I’m just popping into the dairy!


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The dairy: I’m not aware of any other country where I can say, “I’m just popping into the dairy”, and other people in my vicinity will know what I’m doing.

In the UK I’d be off to the ‘corner shop’; In the US, the ‘Seven-Eleven’; Australians, the ‘milk bar’; In other places, the ‘convenience store’. Only in New Zealand am I understood when I say, ‘the dairy’.

I know I can buy my milk at the gas station, and often do, and there are lots of items which will certainly be cheaper at the supermarket, but I couldn’t live without my dairy.

I have probably lived in seven or eight different homes in various cities in the last decade. While in some places I have gotten on well with the neighbours, in others, I’ve been underwhelmed by their welcome, their barking dog, their cars parked in the middle of the ‘shared’ driveway and their 3am heavy metal music appreciation group sharing ethos.

But in every case, at every location, there has been one consistent positive: I have built a relationship with the local dairy owner and come to rely on them.

I’m not sure if that’s just a ‘townie’ thing? … it probably is. I make no apology: I’m a townie, and proud to be so.

If I buy bread at the gas station, I can also buy a latte, and gas up.

If I buy bread at the supermarket, I can sometimes get it ‘on special’, and I can buy my week’s groceries there at the same time.

But when I go to make toast and realise, ‘we’re out of bread’, and I race over to the dairy, I not only get convenience – and ultimately toast – but also a feeling of comfort and relief.

When something important is missing from your life, as my Mum would say, “They might have some at the dairy.”

In my experience most New Zealand dairies are owned and operated by families of Indian descent – their pervasive ethos of fair trading, hard work, long hours, customer service, family involvement and community support are all there on display at the dairy.

If ever we need a positive example of good ethics and hard-work – for my money it’s staring us in the face every day: the dairy.

It is then with a sense of despair that I read daily of yet another ram raid, another armed robbery, another assault, and then, another death at another dairy somewhere in the country.

I was taken aback when I recently visited a dairy in the Hamilton suburb of Frankton. The roller door was up so I knew it was open, but, I had to press a buzzer at the front door to be allowed in through the entrance cage.

Inside much of the stock was behind Perspex and the dairy worker was encased in a steel and Perspex-framed cage. Another mesh frame enveloped the entire counter area. There were no windows in the store. I felt like I had walked onto the set of a 70s Scorsese movie set in a Brooklyn Heights liquor store.

Despite the imposing façade the service was warm and the conversation pleasant – how sad for the middle-aged shop keeper that she no longer gets to enjoy fresh air and a view of the street (other than via CCTV) and that she now only has an obstructed distant physical connection with customers from her community.

The question on my mind: “What have we come to?”

I wonder, if it was a bank that was ram-raided, if it was a hospital worker that was threatened with a weapon, if it was a school classroom that a disgruntled soul decided to wave a gun at, would the response from the authorities be as half-hearted as it sometimes seems to be when a dairy owner is threatened? I suspect not.

I pray we never let the response to threats of harm to those workers who are offended against be influenced by their race; That when a worker is threatened with a baseball bat the lights and siren are immediately turned on in the patrol car and they are never again asked to wait for an hour.

The dairy is for me as much part of our community infrastructure as the public swimming pool, the library and the local primary school – only I use the dairy far more frequently.

How dare someone disrespect the institution that is the dairy so violently and offensively? I am angry.

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” A really important part of that village is the dairy. Let’s raise our children to respect and value the dairy and the hard-working people who run it.

To the Government I say, “Thank you – thank you for excluding the humble dairy from lockdown trading restrictions during the Covid crisis.” At least someone in Wellington understands and appreciates the importance of the institution.

Pushpa and Vikram own our local Dairy. When I ask them for an obscure item that they don’t normally stock, that very item is miraculously in stock next time I visit – that’s customer service! Thank you to you both.

(BTW, how did you know I’d need pickled ginger urgently last week? … Now that’s not something the petrol station would have had, aye Mum?)

Related: NZ spelling: consonants optional

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Alan Neben
Alan Neben
Alan Neben is a Mount Maunganui local and experienced New Zealand publisher. His columns provide a light-hearted perspective on social changes effecting New Zealanders

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