There were twelve Dairy Barns still standing in March, there are now seven. It happens something like this; at the end of the day a long standing Dairy Barn location closes seemingly just for the night, but instead, a strange transformation takes place. A similar yet somehow different store called The Barn opens in its place the next day. The new store looks almost like the old, but it is not. It has new ownership, new employees, new offerings, and is non unionized. People can buy milk and staples and snacks, but it is not the same business.
This has been happening on the average of about one store a month for the last three years, and only seven Dairy Barn’s now remain. At some point, probably early next year the last one will go and there will be none left. The company that in 1961 invented the concept of drive through grocery shopping will be no more.
Not that long ago, as recently as 2005, the New York Times was writing up glowing reviews of the then 51 store Dairy Barn franchise which seemed to only drive home the point that things were just rolling along as they always had been for 45 years at Dairy Barn. The owners, the Cosman family, were enjoying things, they were in a business they had been in for a long time, and nothing seemed to change much in their lives. It was a stable place to work. Other than ownership considering the addition of a few frozen meals produced by local area merchants, there was really nothing much going on at all.
How things have changed. As early as 2010 rumors started flying, people who knew something was wrong were looking for jobs elsewhere, and insiders were spreading word that it might be a good time for everyone to leave. There still remained almost 50 locations open, the new Barn stores were just a blip on the radar screen. If you looked around on the surface you wouldn’t know anything was wrong, but in back rooms the message was different, it was time to get out.
So why the change in course? Well it’s not easy to tell the answer for sure. The Cosman family still isn’t speaking, and nobody else in management wants to talk either. All attempts to approach the company for a comment have been rebuked. We only know they have decided to end the business their patriarch father Dieter Cosman so ingeniously initiated in the early 1960’s.
The motivation is probably money, and a lot of it, on a real estate deal, which they hope to get for the sale of their biggest asset, their plant the Oak Tree Dairy milk production facility at 544 Elwood Road in East Northport. Dairy Barn /Oak Tree announced in March 2012 their intention to sell and close the 37 acre plant property to developer Engel Burman who would then build a two story, 482-unit condominium community for age 55 and over owners on the site. Known as The Seasons at Elwood, the units would cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 each. No price sale for the entire plot has been disclosed, but you have to imagine it would bring the Cosman’s into more money than they could ever dream of from running a dairy farm.
The only reason Dairy Barn ownership has made any comment to anyone at all about their intentions is because they have been forced to. Oak Tree needs to get the town to implement a zone change from R-40 to R-RM to make the sale acceptable to Engel who needs to redevelop the property into smaller plots which current zoning will not allow. But residents of Huntington and Northport have been vigorously opposing that change since the proposed sale was first announced in March of 2012. Their pressure has been making it hard for town officials to even consider the zoning move at all.
Since the spring of 2012, at meeting after meeting, more and more residents have come out and put more and more pressure on the town against the change. What at first seemed like a minor technicality in the way of getting the sale done has become a major road block. With pressure mounting and the mood growing more negative at the meetings, Dairy Barn President Hari Signh was forced to come down and plead his case. At the December 18, 2012 Huntington Town Board meeting he said this; “We’ve been spending the last three years working on this alternative of this development which from our perspective was extremely thoughtful. Developer Engel Burman mitigated a great deal of the externalities and we thought that the government would recognize that this development addresses so many of the potential downsides while removing the dairy. We thought that it would be a no-brainer. And, frankly, it’s a simpler alternative and it’s slightly more profitable.”
While it may or may not be a no-brainer, what should not go unnoticed is that Singh revealed that Dairy Barn has been working on the deal for at least three years. That would take us back to late 2009; back to about the time the Dairy Barn made that mysterious turn in direction, back to about the time they started to close all those stores. No doubt the folks at Dairy Barn knew the offer from Engel was coming and there already was some form of silent agreement in place.
Singh’s words did little to sway any public opinion, and so Diary Barn instead decided to move to its dreaded ‘plan B’. This was the implementation of a heavy handed approach to get people to see things their way. Oak Tree intended to ramp up production at Elwood so high as to hopelessly congest and annoy the towns residents into surrender. They wanted to crowd the town with milk trucks going in and out of their plant and up and down narrow Elwood and Cuba Hill Roads and force residents to see that they had no choice but to succumb to Oak Tree’s wishes.
It’s hard to imagine people thinking they would be better off gaining a few thousand new 55 plus year old neighbors than having a few noisy milk trucks in their way. It’s hard to imagine they would find the trucks more irritating than a few hundred new frantic grocery shoppers at the Path Mark at Dix Hills Plaza on a Saturday morning or on the fourth of July. It was hard to imagine it happening and it didn’t happen. In the end the community was not bullied into anythng. The whole process probably just made them more defiant and united in their cause. It also did little to improve Oak Tree’s public image with anyone.
Newsday reported on July 18th, 2013 that officials have all but rejected Burnam’s current development plan, sending it back to them with a request for a revision with less units before it will look at it again. Even after it is revised and sent back in, there are no guarantees. The resistance continues to fortify its stand and the protest is likely to start up all over again when the proposal comes back.
In some ways the Oak Tree Dairy can be seen as a victim of its own success. For years it thrived by marketing itself as the only remaining dairy farm on Long Island. It was playing up to the sympathetic ears of Long Islanders who had grown unhappy about the progressive loss of their once productive and spacial farmland, who now didn’t want to see this last farm go.
After decades of having to stand by all too idly while farm after farm was sold to capitalistic opportunists who converted them into crowded condos and apartments, maybe this time the people of the island, their roads and communities, crowded and stretched to the limit, have had enough. Maybe this time they are going to stop the last dairy farm from fleeing and not let it be turned into one more crowded development.
One last thought, the owners of Dairy Barn might consider making at least one new hire, a good PR firm. To date Dairy Barn has done just about everything it can to alienate the town, its people, its officials and its own cause. Trying to extort and beat someone into submission is not the best tactic to convince anyone to do anything. This may work in totalitarian governments, but not in democracies. A better plan; try negotiating with the people and hear what they want.
Sources and Further Reading
New York Times. 4/6/00 A Clank of Milk Bottles Is Heard In The Land
New York Times 4/3/05 Where We Live, One Stop Shopping, Right In The Car
John Abbate, WordPress 3/7/12 Making Sense of the Demise
Northport Patch, 3/16/12 Developer Eyes Oak Tree Dairy
Newsday, 4/18/12 Oak Tree Dairy May Be Converted To Condos
Newsday 4/18/12 Oak Tree Dairy Photos
New York Times 4/29/12 The Uncertain Fate of Farmland
Northport Patch 5/6/12 Elwood Residents Speak Out Against Oak Tree Development
Port Washingon Patch 6/25/12 A New Spin on an Old Busines
Northport Patch 10/12/12 Elwood Residents Organize Against Proposed Condos
Newsday 10/14/12 Residents Oppose East Northport Development
Lynbrook Patch 10/22/12 Lynbrook Dairy Barn Changing Ownership
Northport Patch 12/20/12 Oak Tree Dairy: Elwood has two options
Northport Patch 12/26/12 Fire Breaks Out at the Oak Tree Dairy
Newsday 1/10/13 Elwood Dairy Hikes Output Amid Questions Over Development
Northport Patch 1/11/13 Oak Tree Increasing Output
Places No More 3/6/13 The Mystery of the Last Dozen At Dairy Barn
Long Beach Patch 3/7/13 The Barn Opens Driveways in Long Beach
Newsday 7/18/13 Town To Oak Tree Developer, Revise Housing Plan
Northport Patch 7/19/13 Petrone Urges Developer to Re-Think Elwood Condos