Alice Neville looks back on a heady time in New Zealand’s social history – when an insatiable thirst for a new dairy product brought the country to its very knees.
Think back, for a moment, to October 2014. What were you doing? Some occurrences of note for context: the National government had just returned to power for a third term. The ebola epidemic had reached America. Lorde had her first stadium concert tour of New Zealand. Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for killing Reeva Steenkamp. Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ was dominating the charts. Alex Casey bid a fond farewell to retiring weatherman Jim Hickey on a brand-spanking-new website called The Spinoff.
Admit it: you know what you were doing back then. You were, in all probability, in the grips of a chocolate milk-fuelled frenzy. A dairy-driven mania. You were absolutely frothing over a sweet brown liquid in a plastic bottle.
It was in 2014 that Lewis Road Creamery’s chocolate milk first hit the shelves and the population of New Zealand (or the North Island, at least) officially lost its shit.
Until that point, the company was well known in posho artisan food circles, mostly for its butters, but hardly a household name. That was all to change when it teamed up with a company that was – good old Whittaker’s.
The first bottles of Lewis Road Creamery Fresh Chocolate Milk, made with Whittaker’s 5 roll creamy milk chocolate, appeared at the end of September, with samples sent out to media (these were the halcyon days before influencers were really a thing, so we food hacks did pretty well out of the PR campaigns) on Thursday the 25th. They were duly drunk and ‘grammed:
It was delicious, no doubt about that, but we could never have anticipated what was to come. The milk went on sale on Tuesday, 30 September, only at Moore Wilson’s in Wellington and selected Farro stores in Auckland. Initial production was 1000 litres a week, and all stores quickly sold out of both 750ml and 300ml bottles (which were priced at $6.49 and $3.69 respectively). Every day more arrived, and every day it disappeared in a flash.
The year before, the cronut craze had swept New York and, as Ben Fahy wrote on Stop Press at the time, scarcity can be a great strategy to intensify demand. Lewis Road Creamery founder Peter Cullinane, a former advertising bigwig, has always denied the company engineered the shortage deliberately, but hell, it makes you think. They spent just $20,000 on advertising – a pittance in ad terms – and there was not a single TV commercial.
It certainly seemed to work for the Lewis Road Creamery chocolate milk. Chelsea Winter said she would step over her aunt to get some (a claim that poses many questions, not least the nature of her aunt’s proximity to the ground at the time of said stepping over and how she got there).
The roads were clogged by milk fiends on wheels, pursuing their dairy prize like people possessed. Folk outside of Auckland and Wellington begged to know when it would make it to the regions.
Finally, on Wednesday, 8 October, the milk launched in selected New World and Countdown stores in the North Island, and shit got real. Production was soon at 24,000 litres a week, then 30,000 litres a week, then 31,000, and Lewis Road Creamery began posting daily updates of which stores were getting deliveries to pre-empt the increasingly desperate pleas. Queues were commonplace. Purchase limits were enforced. Bottles were nicked from trolleys. Security guards were put in place to monitor fridges.
The social media supplication became increasingly desperate, and Lewis Road Creamery struggled to keep up.
Somebody started a Facebook page of not very good LRCCM-related memes. Someone else got some very good nail art.
Some people, including famous musicians, gave up trying to get their hands on some and took the DIY approach.
While others, shockingly, turned to the black market, with bottles turning up on TradeMe for inflated prices. Counterfeit versions allegedly appeared in dairies, which Lewis Road Creamery promised to investigate, and schoolyards.
The madness continued, and, perhaps inevitably, the rest of the world began to take an interest in what those kooky Kiwis were up to this time. “There’s a chocolate milk shortage in New Zealand and people are going crazy”, was the Daily Mail headline. “New Zealand is running out of chocolate milk and people are going insane”, was Buzzfeed‘s take.
It was hard not to feel just a wee bit proud of our batshit little nation.
What happened next? Well, Lewis Road Creamery Fresh Chocolate Milk finally made it to the South Island in September 2015 – nearly a full year after it first hit shelves in the north. A second milk-processing facility at Lewis Road’s milk partner Green Valley Dairies, at Mangatawhiri in Waikato, had allowed production to increase, and at the same time the company released two new flavours – vanilla and coffee. You can now get LRC choc milk whenever you like, and a whole bunch of other flavours too. There are no queues, there are no frenzies – or at least any that I can find documented on social media.
So, readers, what can we learn from the Great Chocolate Milk Frenzy of 2015? Perhaps that 2015 was a simpler time, a purer time. Or perhaps, as one kind commenter on the Buzzfeed story suggested at the time, we’re a bunch of selfish morons. Who is to say.