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Tom Palchak – Food Scientist and Manager of Penn State’s Berkey Creamery (Part 1 of 2)

By Admin | July 16, 2008

Tom Palchak is the Manager of the world-famous Berkey Creamery on the campus of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. We recently had a chance to speak with him about his career as a food scientist and the day-to-day running of the Creamery.


Where are you from?

I was born in Trafford, Pennsylvania; a very small town in Westmoreland County, the seventh of eleven children. My parents were first-generation Americans. My mom was a homemaker and my dad a disabled Navy veteran from World War II.

Where did you go to college and what was your academic major?

I graduated with a degree in Food Science from Penn State in 1980.

I was quite fortunate. My part time job during my junior and senior year of high school was working in a milk testing laboratory. The laboratory director at the milk plant encouraged me to consider the Food Science major at Penn State.

Her advice was the all-important non-parent encouragement I needed to get my life on track and I am forever grateful to her for this guidance. Shortly afterward, she moved away and I never saw her again.

What has been your career path from college to director of the Berkey Creamery? How did you get the Creamery position?

My position at the Creamery is one of providence, luck, opportunity or serendipity; take your pick!

After graduating Penn State I was hired as a production supervisor of the large Safeway Milk Plant in Denver Colorado. In fall of 1986 my family was vacationing in Pennsylvania and we stopped by the Food Science department to visit with Dr. Edward Glass who was not only the dairy manufacturing professor but also the instructor in whose class I met my future wife.

We were lab partners and let’s just say the chemistry extended beyond the Babcock butterfat tester. During lunch he happened to mention the Creamery manager, at that time, was retiring.

At first I dismissed the notion of looking in to this but eventually I cobbled together a quick resume – on an old Olivetti type writer no less – and the next thing we knew, our house was for sale in Parker, Colorado. I’ve been here ever since.

What are your current day-to-day duties at the Creamery?

The duties are varied and always interesting. Primary responsibilities focus on managing quality, production scheduling, personnel, and food safety concerns of Penn State’s Creamery dairy plant and salesroom.

We are an academic support unit in the Food Science department which entails managing the internship programs in the dairy plant up to and including providing funding for four graduate assistantships.

Additionally, we provide resources and facilities for a host of workshops and short courses in Food Science. We also provide outreach services to the many milk and ice cream plants operating in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as joint ventures with Pennsylvania’s Division of Milk Sanitation.

With all of that comes added responsibility of providing 225,000 gallons of ice cream in over 150 flavors to the Penn State faithful. My job requires about fifty hours per week and it is anything but soporific.

What is your personal favorite of the Creamery products?

There are two. One is our butter pecan ice cream. It is about as close to perfection as can be achieved in an ice cream flavor. The other is our chocolate milk; pure, rich, cold, and delicious.

What is the mission of the Creamery? Are you non-profit? Do you conduct research?

Succinctly, our mission is to be a financially viable academic support unit in the department of Food Science. We support the teaching, research and outreach activities of our department in particular and our College of Agricultural Sciences in general.

The Berkey Creamery is a not-for-profit operation at our University. We are careful stewards of our income and it is allocated towards five main programs: internships in our dairy plant; graduate assistantships in our department; equipment upgrades and preventive maintenance; a fund to cover unforeseen emergency repairs; and support of departmental programs and direct funding support in Food Science.

In terms of research my responsibilities are to support programs and endeavors which will improve the safety, variety, and wholesomeness of beverage milk and manufactured dairy products.

Food Science professors who emphasize dairy research make full-use of our processing facilities. For instance Donna Miller, a PhD student, just completed her research in Bacillus spp. and milk processing facilities.

Her focus was on the development of a molecular method that could be used to track B. cereus in dairy processing facilities. The published work will be extremely useful to large and small processors.

Dr. Robert Roberts is working on probiotic bacteria in yogurt smoothie drinks. His research is in collaboration with Georgetown University and funded by Gerber foundation.The drink, appropriately named “Dr. Bob’s strawberry low fat yogurt smoothie” is available for sale and is used in nutrition studies.

What are your annual sales?

Our annual sales are an integral part of our Food Science budget and cannot be revealed. I apologize for this omission.

What new products are you developing? We are always developing new ice cream, yogurt and cheese flavors.This fall we’ll introduce a candy-bar ice cream with Snicker® inclusions.

We are evaluating aged cheddar with dill and garlic, and cheddar curds flavored with buffalo wing sauce. Non-fat soft serve frozen yogurt will be available to students who reside in our dormitories.

Our new strawberry low fat yogurt smoothie with probiotic bacteria is light and refreshing and selling very well in our salesroom. We continually strive to introduce new products and maintain commitment to traditional dairy foods such as milk, cheese and ice cream.

Would you agree with the assessment that the Creamery/Penn State is the world’s leader in ice-cream knowledge?

Without appearing boastful, yes. Pioneering food science research performed by world-respected individuals such as Drs. Stuart Patton, Chester Dahl, Paul Dimick, Phillip Keeney, Arun Kilara, and Robert Roberts continue to develop materials and methods that enhance the flavor, quality, and wholesomeness of America’s most favorite dessert.

Our Ice Cream Short Course continues to attract people from all over the world and has been offered continually since 1892.

Disclosure: The interviewer’s uncle was a past faculty member at Penn State and the interviewer has eaten Creamery ice cream many times.

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