The Drive-in Dairy

Jim Roberts, Founder/CEO
October, 30, 2019 -

Okay, I hope you are already musing over this title. I once wrote a blog entitled, “Baking Cakes,” so this is not too far afield. This is a 50 year flashback to a time in my life where I was going to college full-time and working full-time to pay for it. My employer was Driftwood Dairy which operated several large bottling facilities and numerous “drive-in” locations where you could literally drive into a big building, get your milk, eggs and other dairy products, plus a diverse assortment of groceries, delivered right to your car.

In all candor, my experience at Driftwood Dairy had a profound impact on my life, and helped me become the person I am today.

Lesson One – hard work and stress are not a bad thing! Working full-time and going to school full-time basically left no time for a personal life. To accommodate my school schedule, I worked six or seven days a week at the dairy because I needed the money. Now mind you, this was a physically demanding job. Back in those days, the milk was predominantly bottled in glass, plastic was just beginning to be introduced, and a case of glass bottles weighed about 70 pounds. There was a lot of heavy lifting, moving milk out of the production facility into our cold storage unit, stocking shelves, and sorting and stacking returned, dirty milk bottles. Literally, by the end of my shift, I smelled like rotten milk – not nice. Plus, I could hardly breathe because of the car exhaust--there was no requirement for people to shut down their cars or to have exhaust fans. Following my shift, I was off doing homework.

Over these four and a half years, I learned a lot of self-discipline, tenacity, how to set priorities, establish routines, and how to tough it out no matter how exhausted I felt. I learned how to endure the “here and now” in order to achieve a bigger goal – my vision for my life. I only missed two days of work due to a strep infection, and I never missed a class.

Lesson Two – working with the public can be really fun! The facility that I worked at was in South El Monte. Our customers were predominantly working-class Latinos, many monolingual. To be honest, when I started, most of my coworkers were from the “I hate work” camp and not the most pleasant to work with. So I took it upon myself to change the environment. I had no idea how, or what to do other than just be me – try to make it fun! Whenever I was on shift, I would challenge my coworkers to try to make our customers laugh, or learn something about them. The results were amazing. We did silly things to engage our customers, and took the time to get a little personal with them. In hindsight, it was all about building positive relationships. Even with my terrible Spanish, I was able to connect and have fun.

Being positive, engaging and pleasant was infectious. Not only did it change our work environment, but more importantly, our customers loved it. People came back repeatedly, and sometimes not because they needed milk or groceries, but because they enjoyed the experience! It was a continual reverberation. By the time I finished my shift, I felt “high” on the positive energy and quite invigorated. Sure, there was bad stuff--drudgery, grumpy people, et cetera--but the power of this positive engagement made those experiences insignificant.

Lesson Three – customer service is everything! I learned that being nice to, and positively engaging and being personable with our customers was part of the bigger “Customer Services” process. After about a year of working there, I was promoted to Assistant Manager which gave me a broader sphere of influence. When I trained new employees it was not just about all of the tasks, responsibilities and requirements of the job, but I included lessons on the positive customer engagement that I described above. I used to say “treat them like friends and family” and they will keep coming back. And they did. Our little drive-in became the most successful and highest volume of their seven stores!

Customer Service is about reaching out into another person’s life with genuine respect, care, and compassion and acceptance!

And Lesson Four – is not about the color of someone’s skin, it is about the condition of their heart! Let me cut to the chase, I learned to love and appreciate our Hispanic customers, and over the decades, I have missed that experience. I learned so much about people individually, as well as their families, culture, values, work, and even their food (many times a week people would give me delightful dishes to take home). “Legal” or “illegal”--it didn’t make a difference. These were real people with hopes, dreams, feelings, character, personality, joys and challenges just like the rest of us. Knowing this, it will come as no surprise when I get my dander up at the hyper racist rhetoric we’ve been forced to live with over the last few years. 

The only way we will ever become “color-blind” is to honestly and openly make an effort to know and understand people. Just because a white guy wears an expensive suit does not mean he is a good guy anymore than a person of color is automatically a bad guy. I live by the precept “we are all wonderfully and perfectly made.” I can guarantee you will discover that we are more the same than we are different!

I am very thankful for the experience that I had at the Drive-in Dairy. For some of my coworkers, it was their career. For me, it was a training ground, a “boot camp” so to speak; a non-academic educational experience that indelibly imprinted on my persona. I hope you agree, life experiences--both positive and negative--serve as building blocks of our character and ability to add value to the world we live in. Let’s make sure we are encouraging these types of lessons and experiences to our kids!