As it seeks to increase its share of the Northern California milk market, Foster Farms Dairy is reinvigorating a brand familiar to generations of Sacramento-area residents: Crystal Creamery.
Less than a year into his job as president and CEO of Foster Farms, Frank Otis is gradually reintroducing the Crystal Creamery name into dairy cases in the region.
By this time next year, Otis wants every Foster Farms transport truck, employee uniform and piece of office stationery to be branded "Crystal Creamery."
"When you talk about Crystal Creamery in Sacramento, people grew up with it," Otis said. "It's an iconic brand."
While Otis technically heads Modesto-based Foster Farms Dairy a separate company from the Foster Farms poultry firm but founded and owned by the same family he's quick to say he's heading Crystal Creamery and pushing that brand to regain the instant recognition it once held in Northern California.
Otis, the first CEO who is not part of the Foster family, hopes to attract not only longtime Northern California shoppers around the brand but a new generation of grocery buyers.
Crystal Creamery, founded in Sacramento in 1901, had extensive operations in Sacramento prior to being sold to an East Coast dairy firm in 2007, which unloaded the Crystal brand to Foster Farms that same year. While the brand was never discontinued entirely, it had dwindled over the past two decades under prior ownership. The big Crystal plant on D Street in downtown Sacramento closed in the 1990s.
Little by little, however, its name is coming back. Crystal milk and dairy products have been showing up in Sacramento-area stores. CVS pharmacies were part of the early roll-out, and the brand is now arriving in more mainstream grocery outlets.
Otis says Crystal's dairy market share in Northern California a market generally stretching from Stockton north to Redding is around 9 percent. Ultimately, Otis hopes to boost that to 25 to 30 percent.
At Nugget Market in West Sacramento, shoppers browsing the dairy aisle were happy to see the familiar Crystal logo.
"I remember my grandma bringing home Crystal (products) from the store all the time," said Sacramentan June Rabold. "For me, seeing Crystal milk on the shelf is like the most natural thing in the world."
Sacramentan Nancy Weeks said she was pleased "because I thought the Crystal brand went away a few years ago. I'm really happy to see it here. I've always liked Crystal."
Foster Farms Dairy's push to become all-Crystal Creamery also drew approval from Robert Reynolds, a supermarket consultant in Moraga.
"I believe Crystal is a strong brand, especially in the Central Valley around Stockton, but now I'm starting to see it appear in some stores in the East Bay Area," Reynolds said. "The idea of converting Foster to Crystal is spot-on brilliant, and Foster is really good with that kind of stuff. Corporately, they know how to do that."
Reynolds also said the push for Crystal Creamery is smart because, even though Foster Farms' poultry operations are separate from its dairy operations, the public has a mind-set on the Foster Farms name.
"For many Foster Farms stands for chicken. Crystal stands for milk," Reynolds said.
Reynolds speculated that gaining market share and shelf space in larger Northern California stores will be a challenge as Crystal Creamery products compete for attention with well-known national brands and increasing numbers of private-label brands.
However, Reynolds added that Crystal has an advantage in the Northern California market because the brand has been around for so long.
"It stands for local. It stands for quality in the minds of some people. All of those are strong brand attributes," he said.
Otis is also betting on the brand's deep regional roots, noting the family-owned origins of Crystal Creamery and Foster Farms Dairy, a family-owned operation in California since 1941.
Crystal's regional marketing blitz includes a touch borrowed from Wheaties, the cereal brand that has long featured box covers with photos of nationally known athletes.
Crystal Creamery's spin on that is putting California Interscholastic Federation Sac-Joaquin Section sports champions on commemorative milk cartons to honor their success. The sponsorship program was launched this fall and will include champions in winter and spring sports in 2013.
The Sac-Joaquin Section comprises 196 high schools in 27 athletic leagues representing more than 225,000 student athletes.
"As a local company involved in our communities for more than 100 years, we looked to establish a sponsorship which would have a positive impact on young people and provide them with the same valuable experiences we obtained when we were in school," Otis said.
Otis also points out that five company-owned farms (with 5,000 cows) and 18 independent producers lie within California's borders.
"Yes, people in Sacramento and Northern California are familiar with the Crystal brand, but it's more than that," Otis said. "It's good for the whole region. As we grow, we're looking at adding 300 or 400 more jobs."
Peter Schaub, a marketing and branding expert in New York, also likes Crystal Creamery's chances up the road.
"If you were coming into a part of the country cold with a totally unknown brand, I'd say you're going to have a real fight on your hands to gain market share and opportunities from retailers," Schaub said. "But if the brand already has a certain iconic status in the region, you're ahead of the game.
"The very name Crystal Creamery all but shouts dairy. That's a plus by itself."
CRYSTAL CREAMERY AT A GLANCE
Headquarters: 529 Kansas Ave., Modesto.
Employees: 925 direct company employees; its distributors have approximately 200 to 250 employees. Crystal Creamery estimates that its contract dairies have about 314 employees (or one for every 100 cows).
Origins: Crystal Creamery was founded as a family-run operation in the back of a small grocery store at 728 K St., in Sacramento in 1901. There, George and Caroline Knox churned butter for their enterprise. In 1921, Crystal was purchased by Carl Hansen, a Danish immigrant. The Hansens ran the company for 86 years. Current ownership is Foster Farms Dairy, a family-owned operation in California since 1941.
Liquid assets: Crystal first offered milk in glass bottles in 1926. Today, it processes about 2.5 million gallons of milk a week.
Annual sales: More than $300 million.
Products: Fluid milk, milk powder, cream, buttermilk, fruit juices. water, butter, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream and various dairy derivatives.
Facilities: Crystal has a manufacturing complex of nearly 400,000 square feet spread over 27 acres in Modesto. In the Sacramento area, Crystal has a distribution/warehouse facility and a separate warehouse, together employing about 100.
Fast fact: Crystal CEO Frank Otis says that the company switched some dairy products from Foster Farms Dairy recipes to long-standing Crystal Creamery recipes following Foster's acquisition of the Crystal brand.
More information: www.crystalcreamery.com