Global Gourmet Chocolatiers Drive Expansion of Detroit Dried Milk Supplier

Gossamer sheets of dried milk billow as they come off the 40-year-old roller driers in the carefully climate-controlled production room of VernDale Products of Detroit. Soon, though, two state-of-the-art driers will be added as VernDale expands into a new plant a few minutes away.

Dale Johnson is president of Detroit-based VernDale Products, a company started by his parents in 1958.

Dale Johnson is president of the family-owned company that was started by his parents in 1958. My dad named it after himself and me and I was only 6 so it was sort of preordained that I go into the business.

Johnson is a Michigan State business school alumnus who, in his 60s, is working on an MBA as an intellectual exercise. He, along with brother Barry and sister LaMar, continue the tradition of dried milk production that was started by their parents, Verne (with an e) and Marlene.

There wasn't anything in Detroit like what they were doing in Chicago Johnson says of the family's decision to move to Detroit. Both parents had been in the dairy business in Chicago and wanted to strike out on their own.

The more you're in business the more you have to evolve, Johnson explains, and points out that the company started out as a way to dehydrate outdated dairy returns. Milk bottles (it was the €˜50s, remember) and cartons that had reached their expiration date were returned by grocery stores to the dairy as unsellable. The senior Johnsons evaporated the outdated milk, dried it on their roller drier, and then sold the resulting powder as an ingredient in animal feed. That ended up as our animal food operation, Johnson continues. Our food-grade milk, on the other hand, is right from the farm. In 1976 we moved to our current location, the former Twin Pines Dairy plant in Detroit.

We're building a new plant, also in an old dairy in Detroit. It used to be Detroit Pure Milk Company and then later the Wesley Ice Cream plant.

Barry and Dale Johnson and their sister LaMar Tannheimer, from left, are expanding VernDale Products with a new plant.

What prompted the new plant? Customer demand. We've been successful in establishing ourselves as a manufacturer of high quality roller milk powder to be used in premium milk chocolate manufacturers' formulas. We're the only manufacturer of this product in the United States, so there's a risk-mitigation concern on the part of our customers. If something happens here in this plant, what are they going to do?

Costing about $15 million, according to, … the expansion, (VernDale) has been awarded a $436,000 Michigan Business Development Program incentive. In addition, the city of Detroit established a Plant Rehabilitation District for the project, along with offering property tax abatement incentives.

The competition
Using dehydration and rollers to produce dried milk powder is an expensive and time-consuming process. Most dried milk producers use sprayers in huge drums to dry milk a method that produces far greater volumes in much less time but the end product has a distinctly different chemistry than the roller process.

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