Despite what Hollywood may lead us to believe, not all successful startups hatch in a garage. Some start at the kitchen table.

Just ask Mike and Sue McCloskey, the dairy farming pioneers behind fairlife, makers of Core Power protein drinks and a new premium, cold-filtered milk brand launching nationwide this month through a distribution deal with The Coca-Cola Company’s Minute Maid division. The seeds of the husband-and-wife team’s company were planted nearly 25 years ago during a conversation over breakfast.

The McCloskeys had lost the main water well on their New Mexico farm and the cows stopped drinking due to sediment in the water. After trying unsuccessfully to drill into the same aquifer, they developed a simple, yet innovative, filtration system that gave their thirsty cows purer-than-ever water. 

“We filtered out the bad and kept the good, and the cows reacted to it,” Mike McCloskey, a trained veterinarian, explained during a recent interview. “And we immediately saw how much the cows appreciated it. Their coats and health improved rapidly, and their milk production increased.”

The breakthrough begged a bigger question: Could a similar approach be used to produce better milk?

“I said to Mike, ‘As a woman and mom of four active, on-the-go kids, it’s a challenge to get the daily nutrition we all need,’” Sue McCloskey recalled. “We realized it was possible to take milk’s nutrients and increase the ones we wanted, like protein and calcium, and decrease those we didn’t want, like lactose and sugars. And we knew that a great glass of milk like that would be something consumers would want.”

McCloskeys barn
The McCloskeys at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana. Their flagship dairy is open year-round to the public.

They experimented with food-grade filters on that same kitchen table, then collaborated with researchers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo over the next few years to refine their now-patented cold-filtration technology. The process is similar to how dairy farmers have filtered milk for centuries, separating the cream from the milk in order to produce skim, low-fat and whole dairy products. fairlife is simply taking the approach one step further, Mike says. 

The end result is fairlife ultra-filtered milk, which contains 50 percent more protein, 30 percent more calcium and half the sugar of ordinary milk – without any added protein powders or nutritional supplements.

“We do more by doing less,” Mike adds. “We enhance milk’s natural nutrition, adding nothing that wasn’t already there except more goodness.” Watch this short video illustration of fairlife's cold-filtration process.

fairlife with cereal
 fairlife ultra-filtered milk contains 50% more protein, 30% more calcium and half the sugar of ordinary milk.

'A Symbiotic Relationship'

The foundation of fairlife is the industry’s highest-quality milk. And great milk starts with responsible farming practices Mike learned as a kid.

“My uncle was a farm animal vet who instilled in me both a love of animals and the importance of treating them with respect and care,” said Mike, who transitioned away from his Southern California vet practice in the ‘90s to become a full-time dairy farmer when he and Sue bought a 300-cow farm.

“We were able to put our money where our mouths were and fully implement everything we believed in,” he said. “When we started out, we were driven by our love of farming, caring for the environment and making our cows’ lives better to help them produce the highest-quality milk possible. We’ve always known that the better you treat an animal, the happier and more productive she is. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

fairlife mccloskeys barn
Mike McCloskey transitioned from his vet practice in the ‘90s to become a full-time dairy farmer when he and Sue bought a 300-cow farm.

As impressive as fairlife’s progressive farming practices and proprietary technology are, nothing tops the creamy, fresh-off-the-farm deliciousness of the finished product.

“What first stood out for me was the taste,” said fairlife CEO Steve Jones, who first met the McCloskeys – and tried their milk – in 2010. “I knew that if they could produce milk of this quality that tastes this great, that they could really make a difference not only in the dairy category but in consumers’ lives. Then, when I learned about the filtration technology and responsible farming practices, I fully understood their mission and had to be a part of it.”

'Grass to Glass' Goodness

fairlife sources its milk from its founding company, Select Milk Producers, the country’s fifth-largest dairy cooperative with members in Texas, New Mexico and the Midwest. The McCloskeys formed the co-op of fellow family-owned farms in 2004, gradually building a network of progressive farmers who share their “grass to glass” commitment to milk quality, animal care and environmental sustainability. All fairlife products can be traced back to the dairies their milk comes from.

“It’s a holistic approach to not just what we make but to how we make it,” Sue says. “We own our own land and grow our own crops to feed our own cows. And we run our own biofuel trucks to take our own milk to our own state-of-the-art facility in Michigan to filter and package our own milk in our own bottles.” Watch this short video on fairlife's mission.

fairlife farmer feeding calf
Olivia Hayworth is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. Her family-owned farm in Indiana is part of the Select Milk Producers co-op, which sources milk used in fairlife products.

Select Milk Producers’ flagship dairy, Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, is open year-round for tours. The McCloskeys have always been passionate advocates for sustainable farming, both out in the community and on their own farms.

“In the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, organizations with big acronyms were telling the agriculture story for us… and the story they were telling wasn’t very nice,” Sue explains. “This, and the fact that most Americans have very little knowledge of farming, was a big motivation for opening up our dairies to the public. Because we’re very proud of what we do and what we’re producing." 

About 180,000 people tour Fair Oaks Farms each year, and another 300,000 or so drop in to buy milk, cheese and other products. The dairy is located a short drive from both Chicago and Indianapolis. 

“When we share our story of how we treat our cows and focus on their comfort and care and creating a stress-free environment, that really resonates with people who visit our farm,” Mike said. “It gives them an instant comfort with the fairlife brand.”

He’s quick to add that they don’t use the tours to push an agenda. “We offer total transparency about our practices,” he clarifies, “and allow people to make up their own minds.”

Power in Numbers

The McCloskeys’ first commercial product was Athletes Honey Milk, a high-protein milk drink targeting fitness enthusiasts, rebranded as Core Power in 2012. Core Power uses fairlife cold-filtered milk as its base.

“Mike and his family are all very active, so he recognized the need for a product like Core Power,” Jones said. “He was taken aback by the fact that the leading sports recovery drink at the time, despite its name, did not contain real milk… so he saw an opportunity to reach a very sophisticated consumer who understands protein and nutrition.”

The Core Power launch revealed consumers’ desire for a clean, uncluttered product label and short ingredient list – lessons they’re now applying to the fairlife rollout.

Core Power Snowboarder 604
Core Power, a high-protein drink targeting athletes, is made with fairlife cold-filtered milk.

“We learned that keeping our packaging as simple as possible while giving consumers the information they need is critical,” Jones added. “Many people are looking for more protein, so we tell them how much our products have right on the front panel. They’re also looking for great taste, so it’s important to communicate appetite appeal.” 

While Core Power has taken a grassroots, city-to-city approach to building its brand with the fitness community, fairlife is following what Jones calls the “Simply Orange model.”

He’s referring to the premium juice brand Minute Maid launched in 2001 and built into a billion-dollar trademark through a focus on driving awareness and trial through commercial availability, mass-market advertising and in-store sampling.

fairlife will support the launch this year with a $30 million marketing investment. Social/digital media elements and a national TV campaign breaking in March will emphasize fairlife’s purity, taste and nutrition, and introduce consumers to the fairlife farms and the families who own and run them.

fairlife milk lineup
fairlife ultra-filtered milk is available in skim, reduced-fat (2%), whole and chocolate reduced-fat (2%) varieties.

'Masterbrand Potential'

“Consumers today want nutritious products without sacrificing taste, and that’s the beauty of what fairlife offers,” said Mike Saint John, president of Coca-Cola North America’s Minute Maid Business Unit, which is handling sales and distribution for fairlife. “It’s so unique and different from anything else in the milk category, which means when consumers try it, they’ll come back to buy it again and again.”

Saint John said the Minute Maid team is focusing its initial efforts on national mass retail, drugstore, convenience, grocery and club accounts, but will soon expand to foodservice outlets and “wherever milk is sold.”

“I have never seen customers this excited about a product launch in my 33 years with the company,” he added, noting that retailers who participated in a recent pilot test in Denver grew their milk sales for the first time in 40 years. 

The fairlife brand complements The Coca-Cola Company’s existing range of still and sparkling beverages, designed for every occasion and lifestyle. In 2012, Select Milk Producers entered into a partnership with The Coca-Cola Company to form fairlife. The Coca‑Cola Company is the distribution partner for the products fairlife creates, markets and sells.

“In order to meet our long-term growth targets, we need to not only build our core business, but also explore opportunities in adjacent categories,” Saint John said. “fairlife gives us access to the $20 billion milk category where we currently have no representation, so all revenue will be incremental to our portfolio.”

He sees the potential for fairlife to eventually expand into a “masterbrand” in the fast-growing value-added dairy segment through the development of smoothies, drinkable yogurts and more.

“The timing for this launch couldn’t be better,” Saint John concluded, “when you consider what retailers and consumers are looking for these days."