The conventional wisdom is that in this current economic climate of harsh, bottom-line realities, the independent operator can’t compete against a deep-pocketed store with a national distribution system, economies of scale and volume. We live in a big-box world, and the little guy doesn’t stand much of a chance.

So how then do you explain the endurance of Mountain View’s The Milk Pail Market?

Located right across the street from Safeway, the 38-year-old market has carved out a deep niche—one filled with rarefied cheese, eclectically flavored ravioli and great deals on produce.

Owner Steve Rasmussen bought what was a bankrupt milk-processing facility in 1974 and renamed it the Milk Pail Market. The store was originally a drive-through milk shop that pasteurized its own milk and sold it in glass bottles.

As more grocery stores began to open in the area, Rasmussen figured he had to stay ahead of the competition, and so the Milk Pail became “a little alternative food business sort of thing” that sold food in bulk to value-conscious shoppers and those looking for out-of-the-ordinary ingredients way before Whole Foods Market started doing the same thing.

In time, Rasmussen added produce, vast quantities of which are now piled up around the edges of the open-air store.

In spite of the prepackaged sameness that defines the retail world today, Rasmussen has stayed in business by going the opposite route and offering specialty items one is not likely to find elsewhere and deals on produce by buying directly from producers.

Because the market caters to an international clientele, the produce goes way beyond iceberg lettuce and Red Delicious apples. I spotted a green cauliflower for 39 cents a pound and beautiful-looking Indian eggplant the size of cue balls.

So when Trader Joe’s opened nearby a dozen years ago, it didn’t hurt Rasmussen’s business. It helped. Trader Joe’s shoppers came from near and far, and many also made their way to Rasmussen’s store on the corner of California Avenue and San Antonio Road. Same thing when Whole Foods opened on El Camino Real. Shoppers looking for the organic and specialty products at Whole Foods ended up at the Milk Pail, too.

“I think the atmosphere of the business is a very engaging for a certain part of the population,” Rasmussen says. “It’s very experiential.”

Rasmussen calls that “certain part” of the population “thrill-seekers” who are looking for something else in their shopping cart than the latest product from Kraft or Nestle.

Cheese has been a big part of the Milk Pail’s success, too.  When he first opened, Ramussen began selling sharp cheddar cheese from Wisconsin in 10-pound blocks, and he sold a lot of it. Then he had the bright idea of selling that cheese in smaller pieces. There were no digital scales or wrapping machines then, so he bought a baby scale, several boxes of Saran wrap and rubber bands, and hand wrote the labels.

Now, he sells more than 300 kinds of foreign and domestic cheese. And because of his contacts in the dairy world (his family used to own an East Bay dairy), he was able to get his hands on some really good cheese.

A walk through the store offers a tour of the world via cheese. I found one of my favorite cheeses, a smoky sheep-milk cheese from Spain called idiazabal, for just $9.29 a pound. I also spotted the first Filipino cheese I’ve ever seen, a semisoft cow’s-milk cheese called kesong puti. 
Rasmussen is something of a cheese evangelist and hosts cheese-tasting and cheese-making events.

“I really want to get them excited about what’s possible,” he says.

He was even invited to do a cheese class at nearby Google when the Milk Pail sold more “Google Offers” coupons in a shorter period of time than any other business.

If you like cheese, seek out the store’s own label of fromage blanc. It comes from a herd of cows Rasmussen owns in Northern California. The cheese is the base for their line of ravioli, too. The store creates unlikely flavors like Thai curry cheddar and horseradish harvarti. 

Safeway shopper or thrill-seeker? I’d rather be a thrill-seeker.

The Milk Pail Market
2585 California Street, Mountain View