SANBORN – Chris Phillips of Wilson walked into Hoover’s Dairy just before 9 a.m. Friday and, without anyone asking, made clear that he was a man on a mission: “I have to get more egg nog before it’s all gone again.”
Keep in mind that at this point, there was a chance the world was going to end in a few hours, so there wasn’t a lot of time for chitchat. But even without looming Armageddon, if you’ve ever had Hoover’s egg nog, you understand the urgency.
Happily for Phillips and for egg nog lovers near and far, the apocalypse was a no-show. Even better, Rob Hoover and his family were well-prepared for the steady stream of people making their annual Yule journey to the nondescript little white building on the big farm in rural Niagara County.
The Hoover name is literally synonymous with this part of the county, where the family has been farming since the late 1800s and operating the dairy since 1920.
Yet of the 12 Western New York institutions we’ve chronicled in this yearlong series, Hoover’s is arguably the least well-known of the group outside of the immediate area. If you know it at all, it’s likely by virtue of its standing as one of the few remaining independent dairies in the United States and part of an even smaller group that still delivers milk products, which it does to about 1,600 homes across Niagara County.
Although the family no longer sells the milk produced by their own cows, the Hoovers hold onto another throwback from an earlier time by bottling in glass. Once the industry standard before plastic became the preferred material for containers, glass bottles now are a rarity, but for Hoover’s customers, glass is one of the main selling points. For a brief period every year, Hoover’s breaks out the recipe perfected by Rob II – great-grandson of founder Edwin Hoover – fills up those glass bottles with a sweet, yellowish, creamy elixir, and, like sailors answering the siren’s call, people start showing up to experience Nog-vana.
“A lot of people have told us they didn’t like egg nog,” Rob Hoover said. “Then they’ll try it, and the next thing you know, they’re coming in to buy it.”
The homemade egg nog has not been a constant in Hoover history; for years, the family sold it, but didn’t make it. But Rob wanted to try to improve on what was out there.
“Trial and error,” he said. “My last batch isn’t like my first batch.”
The nog is made on site, mixed in huge metal holding tanks before it is bottled. Rob said he expects to sell about 4,000 quarts this year. When it is gone, it is gone until next year. There is nothing quite as sad as being in the dairy when one of the Hoovers has to break that news to a disappointed customer. Conversely, when worried customers hear that the egg nog IS available … well, imagine the look on a 4-year-old’s face on Christmas morning.
The Hoovers have plenty of stories of people for whom it wouldn’t be Christmas without some of their egg nog. There’s the person who came in on a Tuesday, bought 40 quarts and then came back the next day asking for 12 more. There is the lady who lives just down the road who buys dozens of bottles and then carefully packs them for next-day delivery to her loved ones. There was the guy traveling from Michigan to Vermont – a journey that doesn’t normally include the hamlet of Sanborn – who had to stop for some before continuing his trip.
But you don’t have to trust them; spend a mid-December morning inside the dairy, and every customer you meet has an egg nog story they can’t wait to share.
June Jordan of North Tonawanda has been coming here for about nine years to pick up a case of bottles, which she then festoons with a red ribbon to give out as gifts.
“It is the best in the world,” she said.
Doris and Jim Peron of Wheatfield have been receiving Hoover’s egg nog as a gift for years but had never bought any to keep for themselves. They weren’t going to chance it this year.
“We decided we were going to come and get our own to make sure we get it again,” she said.
John Whiteman is an orthodontist from Youngstown who has been working on Hoover family teeth for years but had never tasted the egg nog that helped them pay for all those appointments.
“I heard so much about it, I decided to make a little safari up here,” he said.
The operative word there is “heard,” which is pretty much the only way anyone ever finds out about Hoover’s. The family doesn’t really go in for advertising, either old school or newfangled. (I asked Rob and his mother, Judy, about a Facebook page devoted to the business, and both said they had heard of it but didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t bother asking whether either of them were on Twitter.) Judy, who married into the Hoover family, said all of her ancestors almost certainly would have resisted talking to a newspaper about the business, let alone allowing a photographer and videographer to get them on camera.
You can’t argue with their success.
You also needn’t worry about the future. The Hoovers run a truly family business, with multiple generations involved, including the next one coming. Rob’s son Robbie is 13 years old and already is helping out after school, even more so at this time of the year. “As soon as he’s off the bus he’s in here,” Rob said. “Making egg nog.”