Eric Lincoln, co-owner of Houlton Farms Dairy in Houlton, shows an empty half-pint container at the company's processing plant. Due to a supply shortage for the company's cocoa mixture, the dairy has had to scale back production of its popular drink for consumers in order to keep schools in southern Aroostook County stocked. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — For generations, Houlton Farms Dairy’s chocolate milk has been a staple of daily routines with its thick, creamy texture providing an abundance of chocolatey goodness.

But lately consumers have noticed the popular product has been hard to come by in convenience and grocery stores.

Like so many other industries, the Houlton dairy has experienced a supply chain shortage of its signature cocoa mixture, which has forced Aroostook County’s only locally owned dairy to scale back its production of the tasty drink. The company that makes the dairy’s special cocoa mixture was having difficulty obtaining raw products, resulting in the shortage.

“When we went to order our supply in December, we were told it was going to be an eight-week wait,” Eric Lincoln, co-owner of the dairy, said Wednesday. “I knew right then that we were not going to make it.”

Lincoln said he hopes the cocoa mix shortage will be resolved by the first of March, when a new delivery is expected to arrive and full production can resume.

A milk packaging unit fills half-pints of white milk at Houlton Farms Dairy in Houlton. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Because of the shortage, the dairy has temporarily ceased production of all of its chocolate milk, except for packaging the pint and half-pint sizes to keep local schools and convenience stores stocked. At peak production, the dairy distributes 8,000 half-pints a week to local schools and stores, Lincoln said.

Under normal circumstances, the dairy would produce gallons, half gallons, quarts, pints and half-pints of the chocolate milk. The half-pints are predominantly shipped to local school districts in southern Aroostook County.

“Our priority became the schools,” Lincoln said. “That meant cutting out gallons and half gallons and cutting back pints.”

The shortage of pints in many stores has hit especially hard for consumers, as many people chose that size over other drinks like sodas for their work break or lunchtime routine, Lincoln said.

“You wouldn’t think we would sell a lot of pints in a grocery store, but we do,” he said. “I am hoping we will be able to pick up production of that (pint) soon to get more into the stores.”

Houlton Farms Dairy has been in operation since 1938, providing fresh milk, butter and ice cream to generations in southern Aroostook County and beyond. Located at 24 Commonwealth Ave., the establishment has gone through many changes over the years, but remains a family business.

Alan Clark, who established the first milk pasteurizing plant north of Bangor, operated the company for 40 years before retiring in 1977. Then the business was sold to Milton B. Lambert Jr., who continued to operate the dairy until April 1, 1981.

The Lincoln family took over the company with Leonard and Alice Lincoln, along with their sons Eric and James, and still operate the plant.

A look inside Houlton Farms Dairy’s milk processing plant in Houlton. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Surviving a supply shortage is nothing new for the Lincoln family. Each summer, due to a massive public demand, the company churns out as much butter as possible, but stores are often unable to keep up with the demand.

This past summer, the dairy had difficulty obtaining flavors for its signature ice creams, served at dairy bars in Houlton, Presque Isle and Caribou.

Also, during the holiday season, the dairy was unable to obtain its normal supply of ingredients for its popular eggnog product, forcing Lincoln to seek alternatives. Unfortunately, he said he was not overly pleased with how that product came out as it tasted different from its normal recipe.

“We knew in July that we were not going to have our regular eggnog ingredients, so I started searching for alternatives,” he said. “We ended up getting some out of California in late November. And I was not really happy with the product because it was not as good as our normal eggnog.”

Tinkering with recipes is something that consumers often do not take kindly, as evidenced by the Coca-Cola company changing its recipe to disastrous results in the 1980s.

Because of that uneasiness, Lincoln said he was not willing to alter the recipe for the chocolate milk.

“Our supplier is going to do what they can do to move us up in the schedule,” Lincoln said. “So that was really good news. I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”