Sustainable grocer The Modern Milkman has poured new life into the traditional milk round. Founder and CEO Simon Mellin tells Karen Southern about his mission to put a bit of the old High Street back on our doorsteps… and curb our obsession with plastic.
“People don’t understand food anymore,” says Simon.
With his family background in farming, the Lancashire lad knows what he’s talking about.
“I grew up working in my dad’s butcher’s shop and on the farm – ‘hard labour’ wasn’t a thing to be worried about then,” he adds dryly, “so I got a really rounded experience of the food industry from a very young age.”
He concedes that he didn’t always see eye to eye with his father: “He was quite a tough character, and I didn’t appreciate just how much he taught me about basic life skills and retail until later in life.”
It’s those early lessons that have shaped Simon’s pragmatic approach to food and waste.
As he points out, once upon a time – in the days before cheap refrigeration, consumerism revolved around the concept of ‘little and often’.
People would pop to the shops every few days to buy the necessities from local suppliers, who in turn bought from local farmers. Careful food management throughout the supply chain guaranteed little to no waste.
But then the supermarkets moved in and as goods flooded the marketplace, consumers became more distant from the producer. The result? Cheap food and massive amounts of plastic waste, both generated in increasingly unsustainable amounts.
Simon adds, “Everyone is scrambling to fix the problem now, but it’s difficult because consumers have developed such a specific mindset and sentiment around food.”
It’s a challenge, however, that Simon and his team at Modern Milkman, are tackling head-on, with impressive results.
Since launching their first milk round in 2018, “with one beat-up truck which struggled to go uphill”, the Modern Milkman now sells drinks in returnable glass bottles, and groceries in reusable packaging, to customers across the UK from 16 regional hubs… all through their App and website, both developed in-house.
Milks are sourced and sold locally, supporting British dairy farming. The bottles are collected, washed and reused. Any packaging that’s not reusable is plastic free, recyclable or home compostable (including teabags).
Modern Milkman estimates their waste reduction to date is equivalent to nearly 60 million plastic bottles… or 139,000 wheelie bins of plastic saved from landfill.
Put simply, they’ve revived the High Street concept with a modern eco twist.
Starting out, Simon candidly admits that the penny didn’t properly drop at first. “But then three months in, I thought ‘hang on!’, this little and often delivery schedule really works, so why don’t people use it anymore? Back in the 80s, 85% of households got doorstep deliveries, and that had dropped down to around 2%. Why?”
The simple answer was that doorstep delivery hadn’t kept up with the times, “so we developed our App to start understanding usage rates and optimisation.”
It didn’t take long to identify why the general public had fallen so out of love with their daily milk delivery. “Cash is a dying thing, people aren’t at home so often, there’s high expectations around managing orders. No one leaves a note in a milk bottle now!
“The problem is that items like bread, eggs and milk are cheap and easy to use, so you’re not that bothered about a bit of waste. But then when you roll out their use across 26 million households, the impact of all that food waste and plastic packaging gets pretty significant.”
The Modern Milkman’s mission was set.
Its success and forward-thinking ethos is all the more remarkable because Simon left school with no formal qualifications after falling out with his dad. “I suppose you could say I learned everything in the school of life.” He trained as a mechanic, and ended up building racing cars for Ferrari Porsche, Aston Martin, as well as doing a lot of endurance racing.
“Through this I met some pretty ‘crazy’ people – mainly self-made – who taught me a load of stuff about business. But the whole experience also made me realise that people didn’t understand food anymore. Their connection to it, and understanding of where it came from, was being completely lost.
“This really scared me, so in my early 20s I moved back home and started my own food business with ethical sourcing. It’s always been my aim to reconnect consumers with food.”
Having worked with Hello Fresh as a wholesale supplier, and always on the alert for a new opportunity, Simon spotted a gap in the market for “small basket, high-frequency deliveries,” and Modern Milkman was born. “At the time, back in 2018, the digitisation of groceries and the whole process of ordering food online in different verticals really resonated with me.
“I was also very heavily influenced by David Attenborough, having seen the environmental damage caused by plastic on the Blue Planet TV series, and the role played by ‘big box’ retailers in these huge food supply chains.”
While Simon concedes that plastic is an amazing material and great for extending shelf life, he is adamant that things must change – and fast!
“Most of the Modern Milkman’s drinks are in glass bottles but we also use home compostable packaging.
“The technology around developing new ranges only goes so far at the minute, so we are investing quite heavily in R&D for new types of packaging that extend into foodstuffs beyond liquids. For instance, yoghurts in returnable glass jars, packaging for rice and pasta. Current competitor packaging solutions are really expensive, and they have to charge big deposits for them.
“This kind of thing puts a barrier in front of a customer when you’re trying to change buying habits, so we’ve got to make the process as frictionless as possible.”
Modern Milkman is now collaborating with American materials science and packaging experts Avery Dennison to find workarounds to these problems, including RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification technology) which track products for better life cycle analysis.
It’s very plain to see how passionate Simon is about food, agriculture and farming, and the whole issue of getting back to a new kind of basics. “It’s so easy to turn your back on things, and not recognise their value until they disappear.
“This happened with the High Street, but now everyone is crying out for it again. Our customers – young and old – have really embraced our technology. The older generation maybe hadn’t digitised towards groceries so much, but now they give some of the best feedback. There’s still a powerful nostalgia around the service of getting milk on the doorstep.
“Our data analysis provided by ThoughtSpot is very sophisticated – we can track just about everything from usage and pause rates, how products are performing from a qualitative and quantitative perspective, and this all helps us to optimise more. We work with suppliers on certain points that customers might not like and monitor usage to help reduce waste.
“In fact, I’d say we are a data business overall, and via ThoughtSpot, we have been able to massively improve our service, and helped our customers cut waste both as households and consumers.”
What sustainability advice would Simon give to start-ups entering the ultra-competitive world of consumables?
“It’s very easy to scare people off talking about waste and carbon. As a brand, we try not to be condescending and tell people what to do. None of us are perfect, we’ve all got to work together to fix the problem. I would say ‘Focus on one thing, look for a solution but be aware that you can’t achieve everything at once.
“For instance, our core mission has always been to help fix the plastic problem; people say, ‘But you’ve got diesel vans!’ We’re aware of that, but we’re concentrating on fixing one big problem before scaling up our mission.”
Long term, expansion of products and delivery areas are on the cards, but for now – given market conditions – Simon really wants to look after existing customers and improve their shopping experience with a bigger waste-free range. The team is also working with several Yorkshire diaries to extend bottling infrastructure further south.
“I’m proud that Modern Milkman has brought the spotlight back onto the industry. There are still a lot of independent local milkmen out there, and our work has helped revive interest. Not everyone wants to shop through technology, and it’s great if we’ve played a part in that traditional resurgence.
“The more we can help the industry, the more it helps shift the mindset away from all the bad habits we’ve build as consumers over the past 30 years. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’, as they say!”
More information at themodernmilkman.co.uk.