Matanuska Maid dairy enters its final days

Company prepares to begin shutting down plant this week

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2007

ANCHORAGE - It looked like any other day at the dairy. A red-suited Frosty the Snowman and copies of "Dairy Foods" magazine greeted visitors. Crews bustled about moving and stacking crates of orange juice and cottage cheese onto waiting pallets.

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But Friday wasn't any other day. It was the last time the familiar yellow milk jugs chugged down the assembly line at the big Matanuska Maid operating plant on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage.

Come this Wednesday, the last truck will pull in to pick up the last carton of eggnog for delivery to stores. By the end of the week, the iconic 71-year-old company's cavernous plant will be mostly empty, all but a few of its employees gone.

"It'll be real quiet. It'll probably be kind of an eerie feeling," said plant manager Gary Nelson, 56, who has worked at the state-run facility for 32 years.

The exact day for turning off the lights at the plant has not been set. But the state, which decided in August to close the dairy because of spiraling losses, plans to shut it down by the end of the month. And Friday was the last day for many of the remaining employees - 30 or so. Some of them have been with the company for more than 20 years.

Given the circumstances, the mood at the plant could have been somber, but people seemed surprisingly upbeat as they went about their jobs, some for the last time.

Some opted for gallows humor: Tacked to a wall near the loading dock, a doctored bumper sticker had been changed from "It's not the Holidays without eggnog" to "It's not the Holidays without A Job."

"We know it's ending so you got to live with it," said Lyle Brink, 44, as he stacked crates of milk, cream and cottage cheese in a chilled room near the back of the plant.

Nearby, dressed in rainbow suspenders and a white work shirt, his older brother Larry Brink, 56, offered much the same sentiment about losing his job. Still, he said, he was sorry to see the company, once a symbol of Alaska success, go under.

Brink has worked for the company for 25 years and runs the water bottling operation. He grew up in Anchorage drinking Mat Maid milk. His father retired from Mat Maid as a delivery driver and his son, Justin, worked for the company for a time.

"This is one of the last things left from when I was a kid," he said. "I might shed a tear. I don't know. I know my wife is."

While many said they have plans for other jobs, including freight truck driving and one who wants to start an assisted living senior center, others were not so sure about their futures.

Joe Durand, 46, oversees the plant's milk processing. He got a severance package that gives him a week's pay for each of his 12 years at the plant, he said. But he isn't sure what he's going to do with a skill set that includes knowing how to run a homogenizer and pasteurizer.

"I make $52,000 a year. Where am I going to get that kind of job?" he said.

Machines whined and jugs rattled Friday but Nelson said the plant is noticeably quieter with the staff down from about 50 earlier this year. Most of the executive offices on the second floor were deserted.

The decision to close the plant wasn't a huge surprise to employees, Nelson said. The company has been on its "last legs" since 1974, when he started work after driving up the Alaska Highway looking for a pipeline job.

His boss told him even then not to plan on making a career out of it.

"This place has been shutting down since I got here," he said.

Nelson said he has gotten a lot of response from customers about the closure. Some have called near tears. One man went so far as to buy a freezer and 50 half-gallon containers of eggnog to meet future needs.

"It's part of Alaska," Nelson said.

For now, the future of the plant and its equipment is unclear.

The one part of the dairy that may live on is the name. The state agreed earlier this month to lease the Mat Maid logo to a new group of Valley farmers who have banded together to start a dairy cooperative. That group hopes to be up and running by April.

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