Family-owned dairy closes up shop after owner’s passing
During 16 years of business at the Vanilla Bean Café in Two Harbors, owner Jan Bergman always relied on Al’s Dairy for her milk.
On Wednesday, she recalled one Saturday not so long ago when the kitchen staff called the dairy owner Al Ruberg in a panic after they ran out of pancake batter in the midst of a busy breakfast. Just a few minutes later, he was at the back door with eight quarts of buttermilk, dressed in a tuxedo. He had been on his way to a wedding.
“That’s the kind of stuff he would do,” Bergman said. “It makes it really hard to talk about.”
Ruberg passed away on June 4 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer, just after closing down the business he owned and operated out of his home on the Scenic Drive for 46 years. Almost 300 people attended his funeral on June 9 in Two Harbors, and many of them were former customers.
“They were almost like a family,” said Larry, Al’s son that also worked for the business.
The closing of Al’s Dairy signifies the end of an era. Larry and Al’s wife Bev, who both worked full-time in with Al, said small milk distributors have largely been driven out of business and bought up by bigger distributors. Al’s Dairy hung on for years because of the personal service.
“He’s a people person. He loved every customer,” Bev said.
They would bring the products into restaurants, put it into the refrigerator and rotate the stock. They still delivered to a handful of homes in Two Harbors, and some customers would ask Al and Larry to bring the milk into the house, put it in the refrigerator and lock the door behind them.
Bergman recalled Al making inventory suggestions based on the restaurant’s ordering history.
“Dealing with a small, personal business like that is not even comparable to large, corporate vendors,” Bergman said. “He knew your business almost better than you did.”
Some days, he would stick around for an egg salad sandwich and cup of coffee after delivery. At his funeral, Bergman learned from conversations with other business owners that when he wasn’t lunching at the Vanilla Bean, he was having a bite to eat at the other businesses to which he delivered milk.
“He was the kind of small businessman that knew if we all give each other a little bit of our business, we’ll all stay,” Bergman said.
Al grew up in Silver Creek and married Bev when he was 20 years old. They had three kids – Larry, David and Lee Ann. He held a series of jobs, including working at the DM&IR Railroad, Reserve Mining and a mink farm, before becoming a dairy distributor with another company. He started his own business in 1968, just after Lee Ann was born.
“He was brave,” Bev said. “Here I am with a brand new baby, and over a weekend we did that.”
While he was hard worker and dedicated businessman, Al’s family was his priority. Bev recalled loading the kids up in the milk van on weekends and heading to their cabin, just 20 miles away.
“We still managed to sneak in lots of play time, too,” Larry said.
He also made sure to spend time with his seven grandkids.
“He was a super fun guy,” said his granddaughter Amanda. “He worked hard but he was a kid at heart.”
Over the years, Al employed about 40 people, including kids, in-laws, grandkids, nieces and nephews. Even when working, he was spending time with his family, paying relatives and other employees a fair wage to help them get through college or earn some spending money. Even employees that weren’t blood related became family, Bev said.
He is missed by many after five decades of building a business that was, at its core, a series of close friendships and even closer family relationships.
“It was the man, not the product,” Bergman said. “We miss him already.”
This article appeared in the July 4, 2014 issue of the Lake County News-Chronicle.