.”

On Thursday, however, Hellert said he was trying to embrace more of the 21st century. Speaking by phone, he said he was sitting before a “mountain of papers” as he sifted through the past three weeks of work.

“We wrapped up our last deliveries yesterday,” he said, adding that his payments had just cleared PayPal and made it to his account.

“We’re redoing the computer system, getting re-situated, we’ll start new orders on Wednesday.”

Hellert said he wants to focus on delivering local milk, eggs, syrup and bread, and says he plans to continue making deliveries.

“For how long,” he said, “I don’t know.”

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