Business Q&A: Tom Palchak loves his job, even as Penn State’s Berkey Creamery gets busier

Tom Palchak has been the manager of the Penn State Berkey Creamery since 1986.
Tom Palchak has been the manager of the Penn State Berkey Creamery since 1986. File photo

Tom Palchak took a vacation at the right time about 30 years ago.

The Berkey Creamery manager, who was working at a Denver Safeway dairy plant, spent a few days in State College with his wife and in-laws in 1986. The Penn State graduate and his wife met with a few food science professors during his stay.

“One of them, Dr. Glass, took us out to lunch and mentioned the previous Creamery manager was going to retire,” Palchak said. “That happened to be the last day of the search, so I just remarked offhand that would be an interesting job. After lunch we went to my father-in-law’s house, and I got on an old typewriter to type out my resume. Sure enough, I ended up accepting the job. It was strictly out of the blue and by chance.”

Palchak said you can call it fate if you want, but it’s the best thing that could have happened for him.

“I love the job,” he said. “I simply love the work I do.”

The Creamery is celebrating 150 years of service this year.

Q: You get to wake up every morning and manage the Creamery. How do I get that job?

A: Well, it’s hard to get, because there have not been very many. There have been six managers since 1901, so this job has a tendency to stay occupied for many years. I think it’s the same reason that we understand we’re a part of something much bigger and that we can bring something positive to Penn State. That’s how I view it.

Q: You said earlier your two favorite words here are “never ending.” Why?

A: It’s extremely busy and getting busier each year. I’ve probably worn that expression out, and the employees are probably tired of hearing it, but I use it for a few reasons.

Milk is so perishable, and you have a certain limited time that you can take raw milk and manufacture it into beverage milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, sour cream, ricotta, cheddar cheese and frozen desserts. It’s called allocation disposition of raw milk and cream, and it’s a balancing act. With the exception of a few inputs, such as inventory and estimation of sales, it’s very difficult to balance that and make it all right all of the time.

It’s a choreography of what we have to do to deliver our products in a good tasting, nutritious and safe way and still make sure the people getting their orders are getting their orders between hundreds of possible products.

Q: At what times do orders really get ramped up?

A: Certainly the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before a football game. It is controlled chaos in the manner that the days are full of planning production and meeting requests of a lot of customers. In the sales room, it’s certainly the Fridays and Saturdays of football season and the week of Arts Festival, which is turning out to be the single busiest week that we have year after year.

You have other dates that impact the Creamery. They are graduation weekends, move-out weekends and parent visitation weekends.

Q: How much milk do you use annually?

A: About 5.5 million pounds. About 70 percent comes from the university dairy herd on campus. We also purchase milk from three family farms in the Bellefonte area.

Q: What does that come out to for ice cream you produce in a week?

A: That cycles a little bit, but I can tell you since March we’ve averaged between 5,000 and 8,000 gallons a week, and there’s no let-up.

Q: How many people work here to make it run?

A: We have 23 full-time employees, about 90 students in the store, and in the dairy plant our interns are either dairy science or food science students.

Q: And is that dramatically different from when you came here in 1986?

A: I think when I came here we had seven full-time employees. This is one of the things I feel best about here.

The Creamery has actually created opportunities for work in Centre County, and these are not insignificant jobs. These are high-paying jobs that require a skill set and allow families to enjoy living here and having their kids go to school here. That’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment that we’ve increased opportunities for employment here.