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Butter Lambs an Easter Tradition Made on Chicago's Southeast Side

By Howard Ludwig | April 17, 2014 6:40am
 Danish Maid Butter Co. on the Southeast Side has been making lamb-shaped butter for Easter since 1947.
Easter Butter Lambs
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SOUTH CHICAGO — The sacrificial lamb for many Chicago residents this Easter will be made of whipped butter.

Danish Maid Butter Co. has been molding butter into the shape of lambs every Easter since 1947. The Southeast Side company produced 180,000 butter lambs this year, down slightly from last year.

Matt and Susan Wagner run the business that was bought by their father in 1986. The brother-and-sister team handle daily operations. Matt — who goes by the nickname Bear — manages production. Susan focuses on accounting, marketing and other clerical duties.

"But when it comes to the lambs, we are both out there on the floor," Susan Wagner said Monday.

Howard Ludwig joins DNAinfo radio to talk about Danish Maid's butter lambs:

Their mother, also named Susan, is semi-retired but still has a hand in the business. Her late husband, Raymond, began working for the original owners in 1968. Denmark native Sivert Kramme founded the business, though records about about the precise launch date are unavailable.

Jewel-Osco has long been the biggest customer for Danish Maid's butter lambs. The Itasca-based chain bought 46,800 butter lambs this Easter. Prices vary, but the novelty item typically sells for about $2.29, Susan Wagner said.

Most of the 3-ounce lambs are sold in the Chicago area. But distributors have managed to find shelf space for the Easter item in stores throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Wagner said.

The majority of the butter used to make lambs and Danish Maid's other products comes from Wisconsin-based Grassland Dairy Products Inc., Wagner said.

When Danish Maid isn't cranking out whipped butter in the shape of sheep, the company manufactures millions of single-serving containers of whipped butter. These small plastic cups of butter are often found in casual dining restaurants, to-go boxes and meals served by catering companies.

These butter cups are the Danish Maid's highest volume product, but the company's largest seller by weight is a golden-yellow product called butter oil or clarified butter. This unsalted butter with the milk solids and water removed is commonly used by commercial bakeries and restaurants.

"The majority of people that get the butter oil are using it as an ingredient," Wagner said.

Hoping to capitalize on another holiday item, Danish Maid reintroduced a turkey-shaped butter in 2008. The Wagners thought the turkeys might match the popular butter lambs, since everybody celebrates Thanksgiving. But the lambs remain Danish Maid's dominant seasonal item.

"We brought [the turkeys] back. They were around in the 1960s," Wagner said.

Heading into the Easter season, Danish Maid stockpiles its other products. Lamb production also requires adding four additional workers to the company's crew of seven employees.

The Wagners attribute the slight downturn in lamb sales this year to the abrupt closure of Dominick's. They believe sales will rebound as the stores continue to reopen under new ownership.

Danish Maid pins much of the success of its butter lambs to Christians, particularly those with Eastern European roots. Many of these customers are known to decorate their butter lambs, using peppercorns for the eyes and placing a red ribbon around the neck.

"Some of them even put a flag in the butt that says, 'Hallelujah,'" she said.