The crowd is equal parts giggly and apprehensive, lined up in the straw in front of Bones, the cow. It is the last stop on the tour and everyone will get a chance to sidle up to Bones, grab a teat and squeeze, with the hopeful result a warm squirt of cow’s milk.
Shyly, the kids, most of whom are in preschool or the early grades, walk up to the looming bovine and get encouraging instruction from herdsman Drew Bubulka, who is careful to keep Bones’ rear end — the kicking end — facing away.
But there doesn’t seem to be any danger. Bones (named for a television show) got her job as tour cow at the Shatto Milk Co. farm because she’s one of the most docile and well-socialized farm residents — a cow among cows.
Clearly the dairy tour is a hit with children and adults, who also have a chance to taste several flavored milks, and stick their thumbs into the pulsating suction ends of the milking pumps. Abby Gondringer, 4, proudly exclaims that milking the cow was her favorite part of the tour. “And she was good at it,” added her mom, Melissa Gondringer, of Trenton, Mo.
The tours are but one aspect of a local business phenomenon that has been successful beyond its founders’ dreams. Once an unremarkable dairy farm north of Kansas City near Osborn, Mo., Shatto Milk Co. has become part of a lifestyle choice for its ardently loyal customer base.
Some 130,000 of them a year drive for miles on the rural two-lanes to visit the cows and country store. They’ll come out to spend the day at the June open house and they’ll sign up for home milk delivery, even though it isn’t yet available in all areas of the metro area.
“We are so thankful and so lucky to have such a wonderful following of customers,” said Matt Shatto of Olathe, vice president of the family-run business. “We didn’t know what agritourism would do for our business but it has proven to really connect our customers with us and our brand. People take great pride in the relationship and we rely on our customers a lot to guide our business decisions.”
The glass-bottled Shatto Milk, once found on only select grocers’ shelves, is everywhere now. Not only is there milk in a rainbow of flavors and bottle sizes, but the company now also offers cream, cheese curds, flavored butters, fruit punch, tea and lemonade. Shatto’s products pop up everywhere: in booths at the end of a fun run, in the latte at a local coffee shop and in milk stout floats — where the company’s ice cream was used in the promotion of a local brewery.
The dairy produced a blue vanilla special flavor when the Royals won the World Series, and the occasional return of such flavors as chocolate peanut butter milk routinely makes television news.
Along the way, the company has picked up a fan base that could be the envy of some cults.
Some, like Lexi Welch and Robert Lobosco of Overland Park, want the opportunity to make a connection with a product they already know. “I just love cows, and he drinks Shatto milk,” said Welch, who was on the tour.
Others want more. The Shatto Facebook page has more than 54,500 likes, and more than 490 reviews with commenters enthusing about the flavors and cajoling the company to start new delivery routes and bring their products to more stores.
One commenter criticized the dairy for not charging enough or making enough of the popular flavors. Another asked if the company would ever sell in Arkansas (it won’t, barring a huge change in marketing philosophy).
But that’s nothing, says Matt Shatto. Once, when word got out of problems with one of the barns, the Shattos found themselves answering calls from customers offering to come out and help with any rebuilding that might be necessary.
“How awesome is it to have customers that care and truly want to be part of what you’re doing?” he said.
What is it about Shatto that draws people to spend time among dairy cows at a small bottling plant in rural Missouri? Or to offer to pitch in and build a barn, for that matter?
Matt Shatto thinks it comes down to two basic things: Outstanding customer service and transparency about how the product is made. Having the tours and making the dairy open to the public is not just a way to ride the agritourism wave that has been popular the past few years, Shatto said. It’s a chance to educate.
“They can see exactly how we do everything and meet the cows that produce the milk we sell,” he said.
Shatto remembers one of the company’s first deliveries to a grocery store, where a young employee was stocking dairy products. The worker complimented Shatto on the chocolate milk and then asked, “Where do you get your chocolate cows?”
He didn’t seem like he was kidding, Shatto said. The aim of the tours is to tie the reality of farm life with the dairy purchase.
The grocery store can seem removed from the effort that goes into making the food on the shelves, he said.
“It’s also about educating the customer that there’s more to getting milk to the grocery store shelf than taking a liquid, putting it in a bottle and sending it on a truck,” he said. “We want them to know the back story.”
The back-story for Shatto farms began three generations ago, in the late 1800s. That was the beginning of the family farm north of Kansas City. In 1972, Barb and Leroy Shatto joined in the farm management done by Barb’s father, Ivan Cox. They still live and work at the farm today: Leroy Shatto is the president and CEO.
Their son, who runs the home delivery operation, moved to Olathe and spent time in other unrelated business before coming back into the family business. He makes the hour and 15 minute drive to Osborn just about every day.
For most of the 20th century, the family farm operated under the same business model used by dairies everywhere, Matt Shatto said. Cows were milked; the milk was pumped into a tanker and sent off to a processing plant.
“I think our milk used to go to make Cheez-Its up in Wisconsin or something,” he said.
But things were changing for family farms, and in the 1990s, a crisis developed. Milk prices decreased. Feed prices increased.
“It doesn’t take a genius to realize when your costs outpace your revenues, it’s not a good thing,” Shatto said. “That’s when we started thinking about what we were going to do. Were we going to fold up shop and have everybody get a job in the city, or were we going to do something new?”
Barb Shatto said the family was fearful about the future.
“We were not making any money milking cows. Hay and feed were very high and the middleman was taking all the money,” she said.
So in 2003, the Shattos became their own middleman, developing the flavors, bottling the milk and marketing it to stores no farther than about 100 miles away.
The family made one other decision that turned out to be crucial to the company’s success: They decided to sell their milk in glass bottles.
“We knew we couldn’t compete with the big guys in the industry with plastic bottles,” Matt Shatto said. And glass bottles weren’t just a novelty. They offered a message that resonated on several levels with the customers they sought.
“The product we wanted to offer was reminiscent of more simple times,” Matt Shatto said. “We were focused on genuine, high-quality products like back in the day in the ’50s, when the milkman would come door to door.”
There are also practical reasons the family went with glass, he said. Glass keeps the milk colder, does not impart a foreign odor or taste and can be recycled or reused.
That glass bottle reinforced the message of a pure, fresh product, he said.
In addition, Shatto limits its delivery area, taking milk only to stores it can deliver to within 12 hours of the cows being milked. In the metro area, the milk can be found as far south as 151st Street, as far west as western Lenexa and Shawnee, east to Blue Springs and north to Kearney and St. Joseph.
The freshness is one of Shatto’s main selling points, he said. When the Shattos were a traditional dairy, milk was picked up every other day and then went to the processor, where it spent an unknown amount of time. “There’s no way they can get it as fresh as we can,” he said.
Limiting that distribution area has caused angst among potential customers living as far away as Iowa, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, but Shatto is committed to remaining a local dairy.
Of course, the family could open another Shatto farm in another state, “but our position has been, why become what we fought? We’re truly creating a relationship with our customer, who we consider to be our neighbor. If we were to expand to Columbia (Mo.), let alone Arkansas, then we become something different than what it is we always wanted to be.”
The majority of the credit for the dairy’s growth and numerous awards belongs to the cows, customer service and transparency of the operation, Shatto insists. But there were also a few national trends helping along the way.
The Shatto Milk Co. happened at about the time demand for local and whole foods was reaching critical mass. The movie “Supersize Me” in 2004 was the first of many documentaries critical of what has come to be known as Big Food.
Shatto takes pride in being local. “People appreciate the fact that the money they spend on us is used within the community and that they’re helping a dairy farm within the community,” Matt Shatto said.
At the same time, more people were willing to spend free time visiting farms and taking part in agriculture-related activities. The agritourism trend fit right in with the Shatto message because it allowed customers to meet the family and see exactly how the operation worked, Shatto said.
“Why is the cow sad?” came a voice from the clutch of kids on the tour who were watching the cows line up to be milked.
Good treatment of the animals is one of the central points of the Shatto tour. Barb Shatto mentions it as the group lines up before sampling some milk flavors.
“The cows have a wonderful place to sleep in the summer and a warm place in the winter,” she says.
Assistant herdsman Tyler Beall also mentions it during the stop at the milking machines. Visitors are invited to stick a thumb into the business end of the milk pump. “Did that hurt?” he asked as the kids took turns. They reply that no, it didn’t.
Shatto does not use growth hormones in cattle, though the milk does not meet the criteria necessary to be considered organic.
The calves that are the necessary sideline of dairy farming are not sent to veal processors, either. Matt Shatto said female calves eventually join the milking herd and males go on to other farms in need of a calf or to 4-H members to show.
The company is not without its critics, however. Some Facebook reviewers came down hard on the company for its opposition to a wind turbine project proposed for Clinton and DeKalb counties. The family was concerned that the turbines could affect the health of their animals.
But the critics never slowed the company down. Its growth has far outreached the expectations of a family hoping to hang onto the farm in harsh economic circumstances. Before they started selling under the Shatto name, the family was milking 70 cows. Now there are 400. When they started, Shatto said they expected it to take eight months before they began selling 100 percent of their milk. It took six days.
“We were playing catch-up for the first seven years, there was such a high demand for the product, and we can’t just buy more milk because we only use milk from our own cows at our farm,” he said.
But although the distribution area is limited, the company has figured out many ways to continue growing. The dairy product line alone is dizzying in its variety of flavored milks — strawberry and chocolate of course, but also banana, root beer, orange and cotton candy. And that doesn’t include the special limited-time offerings. There have been Royals blue cheese curds, eggnog, apple-pie and blueberry flavored milks as well.
The latest — and possibly hottest — new frontier for Shatto has been home milk delivery.
Bringing back the milkman was something the family had been thinking about for seven years, Shatto said. Last September, they tried out a test run in Leavenworth for a month. It was so successful they decided to go with it and have been adding routes as they find the demand.
Since home delivery began with one truck in November, the company has added a second truck and has a third on the way. Shatto now has eight routes, in Leawood, Kansas City, Leavenworth, Olathe, Prairie Village and parts of the Northland, Shatto said.
Most people are just getting ready to jump into their cars for work when Aaron Wright of Plattsburg pulls the cow-patterned delivery truck down the streets and cul-de-sacs of the Nashua area in the northern part of the metro area.
The used truck is a relatively new acquisition and doesn’t yet have its Shatto logo. The truck and Wright don’t look a lot like the 1950s truck driven by a milkman in a white cap that sometimes shows up in local parades.
But the idea of a delivery man loading up a front porch box or cooler is compelling enough to bring curious kids to the window.
“I love it, the kids love it,” said Elizabeth Manivong, who met Wright at the door with a question about the delivery. “And it’s convenient. Normally I’d have to go to the grocery store to pick it up.”
Wright, who makes 65 to 100 deliveries on a normal day, said he often gets friendly waves. “I enjoy it, I really do.” he said. “Even when you have a rough day and you see a little boy or little girl meet you at the door with a smile on their face — you can’t be in a bad mood.”
Matt Shatto sees the home delivery as a way to give other local businesses a boost as well. The trucks carry not only Shatto products, but “top of the category” products by other Kansas City area companies as well.
Those include bread, eggs, pasta coffee and desserts, to name a few.
On a recent morning, many of those products went out of the truck along with the milk Wright delivered. He said he delivers a lot of eggs, honey-cured bacon and whole wheat bread, as well as buffalo burgers and pasta included in customer orders.
Shatto sees it as an opportunity to support other local businesses the way he was supported.
“We were fortunate that a lot of local companies took an interest in us and gave us an opportunity,” he said.
Shatto said the definition of “local” has become clouded by some regional suppliers that want to include businesses 250 miles from the metro area. Local should mean Kansas City, he said.
To that end, the family stays active in the community, helping around 50 local organizations and charities, he said. Shatto has an open house every year in June with a family day of picnicking and live music.
“We view them as neighbors and we want them to view our farm as their farm.”
Growth, by the numbers
▪ 70 cows in 2003, more than 400 in 2016.
▪ 4 employees 2003, about 45 in 2016.
▪ 2,000 visitors to the farm in 2000, more than 125,000 in 2015.