The Untold Truth Of Oberweis Dairy

Despite a growing trend of milk alternatives, dairy milk remains the preference of more than 85% of Americans (via Morning AGClips). Whether you're adding it to your morning coffee, pouring it into your breakfast cereal bowl, or enjoying a cool glass on its own, dairy milk offers a number of benefits, like being an excellent source of potassium, calcium, vitamin D, fatty acids, and protein.

There was a time when Americans got their milk from local dairy farms, delivered straight to their front doors. But today, most of the milk brands you'll find in the grocery store come from larger dairy farms and co-operatives, and feature the brand names of major grocery stores like Walmart, Kroger, or Trader Joe's. However, plenty of smaller dairy farms continue to operate across the country, selling their own branded milk and other dairy products in grocery stores or even from their own outlets. One such regional brand is Oberweis Dairy.

The origins of Oberweis Dairy trace back to 1915, when Aurora, Illinois dairy farmer Peter Oberweis started selling extra milk to his neighbors (via Oberweis Dairy). Since then, it has grown to become a major regional supplier of not just milk, but a variety of other dairy products, including its own brand of ice cream.

Milk was first delivered by horse-drawn wagon

If you open your fridge and find that you don't have any milk left for breakfast today, you can likely order some from your local grocery store on your favorite grocery delivery app. Or, you can hop in your car to get some. But when Peter Oberweis first started delivering milk to his Indiana neighbors, he did so in a horse-drawn wagon.

While those neighbors likely had access to stores at that time, what they didn't have was a means of keeping milk cold. Home refrigerators weren't invented until 1927, and weren't a common household item until the 1940s (via Big Chill). This meant that families who wanted to enjoy milk had to purchase and consume it fresh, unless they had access to an ice box. While convenient for keeping food fresh longer, these did have to be stocked with fresh ice frequently to keep them cool (via American History).

The founder's son dropped out of high school to keep the business afloat through the Great Depression

After a little more than a decade of selling milk to his neighbors, Peter Oberweis became the co-owner of a larger dairy operation called Big Woods Dairy (via Oberweis Dairy). In 1929, he became the sole owner, and renamed the company Oberweis Dairy. But that same year, the Great Depression struck, and the new company faced its first hardship.

To help run the fledgling family business, Peter's oldest son Joe dropped out of high school. This early decision proved to be a good career move: In 1951, Joe launched the very first Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy Store. He is credited with having perfected the early process for creating the super premium ice cream that the brand is still known for. In fact, many of his early recipes are still used up to now. Today, there are more than 40 Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy Stores, spread across Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan (via LinkedIn).

They sell far more than milk and ice cream

With the launch of the Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy Store, the brand began offering a variety of other dairy and even non-dairy products. Chocolate milk quickly joined the dairy's lineup, as have other milk varieties, including Lactose Free, Traditional 2% Reduced Fat Milk, Fat Free Milk, and more (via Oberweis Dairy). Around the holidays, the company releases its own bottle of eggnog. Other sweet drinks are also available, including lemonade, fruit punch, and ice tea.

Alongside a large menu of classic ice cream parlor treats like sundaes, hand-scooped ice cream in a variety of flavors, malts, and shakes, customers can pick up milk, sweet drinks, pies, and other foods at each of the 43 Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy stores. But you don't have to visit one of these outlets to get your Oberweis fix; their products are also available in many local grocery stores in the region that Oberweis serves, including Whole Foods, Target, Meijer, and regional grocery stores like Schnucks, Kroger, and Dierbergs.

You can get your milk delivered directly to your front door

Oberweis Dairy's first customers received their milk delivered straight to their homes. And for decades before the launch of home grocery delivery services, the company has continued that tradition. Oberweis Dairy offers home delivery of not just their milk, but a variety of other farm fresh products like grass-fed beef, chicken, snacks, cheese, ice cream, and even raw pet food and seafood (via Oberweis Dairy). However, their delivery service is limited to a few select service areas in Central Indiana; South-Central Wisconsin; metropolitan Detroit, Michigan; St. Louis, Missouri; Northern and Central Illinois; Raleigh, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; and Norfolk, Virginia.

Home milk delivery dropped to an all-time low in the early 2010s, when just 0.4% of milk was home delivered (via NPR). But during the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers started turning to home delivery for their groceries, and the milkman tradition began to see a resurgence.

The milk still comes in glass bottles

In a time when many companies are looking for eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bottles and containers, including recyclable or reusable glass, Oberweis Dairy doesn't need to make such innovations. The company's milk has always been — and continues to be — sold in glass bottles. Oberweis Dairy claims that their glass bottles insulate their milk better than cardboard or plastic (via Oberweis Dairy). This means that the milk inside stays colder and tastes fresher, and lasts longer than the milk you'll find in standard plastic jugs.

This isn't a new innovation; most dairy companies once sold their milk in glass bottles. But the weight of these bottles and how easily they crack led most companies to move away from them in the 1950s and 1960s, in favor of innovative new plastic bottles that promised cheaper prices and easier transport (via Turner's Dairy). Modern plastic jugs even feature a dimple that can help keep it from breaking if you drop it. In Canada, the move away from glass milk bottles led to the development of milk bags. While the trend never caught on south of the border, it continues to be another odd Maple Leaf tradition.

Their glass bottles are more than just recyclable

Oberweis Dairy's bottles can be recycled. But for decades, the company has been taking their eco-friendly initiatives one step further, and actually reusing their bottles. When you buy a bottle of Oberweis Dairy milk, you pay a $2 deposit. After you've finished your milk, you can turn in your empty bottle at any store where the brand is sold. You'll get your $2 back, and your bottle will return to the dairy company to be cleaned and sanitized before being refilled, relabeled, and resold in stores (via Drinking Milk in Glass Bottles).

Customers who have their milk delivered can simply leave their glass bottles on their porch to be picked up on their next deliver (via Twitter). Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy stores with a drive-thru even allow customers to return their bottles and collect their deposit in the drive-thrus. The only things that aren't reusable here are the bottle's plastic lids, which can be recycled instead.

In 2017, they made the move to amber bottles

Sometime around 2015, Jim Oberweis, the father of the current CEO of Oberweis Dairy, grabbed a bottle of the family's milk from a grocery store and noted that while it wasn't spoiled or expired, it didn't taste quite right. After two years of research, the company determined that their milk sold in grocery stores — which were exposed to the harsh overhead lights of the establishements — had a different taste from the milk sold in the brand's own smaller stores or through home delivery. 

This led the company to start a search for a solution (via the Chicago Tribune). They reportedly tried asking grocery stores to add amber filters to their refrigerators or to install solid doors instead of glass ones. When this didn't work, they tried covering the bottles with plastic labels, before finally settling on bottling their milk in tinted glass containers.

In 2017, Oberweis Dairy released their controversial amber-colored bottles. These utilize amber bottles, much like beer bottles, to protect the milk from the affect of fluorescent or LED lighting. But the bottles failed to attract customers, and later disappeared from store shelves (via Journal & Courier).

Oberweis Dairy also operates a pizza shop and a burger joint

In an effort to keep growing the company, Oberweis opened their very first That Burger Joint, a quick-service hamburger restaurant concept (via Zippia). The company intended to compete directly with Five Guys, but That Burger Joint's expansion has been slow. Today, the company operates nine locations across St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Bloomington, and Champaign, Illinois (via That Burger Joint). Several of the locations are joint stores that feature both a That Burger Joint and an Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy Store, allowing customers to wash down their burgers and fries with an Oberweis milk shake (via Cision).

In 2017, Oberweis Dairy ventured into another restaurant niche, acquiring the Woodgrain Neapolitan Pizzeria brand. This quick-service restaurant is known for making custom personal pizzas in just minutes. The brand now has five locations, including one in St. Louis and four in Chicago (via Woodgrain Pizzeria).

O'Fallon, Missouri is home to the only location with all three brands, including That Burger Joint, Woodgrain Pizzeria, and Oberweis Ice Cream & Dairy Store, under one roof (via Facebook).

In 2019, they launched a line of USDA-certified organic milk

Oberweis Dairy isn't just expanding into new brands and restaurants; they're also constantly expanding their offerings in their stores and in grocery stores. In November 2019, the brand launched a new line of USDA-certified organic milk (via Oberweis Dairy). In order to hold the USDA distinction, the brand had to prove that their milk is produced and processed according to strict federal guidelines that regulate things like animal raising properties and use of additives (via USDA).

For milk, this means that cows weren't given hormones that help to encourage and increase milk production, or antibiotics that combat common infections (via Scientific American). Thus, organic milk is a great choice for consumers looking to limit their intake of chemical contaminants. It may have other benefits as well: Studies suggest that organic milk may have a higher nutritional content than regular milk, including having more antioxidants and more healthy omega-3 fatty acids (via The Organic Center). Organic milk may even have a longer shelf life than regular milk.

The family has been plagued by tragic deaths

While Oberweis Dairy was growing and thriving, the family behind the company has faced a number of personal tragedies. Founder Peter Oberweis lost his first wife, Susan, in the flu epidemic of 1918 (via Find a Grave). The couple had three children before Susan passed away, and their eldest daughter died at age 28, just one year after her own wedding (via Find a Grave).

Peter later remarried, and had six children with his new wife Mary. Two of their children, Paul and Gerald, passed away before their first birthdays (via Find a Grave and Find a Grave). Tragedy continued with the next generation as well. John Oberweis, who had formerly served as the company's president and was at the time still a chairman with Oberweis Dairy, passed away suddenly at age 51 following a stroke (via the Chicago Tribune). Just three years after John's death, his widow would face her own death at the hands of a serial killer (via Murderpedia).

The widow of the founder's grandson was the victim of a serial killer

Mary Jill Conelly Oberweis was married to John Oberweis, founder Peter Oberweis's grandson. After her husband's passing in 1990, Mary was just 56 when she was murdered in her Aurora, Illinois home by Edward Tenney, a convicted serial killer (via Murderpedia).

Tenney murdered Mary on October 1, 1993, following a home invasion. Mary was found beaten and shot in the same neighborhood where Tenney had previously taken the life of another widow. Virginia Johannessen was 76 years old when Tenney broke into her home on January 2, 1993 and beat her with a hammer before shooting her in the head and chest. She was found by her brother three days later, inside of her ransacked home. Her car was also stolen.

When Tenney was finally caught, he was convicted of the murders of both widows, as well as the 1992 murder of Jerry Weber, a 24-year-old who was found shot and killed on the side of the road with a flat tire. Tenney robbed him of just $6. In 1998, Tenney was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later commuted to life in prison. The murders of Mary Oberweis and Virginia Johannessen were spotlighted on Dead of Winter in 2019 (via IMBD).

Employees allege that the company collected fingerprints without their consent

Amber-colored bottles aren't the only controversy that Oberweis Dairy has seen in recent years. On May 24, 2021, a class action lawsuit was filed in the state of Illinois against the company by employee Faviola Casas (via Top Class Actions). The lawsuit alleges that between May 2020 and March 2021, the company violated the state's Biometric Information Privacy Act by collecting Casas' fingerprints without her knowledge or consent. Her fingerprints were allegedly collected each time that she clocked in and out of work during this period.

The company uses a biometric time clock system to keep track of employee hours, and to prevent employees from clocking in for each other. However, the lawsuit alleges that the company failed to get permission from their employees in order to collect or use her and other employee's fingerprints. Per the lawsuit, the biometric data collected from employees could expose them to serious privacy risks (via Class Action).

The current CEO grew up making authentic Oberweis milkshakes at home

Over 100 years after it was first founded, Oberweis Dairy continues to be family-owned and operated. Today, its CEO and president is the great-grandson of founder Peter Oberweis (via Naperville Magazine).

While he didn't take over the company as CEO until 2007 (and as president in 2009), Joe grew up immersed in the Oberweis legacy. He even recalls one unique perk of growing up in the Oberweis family: His childhood home featured a refurbished Multi-Mixer, which meant that they could make authentic Oberweis milkshakes any time they wanted! He even got to make new ice cream concoctions with a variety of flavors and toppings they always had on hand.

Joe and Oberweis Dairy have big plans for future expansion. Alongside their new outlets like That Burger Joint and Woodgrain Pizzeria, those plans include the possibility of developing a national footprint and expanding their production and distribution outside of their current service areas.