March 18, 2010

Churning a profit


— By

Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — From the outside, the house at 3 Arbutus Ave. is an ordinary raised ranch with a two-car garage. But squeezed inside are hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stainless-steel machinery, churning and packaging more than a million pounds of butter a year.

This is the manufacturing plant for Kate's Homemade Butter -- a premium butter that features the smiling face of a wholesome farm girl on a white box.

Since the butter won an international competition last year, there is no longer enough room in the house to keep up with orders -- or the ambition of the company's owner, Dan Patry.

Patry plans to build a new plant in Arundel, possibly as large as 20,000 square feet -- 15 times the size of the current facility. He wouldn't say how much the plant would cost or how much he plans to produce.

He also plans to establish a 25-cow dairy farm that will allow him to experiment with new kinds of products, such as cheeses, whipped butter and cinnamon- and herb-flavored butter.

''There are butters you can make that we want to try, but we can't do it here,'' Patry said as he worked transferring butter from the churn to the packaging machine.

Arundel residents at a special town meeting earlier this month approved a zoning change that allows Patry to build his plant on Route 111 on a 35-acre field about two miles from the Maine Turnpike.

The previous zoning only permitted farms and houses. The zoning change stipulates that the plant look like a barn and that at least half of the parcel remain open. In addition, Arundel voters stipulated that the facility run an educational program that demonstrates ''the entire source-to-consumer cycle of the primary product.''

All of which is fine for Patry. He used to give children tours of his facility in Old Orchard Beach but ended the practice 10 years ago because there just wasn't enough room. He said he intends to offer four educational seminars at the Arundel facility, which he plans to build next spring

He should be a great guide. It's hard to imagine that there's another person on the planet today who can speak about butter with as much authority and enthusiasm.

''You must taste it!'' he exclaimed, handing a reporter a plastic spoon and pointing to a huge clump of fresh butter at the bottom of 11-foot tall churning drum. ''Don't swallow it. Let it melt in your mouth.''

Modern butter plants add additional processing steps that allow them to store butter for longer periods, but the result is a diminished flavor, Patry said. That's why he makes butter in small batches and never puts them in frozen or cold storage.

He carefully selects the cream he uses in his butter and is meticulous about keeping his equipment clean. (On production day, he starts washing down the equipment at 1 a.m.)

He also uses sea salt because he said it enhances the flavor.

He sells his butter at a wholesale price of $3 a pound. At the store, the butter sells for premium price, $3.89 for 16 ounces. -- nearly $1 more than the Land of Lakes brand.

He's recently begun selling some of butter in airtight containers imported from Europe. He pays 20 cents for each package, but it's worth it because exposure to air degrades butter flavor, he said.

He sells the butter in all states east of the Mississippi River. Demand for the butter took off, he said, after it won the top prize in the 2006 World Dairy Expo in the salted butter category, scoring 99.5 points on a 100-point scale.

Patry comes from three generations of Minot dairy farmers. As a teenager, he learned how to make butter from his uncle, Roland Hemond, using old wooden churns. He later made butter for Oakhurst Dairy. He left in 1985 to make his own butter in the basement of his Old Orchard Beach home. Even though he lives on a residential street, he is permitted to run the business because he has a home occupancy permit.

He has four employees, including his wife, Karen Patry, and mother-in-law, Theo Arsenault. He said he may not need to hire more workers at the new plant because it will be more automated.

The couple has three sons, Luke, 25, who spent the summer working on an Austrian mountain farm making cheese and butter; Christopher, 30, a mechanical engineer who keeps the butter equipment running, and Dan, 34, who runs the family's real estate business, Patry Family Realty Inc.

The plant makes butter two days a week. On Tuesday, his crew was busy packing butter into boxes with the picture of Kate on them. When he started the business, Patry wanted a little girl on the packaging. But he only had sons. That's how Kate Arsenault, his niece, ended up being chosen as the face of the company. She was just 18 months old when she posed for the photo. She's now almost 30.

Zoning would allow him to expand the new plant up to 50,000 square feet, creating virtually unlimited production capacity. Patry, who for years sold real estate on the side, loves selling, and he said the increased capacity will allow him to ramp up his marketing efforts.

The rural Arundel setting will also strengthen his company's brand, he said. The company's Web site features drawings of a farm and also a large green map of Maine.

Aaron Shields, the Arundel town planner, said many townspeople support the development because it will help achieve the town's goal of preserving open space and the town's agricultural heritage.

''He wants to create what will look and feel like a farm, but inside the stomach will be a manufacturing facility,'' he said.

Patry, who has two grandsons, ages 7 and 10, said he's excited about passing on his knowledge of the diary industry to another generation of Patrys.

The oldest, Isaac, has helped out in the plant and has milked cows at the Minot farm of his great-uncle, Roland Hemond, who died on Monday at age 86.

''I can't wait until Isaac's old enough so he can work all summer with us,'' Patry said. ''I can only hope that one of my grandsons is as lucky as I am to find a job that they absolutely love doing.''

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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