Marin’s Straus Family Creamery pursues environmental goals while inventing ice cream flavors

Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery invented two new ice cream flavors recently, including banana and raspberry with chocolate chunks. (James Dunn / North Bay Business Journal) October 2017

JAMES DUNN,

Albert Straus, CEO of Straus Family Creamery, learned to drive a tractor when he was barely six years old.

Early driving skills are common in kids raised on dairy ranches, such as the one where he grew up and still lives near Marshall in Marin County. The ranch on 500 acres has about 280 milking cows, mostly Jersey, plus another 200 young animals.

“It’s a different lifestyle” than that of many folks who grow up in urban or suburban areas, he said.

Straus Family Creamery, with a distribution plant and headquarters in Petaluma, has its production in Marshall, though Straus explored opening a plant in Santa Rosa. The creamery takes in some 15,000 gallons of milk a day and employs about 135. Nearly 65 percent of sales are in California, with about 100 products. The remainder of sales are mostly west of the Rocky Mountains.

Milk and yogurt account for the majority of the creamery’s overall revenue, estimated by the Business Journal at $30 million to $40 million. Super-premium ice cream, with 11 flavors, and butter are the top sellers next in line.

The company launched ice cream in 2003. “We just came out with two new flavors,” Straus said, “banana chocolate chip and raspberry chocolate chip.” The new flavors replaced a plain raspberry and brown-sugar banana that “didn’t have as much banana flavor as it should have,” he said, and was too sweet. The new one is a “banana base with a banana swirl and chocolate chunks,” Straus said. “It’s really good if you like banana,” he said.

“I developed most of the flavors myself,” he said, a function he enjoys. “I do a lot of the formulations, work with R&D.”

At California Polytechnic State University, “I took ice-cream making” as part of his course work, he said, and served on the dairy-products judging team, scoring contestants in regional contests “I’ve been interested in doing ice cream most of my life — not a bad job. It’s challenging to come up with new things,” he said.

“Ice cream and butter take a lot of cream,” Straus said. “There is a global shortage of cream. The American diet has changed to a high-fat diet.”

As with Three Twins, Straus is wholly committed to organic products, including its ice cream, which has overrun of 50 percent that results in nearly 33 percent air. Plain ice cream runs close to 100 percent overrun, half air.

Straus ice cream has no stabilizers — just egg yolk.

In the 1960s, people encouraged Straus creamery to change its production to Holstein cows, bigger animals that typically produce higher volumes of milk with less butterfat than the milk from Jerseys and other breeds. “We did” make the transition, Straus said.

A female Jersey cow weighs about 1,000 pounds; a Holstein cow, nearly 1,300 pounds.

“I’ve been trying to go to Jerseys for the last couple of decades,” Straus said.

Now the creamery draws milk from about 75 percent Jersey cows. With Holsteins, “you set up your equipment for bigger animals,” he said, including milking barns. “When you have mixes (of breeds), it’s difficult.”

The creamery buys milk from nine dairies in Marin and Sonoma counties. Straus dairy, which produces about 10 percent of the milk needed by the creamery, was the first to be certified organic in the entire western United States, Straus said.

Now nearly 85 percent of dairies are certified organic. Conversion to organic products allowed the business to survive against gargantuan non-organic dairies that push prices to the lowest point, Straus said, with prices that could sustain the operation.

“Big chains are driving prices down,” Straus said, including Whole Foods, recently purchased by Amazon. “People who suffer are the farmers. Why would anybody come into a business where they can’t pay themselves?”

The average age of farmers in the area is about 60, said Straus, who is 62. “Where does the next generation come from? We have been able to create a price for farms that is relatively stable,” he said, by controlling volume in relation to sales. “When dairymen produce whatever they want, there’s always a surplus,” he said. “When prices are high, they produce more. It creates a volatile market that no one survives. It’s happening in the organic industry right now.”

Straus aims to lead the industry to adopt business practices that promote healthy animals, land and environment. “Our mission is to sustain family farms in Marin and Sonoma counties,” Straus said.

The ranch uses cow manure to capture methane, generate electricity and run the company’s truck and water heating.

“I love challenges,” Straus said. He is working with scientists at Stanford and U.C. Davis to use a seaweed that, when added to feed, reduces the amount of methane a cow produces. “You can get 85 to 90 percent reduction in methane emission,” Straus said. “We keep pushing the limits.”

He and his wife own the business. “I believe in high quality,” Straus said. “We don’t sell into Target and Wal-Mart,” preferring to support local retailers. He does sell into Whole Foods, Sprouts, Safeway and Raley’s.

Of all his products, Straus finds ice cream the most fun. “It has the most creative possibilities. It has huge growth potential and has been more prominent in our mix than in the past,” he said.

“Our ice cream sales have done very well,” Straus said. “People eat ice cream if the economy is good or bad,” or as an antidote to the trauma of wildfire.

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257