Micheál and Cora Finlay say the response they have been getting from customers has made the cost, the hard work and the red tape all worthwhile
Running a milk vending machine is “by no means a part-time job despite what some might think”, says Micheál Finlay, who runs Moo Cow Fresh Milk in Laois with his wife Cora.
“We opened over the October bank holiday weekend last year and we were blown away by the response we got. The first weekend was crazy and we sold 400L over a couple of days and we had to refill the machine,” says Micheál.
“For some people, it was the first time they had ever tasted milk that didn’t come from a carton and they couldn’t believe the difference.”
The first weekend the Finlays opened their vending machine at Solas Eco Garden Centre, just outside Portarlington, people came from as far away as Cork and the west of Ireland to buy their non-homogenised milk.
Before opening, the couple had shared their journey on social media, of building the pasteurising facility and preparing for their vending machine.
“It got the word out there that we were opening up and it allowed the people who would be buying our milk to sort of get to know us first,” says Cora.
After three months of trading, they closed up for the winter as they operate a spring-calving herd and don’t have milk in December or January.
“We intend to keep the vending business seasonal because we want to promote our milk as grass-fed and you can’t do that if your cattle are indoors being fed silage,” says Micheál.
“That’s why we took six weeks off during the winter while the cows were in and we will continue to do that.”
Last month they resumed milking their 100 British Friesians and they’re currently selling 500L a week direct to the customer.
They sell 1L of regular milk for €1.60 and half a litre for 80c. They also do four flavours of milk, or “milkshake” — strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and banana — selling 1L for €2.50 and half a litre for €1.80.
Their branded ‘Moo Cow’ glass bottles can be bought in two sizes — 1L for €3.50 and 500ml for €2.50 — and returning customers are advised to re-use these.
Local football teams and athletes are among their best customers.
“We get a lot of sports teams buying our milk because it’s so high in protein. The local football teams go mad for it and the milkshakes are a huge seller,” says Micheál.
Down through the years, Micheál’s father Liam had always said he’d love to sell milk direct to the consumer, and with the new garden centre which holds weekly farmers’ markets recently opening on their doorstep, Micheál and Cora decided it was now or never.
Cora, a beautician by trade, started working full-time on the farm when her work dried up during the pandemic.
The extra pair of hands made the venture possible, says Micheál, and last spring they set about ordering a milk vending machine and a pasteuriser and getting the necessary building work done.
They opted to install their machine at the new garden centre rather than on the farm itself.
“It’s about 500m from the farm and there’s good security and cameras there,” says Micheál.
“We thought a vending machine was more likely to be noticed there and easier accessed than it would if we put it on our farm, because the road to our farm is very narrow and if we wanted to put the vending machine there we would have had to widen it and build a car-park.”
Their first port of call was getting in touch with the Department of Agriculture, which regulates farm-based food producers. The amount of red tape involved was “intense” and there was a lot more involved in getting set up than they originally thought.
“The Department guides you in the right direction when it comes to building any food production or processing facility and they have a lot of specifications you have to meet,” says Micheál.
“We had to get planning permission too, which wasn’t hard to get but it took a while.
“We had just presumed that we would build the pasteurising room on the farm, close to the dairy, but when the Department came out and did the initial inspection we were told that we couldn’t do that and we had to build it on the outskirts of the farm,” says Micheál.
“We were told that there would be too much traffic from cattle and machinery passing the pasteurising room for hygiene reasons, so we started building on the edge of the farm, not far away.
“We had to build an office and a gown-up room leading into the pasteurising room. We also had to build a cold room, and the facility had to be accessed through roller doors.”
For hygiene reasons, the pasteurising room can only ever be accessed via the one route, while anyone entering must be fully “gowned up”.
Once the milk is finished being pasteurised, it has to be pushed outside through the lobby area and another exit. The couple also had to build a new entrance on the farm to the facility.
Micheál’s uncle, Michael, a retired draftsman, was a huge help, they say, and designed the pasteurising room, office and lobby required by the Department.
Micheál and Cora bought their milk vending machine and a refrigerated bottle vending machine from Wexford-based company Nesty and their pasteuriser from Unison Engineering in Limerick.
“It (the vending machine) is a standard design and the machines are made in the Czech Republic and shipped to Ireland,” says Micheál.
“We had a six- to eight-month lead-in time when buying it — it was during the pandemic and there were delays in the supply chain so everything took longer than expected.”
Cora came up with the name, design and logo and sourced the bottles from Hall Printing in Dublin.
“We wanted something eye-catching and attractive, and blue was the colour that stood out to us both so we based the design of the vending machine around that,” she says.
“Hall Printing puts the branding on the bottles for us and we get them ready to sell.”
Once the Finlays’ cows are milked in the morning, the milk is tested for antibiotics and then 1,000L is filled into a mobile bulk tank and wheeled down to the pasteurising room.
The tank is reversed into the side of the pasteurising room and the milk is gravity-fed through an external pump, into the pasteuriser.
“We pasteurise once a day usually, up to 250L at a time,” says Cora.
“The pasteuriser works with the touch of a button but it does a trial run first for health and safety reasons.
“When you turn it on, the water in the pasteuriser automatically heats up to 76°C, which is the temperature needed for pasteurising.
“Then it cools down again and a valve flushes it out before taking the milk in and heating it to 76°C to pasteurise it.”
After the milk is pasteurised, an in-house alkaline phosphate test is carried out on every batch.
“We also have to send our milk and water for laboratory testing and we have to swab the premises for any bacteria such as listeria and enterobacteriaceae,” says Micheál.
“The testing is one of the worst parts, there is so much paperwork and regulations to meet.”
The milk is then poured into the 400L vending machine and is ready for the customer.
“Customers can buy their glass bottle from the refrigerated vending machine first and then bring it over to the milk vending machine and choose the option they want. The bottles are ice-cold to preserve the milk when it’s dispensed,” says Micheál.
“It’s all touch screen and the customer chooses how much milk they want and what flavour. Once you have paid by card your milk is dispensed into your bottle. You then just put on the cap and away you go, simple as that.”
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
We spent well over €150,000 altogether. The vending machine was €40,000 and the pasteuriser was another €40,000. The rest of the money went on the installation of equipment and building.
Was grant aid available?
Yes, we got LEADER funding, which was a great help. LEADER is great for rural development projects like this.
Are you required to register with any bodies?
Yes, we are registered with the Department of Agriculture as food producers and we have constant inspections. It’s very invasive and stressful.
You’re under constant pressure because they visit so frequently and they take all your paperwork and do all sorts of tests. It’s only right when we’re producing a food product, but it is intense and something we hadn’t given much thought to before we opened.
Was there anywhere good for advice?
Not really, we had to figure it out ourselves. Vending machines were new enough in Ireland at the time but now they’ve popped up everywhere and there’s more people to ask if you have a question.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Getting used to what was required by the Department was the biggest challenge. They kind of treat you like you are one of the major co-ops, as in you have to meet the same specifications.
Running a vending machine is a full-time job and requires more work than we thought. We are very much married to the vending machine at the moment.
Are you open all week?
We are open six days a week – we take Mondays off.