Berkeley Farms, a staple of the dairy aisle of our local grocery stores for over a fifty years, sadly filed for bankruptcy last week. And while the future of California’s oldest, continuous milk processor is in question, its history in the Bay Area and Emeryville has been etched in time.
While the brand as the name implies was founded in neighboring Berkeley, it was in Emeryville that the company modernized and became the recognized brand we know today.
Founded as a Small Family Business in South Berkeley
“South Berkeley Creamery” was founded by French immigrant John Sabatte in 1910. The family operation grew steadily from serving a single horse and buggy route in South Berkeley, to all of Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville. Around 1920, they expanded to a new location at 58th & Adeline in North Oakland.
South Berkeley Creamery’s core business was not actually the production of milk, but local distribution from family-run dairies. This small batch production system, delivered by armies of Milkmen, was the way most people got their milk products in the early 20th century.
Raw milk was produced by local family dairies and then delivered to distributors like South Berkeley Farms. The milk would then be quickly and safely delivered to customers’ homes on a daily or weekly schedule.
By 1940, the operation had grown to a 40-person operation with 28 delivery routes.
WWII Brings Food Industrialization
Many businesses in the Bay Area industrialized after the effort to win World War II. This industrialization included food production. Family-owned farms, such as dairies, began to disappear from urban areas in favor of large facilities.
Milk was being produced by cows further from their distribution areas like Sonoma County and the Central Valley. This transit caused a higher risk for bacteria including tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and other streptococcal infections.
The dairy industry and the government adopted modern techniques to combat these health problems to make them safer for consumers. In 1947, The United States passed the Milk and Milk Products Act. This regulated the sanitation, sterilization, and pasteurization requirements for the production of raw milk. It was an end of an era for the farm-to-table method of purchasing milk.
Emeryville Plant Built to Support Growth
In addition to industrialization, the growing popularity of supermarkets triggered a decline in the home delivery model. This necessitated a shift in South Berkeley Farms’ business model. Berkeley Farms successfully transitioned to wholesale and institutional sales to capture the growing grocery store business.
To get ahead of the new regulations and laws in the dairy industry, South Berkeley Farms began construction on a new Milk Processing plant in Emeryville. Emeryville was an attractive place to move an operation at the time because of its lower tax rates.
The state-of-the-art processing plant on the corner of 47th street & San Pablo Avenue was designed by Berkeley engineer George Jennings. It was constructed by Monson Bros. of Berkeley and the plant layout designer was Stanley Boyanich of SF’S Creamery Package Company.
After opening in 1947, the new plant immediately began processing over 10,000 gallons of milk per day. This was needed to meet the demand of the thriving business under the new safety regulations. The first floor was laid out with processing rooms, storage rooms, while the warehouse and offices are on the second floor.
Along with pasteurization capabilities, the new plant added the ability to make other milk products including a new ice cream division.
The company also opened up a popular Soda Fountain at the corner of the building called “The South Berkeley Fountain.” At the Fountain shop, their signature dessert was called “The Berkeley Farms Derby.” A treat made with chocolate and black walnut ice cream topped with fudge, nuts, and a cherry on top.
1956: Company Renamed “Berkeley Farms”
The family-run business thrived in Emeryville under the leadership of John Sabatte’s five sons, who took over for their father in 1954. In 1956, the company renamed itself from South Berkeley Creamery to what we now know as Berkeley Farms.
The company expanded its operations with distribution centers in Hayward, Walnut Creek, and San Mateo. Berkeley Farms milk became a staple in people’s homes in the Bay Area and eventually throughout the state.
“Farms in Berkeley? …mooo”
But Berkeley Farms might not be the recognized brand it is today had it not been for a 1970 marketing campaign. The small Mill Valley advertising agency James Plessas Inc. devised the radio and TV campaign and was able to retain legendary Looney Tunes voice-actor Mel Blanc to voice the iconic “Farms in Berkeley? …mooo” tagline. Blanc, a native of San Francisco, was the voice behind Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Barney Rubble to name a few.
The jingle remained with the company for nearly 30 years with legendary SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen calling it “the most successful and longest running advertising slogan in Bay Area history.”
Berkeley Farms went on to reprise the spot in 2003 through a local competition.
Acquired by Dean Foods in 1999
By 1989 Berkeley Farms had grown to a $115 million company. They had 450 employees and distribution centers across the Bay Area. By the late 1990s they outgrew their facilities in Emeryville and opened up a new facility in industrial Hayward. This new $55 million, 20-acre facility had modern capabilities to process, package, and distribute the Berkeley Farms products from a central location.
4550 San Pablo Avenue Today
The building where Berkeley Farms was headquartered in Emeryville still stands at 4550 San Pablo Avenue. The blue-painted, green accented corner building is the current home of the Escuela Bilingüe Internacional (EBI) Spanish immersion school.
It is simple in form and could be easily dismissed as just another faceless building. Most of us have driven past it countless times without ever knowing it was the center of the iconic Berkeley Farms brand.
An enriching aspect of Emeryville’s history is the less obvious hidden layers within our city. Emeryville is small in size, yet hugely influential in business, culture, and politics.
The 100 year plus old Berkeley Farms family company witnessed a century of historic events including the pandemic of 1918, the great depression, both World Wars and the moon landing. Hidden within Berkeley Farms’ rich history, is a unique piece of Emeryville’s history.