A few years after building a shoe empire, George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis discovered an unlikely passion for dairy.
Boutique dairy—be it Icelandic yogurts, artisanal ice creams or high-protein milks—is having its moment in the spotlight on grocery store shelves. But you might be surprised to learn that for the duo behind one of the industry’s most successful power players, Arethusa Farm, dairy is merely a side hustle. That’s because before George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis grew their kingdom of milk, butter, cheese and ice cream, they built a shoe empire you might have heard of: Manolo Blahnik.
Malkemus and Yurgaitis are the president and vice president, respectively, of the shoe company, a brand made even more famous by Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. They’re also the full-time owners of Arethusa Farm, an immensely popular dairy farm in Connecticut, where the milk is award winning, the barns are pristine and the cows are treated like spa guests.
The duo, who are married, never planned to start a dairy farm. As Manolo Blahnik was taking off in the 80s, Malkemus and Yurgaitis had just settled in Litchfield. In 1988, the farm across from their house, which provided them with gorgeous views, went up for sale. Fearing that the place would go into development and they would lose their pastoral vista, the two decided on a whim to purchase it.
When they discovered that the land originally housed a dairy farm, they decided to buy five cows and start a small breeding operation. Their eye for shoe design, it turns out, was equally as sharp in selecting cattle—they brought their herd to the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, the country’s premier dairy show, and ended up winning the top prize. For first-time breeders, Yurgaitis says, “That was unheard of.”
Then, Malkemus and Yurgaitis tasted the cows’ milk. “It reminded me of the milk I used to have as a kid in San Antonio. It was milk like it used to taste,” Yurgaitis recalls. Once again, without any prior experience, the two built a dairy plant and started bottling and selling their milk. The slogan? “Milk like it used to taste.”
At the time, most of the milk being sold in the area was actually a blend of 30 or 40 different farms’ milks; that pure, rich taste was missing. By contrast, Arethusa Farm’s product, made with milk from a single herd of cows, was an immediate hit. “People loved the purity of the product,” Malkemus says. “That rich color, that fresh smell, the earthiness of it.”
In addition to milk, Arethusa Farm now makes cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream, most of which you can buy at Whole Foods and other specialty retailers throughout the Northeast. Malkemus and Yurgaitis also lend their dairy products to the restaurant they run on the property, Arethusa Al Tavolo, as well as the accompanying bakeshop, Arethusa A Mano. The two see how the high-end dairy business is heating up and plan to expand accordingly. Just last year, they opened a dairy store in New Haven, complete with an ice cream shop serving flavors like almond toasted coconut and cherry with dark chocolate chunks.
The secret to success? Malkemus and Yurgaitis treat their milk like they treat their shoes: obsessing over every element. The barns at the farm are spotless. The cows live in the lap of luxury: Their bedding is constantly being changed out, they’re brushed several times a day and they’re tails are washed with special shampoo (sometimes Pantene Pro-V, which Yurgaitis says makes the tails look brighter). Each stall is equipped with a computerized feeding system, which drops exactly the right amount and type of food, depending on the cow’s specific nutritional guidelines. Even the hay is impeccable. “We have had trucks pull up where we’ll see the hay and say, ‘No this is too dusty or too old.’ And we’ll send it back,” Yurgaitis says.
Though this may seem overly obsessive to some people, Malkemus and Yurgaitis consider it best practice. “When a cow is relaxed and feels taken care of, you’ll get good results,” Yurgaitis says. “Our milk is proof of that.”
Looking back on the past decade, the two agree that the shoe and the dairy industries really aren’t all that different. “It’s about the dream, the passion, and then a lot of hard work,” Malkemus says. “It’s something we always talked about with Manolo—not growing too quickly, so you can stick to your guns when it comes to quality.” Just as each pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos is still made by hand in artisan shops in Italy, Arethusa’s milk, he says, will continue to rely on its meticulous, small-batch operation, with no part of the process taking place more than a few miles from the farm.
In terms of competitiveness, though, there’s no doubt in their minds: “The food business is way tougher than shoes,” Yurgaitis says. “There’s just not a lot of room on grocery store shelves. You really have to work at it.”
Source: Tasting Table