It’s 2 A.M. in the morning on a fall day in 1922. A Horse is hitched to a milk wagon, breath steaming from its nostrils as it chuffs in anticipation. There’s a snap of the reins and the wagon creaks out into the darkness. The driver is a 14 year-old boy named Leo. With him is his nine year old kid brother, Emil. And this simple round of deliveries is their first step of a life-long journey that would not end until they were well on the other side of the Great American Dream.
The boys didn’t know that at the time. They thought they were helping their father, Joseph Soehnlen, with his new business venture. Their mother had died the year before, and Dad had brought the L.K. Miller Dairy as a means of supporting his five children.
The dairy wasn’t much. It consisted of a milk wagon and its oat-fueled engine; a 200 gallon pasteurizer; a vat; and a supply of bottles. Still, it fired something in Leo and Emil’s imaginations, and they threw themselves into their father’s business, willingly learning every job at the dairy.
Leo became fascinated with the sales end of the business. He studied merchandising, marketing and business administration. As new families moved into the area, he eagerly approached them and asked to deliver their milk. Emil, on the other hand, loved the technical side of the business, and would pioneer production processes that were far ahead of many diaries with full time engineers.
By 1922 the dairy had a new name: Superior. Its delivery fleet had grown to three wagons, two trucks, and a company car. In 1929, Superior Dairy became one of Ohio’s first dairies to produce vitamin D fortified milk. It was also the first area dairy to bottle orange juice and chocolate milk. Leo sold the first batch of the latter to the dietitian at McKinley High School, where it was an immediate hit with the students.
Next was ice cream. It was 1933 when the first of the Superior line appeared.
Finally, the time came for Joseph to hand the dairy over to his sons. This was in 1938, when Emil was made Vice President and took charge of production. Leo became President, and in doing so, handles all sales and administrative efforts. As they had in the past, the two brothers complemented one another, and it paved the way for further success. In the next few years, Superior would make acquisitions to bring the customers and employees of 22 other dairies under its banner.
More changes were in store during the 1940s. During that time, Leo and Emil recognized the need to compete in the larger national dairies, so they joined a small group made up of independent dairies, which provided its members with stronger marketing and quality control measures. That organization is the Quality Chekd Association.
The first Popsicles were packed into Superior trucks during that decade, along with a mold tank that produced 9,600 ice cream bars a day. They also introduced large curd cottage cheese, which took sales volumes to new record highs.
Joseph Soehnlen died in 1956, leaving the dairy in the capable hands of Leo, Emil and their sister, Lucy. They launched a modernization and building program that greatly expanded their facilities with a new warehouse. Loading docks, laboratories and offices. In 1958 they introduced all-bulk receiving and pioneered the bottling of half gallon fruit drinks.
In 1965 they purchased the Canton Pure Milk Company, which resulted in a major expansion.
In the Sixties the changes of a different nature. The first crude computers went in the door at the beginning of the decade and were replaced by newer and better models as time went on. A new phone system was introduced, in part to keep up with the orders for Superior’s ice cream. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the dairy used eight times more floor space than they had in the year 1960.
Superior continued to grow throughout the 1970s in terms of both facilities and territory. This led to a major restructuring of management in 1978, when Leo became Chairman of the Board and his son, Joseph, became President. Emil continued on in his capacity as Corporate Secretary and Vice President, and his son Thomas became Vice President of Sales and General Sales Manager.
This new team continued the dairy’s tradition of excellence and growth into the 1980s. This was the decade that saw expansion of Superior’s market areas as its borders pushed out toward Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo. Emil’s son, Daniel, rejoined the dairy as Vice President of Operations in 1985. New equipment for the production of cottage cheese, sour cream, and chip dip allowed this part of the dairy’s market to reach into Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and western New York.
Although both Leo and Emil passed away in 1994, the Superior tradition of excellence has continued with the next generation. Joseph became Chairman of the Board and Dan became President. Vice Presidential futures were divided between Tim Soehnlen and Richard Bourquin, and Greg Soehnlen took over the reins as General Sales Manager.
Early in the decade they introduced Free Supreme, a fat-free no-sugar-added line of Ice Cream that has become a taste-test champion, redefining the industry standards for “diet” dairy fare. By 1995 the new product had carried the Superior name into the rest of New York state and down into New Jersey.
In 1997 Superior celebrated its 75th anniversary, which The Dairy celebrated by announcing a campaign to give back to the communities which have contributed so much to the dairy’s success. The innovative program put coupons good for cash into the hands of the dairy’s ice cream customers, and allowed them to be redeemed at the local level by schools, churches, civic organizations, and other non-profit groups. “Over the decades, these are the people and organizations who were so vital in helping Leo and Emil realize the American Dream,” Dan Soehnlen says with a smile. “This is our way of returning some of that Dream to them.”
In contrast to that humble horse-drawn wagon and 200 gallon pasteurizer, Superior now processed 100,000 gallons of milk a day, and their fleet of 40 tractor trailers and 65 trucks now log 2,000,000 miles a year. The one-man two-boy operation now employs 240 people in 6 states. Continuing their commitment to maintain their state-of-the-art facilities, Soehnlen spends $1.5 million a year on new equipment, upgrades and expansion.
What lies in the future for Superior Dairy? Dan Soehnlen has very definite plans, “We’re definitely not standing still, resting on our laurels. We plan to take Superior to an even higher level of standards when it comes to giving people a quality product. Customer satisfaction is everything to us.”
Clearly, the American Dream has not ended for the legacy of Joseph Soehnlen. It has simply started on a new leg of the journey.