I’ve met Warren Taylor twice. I’ve been kissed by Warren Taylor three times.
The first came on the sprawling estate that is Snowville Creamery, the second and third at the Nelsonville Music Festival, where Taylor and his crew gleefully gave away free chocolate milk to thousands of people over three days like some sort of Southeast Ohio version of Wavy Gravy.
It took just these two meetings for me to understand that this practice is ordinary for the man who calls himself a “milk evangelist.” Or to understand that when you travel 90 miles to his little corner of Meigs County, you’re going to talk about way more than milk. (Among the topics: Fur Peace Ranch, LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, former SNL bandleader G.E. Smith).
Taylor spent decades as a consultant building highly efficient dairy milking systems for giant corporations, but eight years ago he found himself on the outside of his own industry—most of which had migrated overseas.
Embracing what he says is his “tree-hugging” nature, he founded the creamery with his wife Victoria on the belief in the “fundamental goodness of milk.” It was an ode not just to wholesome ideals, but—with half of the country’s dairy production coming from 3 percent of our farms—an impassioned undertaking to reconnect patron to producer. They set up shop on the land of Bill Dix and Stacy Hall, a partnership that has been fruitful enough to keep local shelves stocked with Snowville, and for a time, helped elevate Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams to one of the most popular products in the Midwest.
Still on a high from Nelsonville the previous week, Taylor and I spoke by phone, and I learned why they call him the evangelist.
Your standard mantra is: “I believe in the fundamental goodness of milk.” Everything I read about you deals very much in these very simplistic, pure philosophies. Is that how you would categorize yourself, whether it’s milk, or business, or music?
Tim Easton introduced one of his songs. He said, “This is one of my new songs; they just keep getting simpler. What I’m trying to do is write songs that people will sing around a campfire and not even know who wrote ’em.” Same idea! Fundamentals. I think the opportunity in the dairy industry in America that we recognized a decade ago was to get back to the fundamentals of the way people looked at it half a century ago—when they really honored the quality of the product, and that was how they differentiated themselves. We got ourselves off to the point where in the dairy industry, the people that were being honored were the people that could buy seven mansions and two Gulfstream jets.
But you were part of that corporate diary industry, too. Was that something that was tough, ideologically?
I was trying to design the most efficient, high-volume processing plants in the world. So the goals were to build these incredibly efficient plants that didn’t waste water, didn’t waste energy, didn’t waste people’s time, didn’t waste people’s milk—that was the goal. Well, I was a complete outsider in doing that because the people that were designing and building the big milk plants, the big dairy processing plants and big cheese/yogurt plants, they’re architecture engineering firms, they’re equipment manufacturing firms, they’re people that are making the software that handles all of the information and controls the processes. Their measurement of their success was how much money they made building this $100 million plant. When I was part of it, I was taking the owner perspective—the people that had to run that plant for 30 years to get their money back.
When was the “a-ha” moment when you realized you could apply your specific skill set to the people much further down the chain, i.e. connecting the farmers to the people drinking the milk?
It came not long ago after I moved here, just over 20 years ago. It came in drinking Bill and Stacey’s grass-grazed milk and appreciating the profound tastefulness of it. And then at the same time, you know, I was getting tuned in to the science of grass milk … I’ve always been a “tree hugger” or whatever you want to call it. I remember the first Earth Day. So these values were common to me growing up, really—they weren’t new values. Bill and Stacey and Victoria and I were talking about building this plant 15 years ago. But [as a consultant], I was making more money than I’d ever imagined without trying to. I was getting the joy of being given the projects that people either didn’t believe could be done, had never been done before, or somebody failed doing and people didn’t believe you could do it. So I was happier than a pig in shit [laughs].
If I could’ve gone on designing and building these plants and meeting my own goals of designing these highly efficient plants to utilize our resources of food, water, energy and people … if I’d been able to go on and start doing that, Snowville Creamery may have never’ve happened.
And what kept that from happening?
America stopped investing in processing food infrastructure and basically did the same thing the automotive industry did. We started building our plants in Central and South America and then China. …There was no work in America, and I wasn’t gonna go to China at that stage in my career to work. I’d been doing Chinese martial arts for 40 years—I’m fascinated by China. I’d love to go to China! [laughs] I didn’t want to go there to practice my craft.
The little bit of work that was being done in America, it was being done by CFOs and financial companies, and all they wanted was to single-source responsibility that they would sign on the dotted line that they would deliver a functioning $100 million dollar plant that would perform in this way … there was no place for me to be part of a team with a software house and an architectural engineering firm with equipment suppliers providing the concepts, the processes, and the ideas; there was no place for an idea man. So it was basically my having to disband the consulting company that I’d spent a decade building. It’s like drowning your own children in your bathtub. It was horrible. But I went from making X amount of dollars a year to losing twice that much in a year trying to hold the company together, trying to hold the team together, trying to work in the new reality.
So you made a place, it seems. Out of the death of your consulting firm—and overall your position in the industry as you knew it—you built something new out of your old philosophy.
It was the phoenix rising from the ashes. In some ways, I don’t mean to be dramatic about it … but I think it’s a comment on life, you know? When I was out of college, I went from one huge established company to a second one where it was actually Camelot—it was wonderful. You were mentored, you were taken within the company, you were taught, they invested in you tremendously, and then it all changed. And then I was just another person trying to find my way, going from one company to another. In this short-term, buy-and-sell, hostile-takeover world, and my way out of it—and the longest job I’d ever held in my life —as my own consulting company. That existed for 16 years. The second company I worked for was the second-largest retailing company in the world, and I worked for them for a decade.
Snowville Creamery, it’s eight years in now. I hope before I run this company for 16 years that I’d pass it on to some other group, entity, team, and I’m off doing something else different. When leaders build teams, then they shouldn’t sell it to somebody and cash out and clip coupons; they should find a way to not de-capitalize by cashing your chips in. Leave it. Turn it over to somebody else. How many chips do I need at 63? I don’t need many. My concern isn’t taking away from this company that I helped build a bunch of money. I don’t need money. The only thing that I want to take away from this company is the confidence that it could exist and go on and grow and thrive without me, and when I have that confidence, they can go on and have the darn company and the brand and anything else. ’Cause I believe in justifying your existence and the air you breathe out everyday. Not finding a way to go out and clip coupons for 20 years; I’m not the coupon-clippin’ type.
You’re no longer a supplier for Jeni’s, but the two companies still clearly have a bond with one another, yes?
It’s a story of two businesses being connected together by their common value and mission, and both growing each other around those values. In some ways it ran its course—and they outran our capacity or capability. But that doesn’t change our connectedness, doesn’t change our common-mindedness.
It’s that connectivitiy that seems to be a huge part of your philosophy, business or otherwise.
Part of my success when I was out building big plants was that connectedness to the whole dairy community and dairy engineering community. We all lived based on our Rolodexes, back before we had PalmPilots and iPhones … I think what we have to do now, what your generation has to do, Travis, is they have to decide what their fundamentals are, they have to decide what their values are. Are they flat screens and the latest new Tesla? Or is it their connection with each other? I don’t know how many people I kissed on the lips at the Nelsonville Music Festival, but I kissed lots of people on the lips or at least on the cheeks. ‘Cause it was the only way that we could express our intimacy with each other.
After makin’ more money than I ever needed to make—or wanted to make or cared about making—for a decade, when I started this creamery, I was broke a year later and I needed to ask for help almost everyday. And I found out something that I might never’ve learned if I hadn’t been so desperate day after day. You know what I learned? I learned the greatest gift you can give to another human being is to ask ’em for help.
Because all of a sudden, you realize, you hesitate, and then they thank you. “Thank you, I want to help.” Well this is a concept. I remember people comin’ back from being in Nepal, 20 years ago, tellin’ me there’s no real word for “thank you” in Nepal. What? They say, “No, it’s cultural.” There’s an old Buddhist story that translates to, “The givers should be thankful.” These are ancient ideas that people figure out, in old, traditional cultures where they figured out that money doesn’t matter—material things don’t matter.
I know why they call you the evangelist. Would you say that, beyond it being your job, is Snowville your way of being the thankful giver, whether it’s giving that legacy, giving that culture that people can believe in, giving things back to that community?
Absolutely. I was fortunate enough in the home that I was brought up in that I didn’t grow up to worship shiny objects. It wasn’t in my parents’ chemistry. I didn’t come out of high school or college wanting to make a bunch of money. That stuff is so ephemeral, I watched that all come and go. Here, I was working for the largest grocery store chain in the world, and somebody buys it in a hostile buy-out and I’m out on the street. Boom! Everything that I thought was warm and secure and would go on forever—I used to joke that unless I got caught doing something inappropriate with a heifer, I was gonna be working there until I retired. And as long as there weren’t pictures, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. [laughs] But the fact was that it wasn’t forever. It wasn’t gonna go on forever. These things are all rolling and tumbling.
[It’s like] the Furry Freak Brothers quote, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” The real dope is the way we make each other feel. Quote me on that. The real dope is love. The real dope is our connection with each other, that’s the real dope.
So do you feel like you’ve been actually able to move the needle for the people of my generation?
Absolutely. Absolutely, and you couldn’t have asked the question on a better day because we’ve just been, for three days, standing there pouring free chocolate milk. I loved it when the people came up and they said, “Everything’s free, here? You’re giving the milk and yogurt away?” They literally said, “Why are you doing that?” And I said, “Because we’re hippies.” And of course there were people crackin’ up, tellin’ that story all weekend long. Because it took ’em a moment, and then they kind of grinned and they kind of got it.
That’s right back to where we started, with believing in the fundamental goodness of milk.
Yup, and the fundamental goodness of people … if Snowville took a gamble, Travis, we took a gamble on those two truths: the fundamental goodness of milk and the fundamental goodness of people. I don’t care how screwed up the world is, I’m not gonna live like a pessimist. I’d rather be disappointed and taken advantage of than to become a hustler and a thief for myself. I refuse to give myself in to that cynicism. And I’ll go singing to the lions in the Coliseum before I give up my faith in what’s important.
You don’t even actually have to buy the milk—although that’s better for everybody if you do—but you know, all you have to do is really appreciate the mindset [laughs]. •
For more about Snowville Creamery and
Warren’s philosophy, visit snowvillecreamery.com.