Kate's in the News

A season to churn, churn, churn

In a cramped garage in Maine, they’re making a better butter.

When most of his neighbors are asleep, Dan Patry shuffles into his garage at 1 a.m., wearing a hair net and elbow-length rubber gloves, navigating through a maze of stainless pipes, tanks, and trays.

Where most people keep their cars, Patry churns out some of the world’s best butter, and he has the award to prove it. Patry’s brand, Kate’s Homemade Butter, took top prize last fall at the World Dairy Expo - the Oscars of the dairy industry.

Several times a week, Patry pumps fresh cream from local farms into a 1950s-era circular steel contraption he keeps in the garage under a modest raised ranch, and then churns it, slowly, methodically, in small batches. His unhurried care produces a sunshine-yellow butter that is velvety rich, with more than 80 percent fat and no artificial flavors or additives.

“It’s just so cool to turn liquid into a solid,’’ said Patry, wide-eyed like a mad scientist of sweet cream. “I’ve made millions of pounds of butter, and it’s still exciting to see it and smell the sweet aroma of freshly churned cream.’’

Since bagging the big butter prize, Patry, 58, has been churning furiously to keep up with demand and fend off challenges from the industry’s major players, who are looking to put the squeeze on their cottage competitor. Sales have soared 67 percent since 2007 to more than $2.5 million dollars. Kate’s is now the spread of choice at Finagle-A-Bagel, and supermarket chains like Shaw’s are adding shelf space for the product.

The three-decade-old family-run business is expanding into buttermilk, testing flavored butters, and working with Toscanini’s to create a buttermilk ice cream. Meteoric growth also means moving out of the garage, and plans are in place to build a 20,000-square-foot plant in Arundel, about 10 miles to the south, where Kate’s will have about 20 times more space.

“No matter how many times the big guys try to push us under,’’ said Patry, “We’re staying around and growing.’’

Patry learned the craft from his Uncle Roland four decades ago on his farm in Maine. He turned butter-making into a business in 1980 so that his wife, Karen, could run it while she stayed home with their children. Patry also ran a real estate company, a more common career in Old Orchard Beach, a town better known for its skee ball and fried dough.

Back then, the couple churned by hand and individually packed each container. The butter is named for Patry’s niece Kate, whose baby face appears on all of the company’s products (Kate receives no royalties, only free butter).

Over the years, Kate’s has grown to a six-person operation, including his wife and 27-year-old son Luke, who honed his butter- and cheese-making acumen in Austria after finishing college. Two other sons, Daniel Jr. and Christopher, also help out with marketing and mechanical engineering.

The butter makers begin their day in the wee hours so they have time to run enough batches through their one churn. They work until 4 p.m. sanitizing, churning, and packing butter.

Butter connoisseurs say Kate’s stands apart because the company eschews contemporary machinery capable of producing 10,000 pounds an hour for small batches and a traditional method that better retains the natural flavors. Kate’s makes just a little more than 10,000 pounds a day.

Kate’s buys heavy cream - the main ingredient in all butter - from local farms. The cream, with 40 percent fat, free of artificial hormones, and the consistency of syrup, arrives in a tanker, which is parked in the driveway. Within 24 hours, 850 gallons will be pumped into a pasteurizer and then into the steel churn, which looks like a barrel on its side.

For about 45 minutes, the heavy cream rises and falls against itself. The agitation forces fat globules to collide and clump together into lumps of butter. Patry adds sea salt by hand before finishing the salted butters. Patry keeps an eye on the entire process, and his son Luke taste tests each 3,600-pound batch.

The buttermilk is then drawn off and stored in a large stainless steel tank and held to be cultured and bottled in a separate area of the garage. The family just starting selling buttermilk late last year.

“It’s a very basic business in some ways. Everyone uses the product. I put butter on everything,’’ said Patry, who eats about a pound a week. “We never wanted to be the biggest. But we want to be the best.’’

Although they use machines to pack the butter, Patry and his sons still fold the large storage boxes by hand and deliver the butter themselves to supermarket warehouses across the region. It takes just days from the farm to the grocery store shelves.

Kate’s fresh, fulfilling taste helped win it first place at last fall’s World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin: Its unsalted butter earned a score of 98.8 out of a possible 100 points, beating out industry giants like Land O’Lakes.

“It was like David and Goliath. Kate’s stood up to all the big boys in the butter business,’’ said Dr. Robert Bradley, assistant head judge for World Dairy Expo. “Others haul it from across the US. It’s on the road longer. The fresher the cream, the better the product.’’

The premium taste, with a slightly higher fat content than other butters, has also won over a broader audience - including Laura Trust, owner of Finagle-A-Bagel, who used the creamy spread at home for months before introducing Kate’s butter at her bagel chain in May.

“We love it,’’ said Trust, “and our guests are very happy with it.’’

Kate’s success, however, comes with growing pains. In recent months, bigger rivals have slashed prices, forcing Kate’s to respond with lower prices, which has reduced its profit margin. At Hannaford Supermarkets, where competition has been particularly fierce, Kate’s lowered its price from $3.99 to $3.49 a pound, making it now only slightly more costly than others.

The higher-than-expected cost of building the plant has forced Patry to delay plans to move out of the garage. To help tide the company over, Patry bought a 6,000-gallon tank, and attached it to his house. That will enable him to churn more than one million pounds of butter this year.

But the challenges have not deterred the butter master. As he sat back in his office recently, the World Dairy Expo trophy glittering on a nearby desk, he talked about submitting the buttermilk perfected by his son Luke in this year’s contest for best innovation.

“I’ve had people try and buy the company,’’ he said. “But no amount of money they can offer will get me to sell this business. It’s just amazing what we’re doing here, and I don’t want to give it up.’’

- By Jenn Abelson , Globe Staff / August 2, 2009


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