Thursday, May 19, 2022

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Lunch With...

Miriam Erickson Brown at Latin King


Miriam Erickson Brown has been CEO of Anderson Erickson Dairy since 2006. She is also a major player in all things American dairy — chair of the International Dairy Foods Association and the Milk Industry Foundation Board, a board member of The Innovation Center for US Dairy, and a longtime member of the USDA’s Milk Processor Education Program Board where she has held many leadership positions. In 2007, she was the recipient of the International Dairy Foods Association’s Soaring Eagle Award for extraordinary service in the dairy industry. We asked her to lunch, and she selected Latin King, conveniently across Hubbell Avenue from her dairy. 

Has the restaurant changed since Bobby Tursi sold it last year? 

“Not really, and I have been coming here regularly since I was a little kid. The staff is the same — the menu, too. I miss Bobby because he was always in the front of the house greeting people. But the essence is the same. They let me order child’s portions because that is about the limit of my appetite. Few places do that. The chicken spiedini is a deserved legend.”

We wrote many years ago about Eric Ziebolt, the chef from Ames who headed up kitchens at two of America’s most famous restaurants — The French Laundry in Napa and Per Se in New York. When Ziebolt hosted Iowa friends in California, New York and Washington, D.C., he asked that they bring AE sour cream chive dip and cottage cheese with them. 

“When we read that story, we sent Eric a gift package of our products. We love stories like that. They show that we have loyal fans. Love for our products is ingrained in the blood of those who grew up on them. That is unusual in this business.”

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Does AE get a lot of fan mail? 

“Oh my, yes. And that is really unusual. Most companies tell me they only hear from customers when they are upset about something. We hear from people who want us to know how important our products are to the events they attend, that our products are part of their positive life experience. Our agents can hardly believe this. We try to give back by putting customer quotes on our trucks. Iowans are special in their positive attitudes.”

Yet, AE’s largest market is not in Iowa. 

“No, that would be Kansas City. But all our milk comes from Iowa family dairies, and we proudly promote that. We receive milk 24/7 and every day. Cows produce milk every day, so we have to turn it around daily. Fresh milk moves to grocery store shelves in 24 hours. Most of our business is done in a 150-mile radius from Des Moines. We are proud of that. My dad started that. He insisted that the best possible business partners were Iowa farmers.”

Is it true Erickson Brown herself does not take days off? 

“That is in the family blood. Dad lived to be 85 and never retired. I travel a lot for business, but I don’t know what a vacation is. My dad and granddad both believed that your personal work ethic translated to your employees.”

How many employees does AE have? 

“Four hundred, all in Des Moines. Most have been with us a long time. One guy does all our purchasing of ingredients for flavors. He has been with us for 45 years.”

How has the business changed since her grandfather started it? 

“Oh, that’s a great question. Today, my brother and I together do what our father did by himself. In 1930, AE was one of 150 dairies in Des Moines. Today our competition is with huge out-of-state dairies, most of which produce just one product. We are deemed too small for some major outlets — Whole Foods, Aldi. Every leader since 1930 has faced this same challenge. 

“Another big change is regulation. Since 1930, dairy has become the most heavily regulated industry in all agriculture. That is an advantage to a smaller company. We can focus on customer experience, and because our customers are so similar geographically, we can let them dictate what we make.”

How do you do that? 

“We do regular taste testing. Every Thursday our taste panel meets at 11. It includes me and my family. This was hard during COVID because we couldn’t invite customers. We import new products from all over, mostly yogurts. People get used to off flavors of cream products and think they are normal. Compare our buttermilk with that of a giant producer like Knudsen. Ours will be fresher because it isn’t shipped from California. Ours is also made with half the fats. Fresh buttermilk makes everything it is used in better. 

“Our director of quality control will tell you that cream should have a shiny gleam if it’s fresh. Sour cream is where one can best taste the difference that such fresh cream makes.” 

Yogurt seems to be the most dynamic AE product? 

“Yes. Our newest products are our whole milk yogurts. We worked a long time to get those to market.”

How do they differ from the older AE yogurts? 

“They are more like Greek yogurt. There are no standards for what you can call Greek yogurt. Mostly they are thicker and have more proteins and less sugar. Greek yogurts often have a tanginess that not everyone likes. We worked to reduce the tang. We could have called this Greek, but we are so proud that all our milk is from Iowa that we called it Iowa yogurt. The whole milk adds fat, but we reduced sugars even more. We have an array of new flavors like cara and raspberry/tangerine. Our plain unsweetened whole milk Iowa yogurt is also popular.”   

What are some of Erickson Brown’s other favorite local places to eat? 

“Django, Centro, Biaggi’s, Scenic Route Bakery, La Mie, Victoria’s Table at the Farmers Market.”

What does she want AE to mean to customers? 

“There is so much stress in today’s world. I just hope that AE products can provide a little comfort.” ♦

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