Likely you have driven by Bravo Farms, on the east side of Highway 99, about six miles south of Kingsburg, without giving it a thought. Maybe the 1950s Nash Metropolitan poking out from a rooftop caught your attention. But unless you needed gas, you probably never thought about stopping.
Well, think about it. If you stop once, you will make it a favorite “destination” on your trips north.
The Bravo Farms complex includes a gas station, market, restaurant, gift shop and gourmet cheese factory. But it’s much more.
It’s a jumble of antiques and collectables. It’s a petting zoo, private park, garden patio, meeting place and Old West town. Tomorrow it will be something else, as the visionary and eclectic owners add to their menagerie.
Like most people, I stumbled upon Bravo Farms on my way to someplace else. I left Bakersfield, driving north on Highway 99, heading for a conference in Lake Tahoe. About 90 minutes into the trip, I was already hungry and I needing to find a restroom. The Traver offramp looked promising.
My plan was to get quickly in and out. Instead, I spent nearly two hours savoring the house special – a Bravo cheeseburger – poking around the gift shop, sampling cheese and watching cheese being made through a factory display window.
It was so much fun that I didn’t mind being two hours behind schedule. Those traveling with small children would find this an entertaining place to let the kids blow off some steam.
Bravo Farms’ restaurant is not a mere hamburger joint. It has a large menu that includes a variety of American and Mexican dishes. And if you have a sweet tooth, there also is an ice cream and coffee house.
What began in the 1970s as a Highway 99 fruit stand midway between Bakersfield and Fresno has evolved into a “field of dreams” for an old-time Visalia dairyman and a young Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate.
Jonathan Van Ryn, who grew up on his father’s Tulare County dairy, studied cheesemaking as a Cal Poly student. After he graduated about five years ago, he laid plans to build a cheese factory.
Bill Boersma operated a small dairy near Visalia, where he milked cows and produced handmade cheese he branded as Bravo Farms. With demand for his cheese increasing, Boersma needed a new, bigger location for his factory.
The young man with lots of ideas and the older man with years of experience became partners, moving Bravo Farms into a factory built at the former Traver fruit stand. Last year, the factory turned out 400,000 pounds of award-winning cheese. This year, Bravo Farms expects to produce and sell 600,000 pounds, according to Ryan Davis, who oversees business operations at the manufacturing and retail complex.
“If you are a big cheese lover, you know about Bravo Farms,” said Van Ryn, during a recent interview. Bravo Farms cheeses have won awards at national and international competitions. They are served in five-star restaurants, and sold in gourmet shops, farmers’ markets, chain supermarkets and over the Internet (www.bravofarms.com). “They are very well known in the Bay Area. You can find them in Bakersfield in Save Marts.”
Davis says the top seller is Bravo Farms’ Chipotle Cheddar cheese. This cheese and Bravo Farms’ Silver Mountain, a 13-pound clothe-bound wheel of cheddar, have won raves and awards at numerous competitions.
Van Ryn explains Bravo Farms cheeses are produced the “old fashioned way – all raw milk, nothing pasteurized and a lot of natural flavors.” The cheese is produced from milk that comes from a Pixley dairy operated by Van Ryn’s uncle, Gary de Graaf. It takes about a gallon of milk to make a pound of Bravo Farms cheese.
Visitors can watch cheese being made through a large viewing window or by arranging a tour by calling Davis at 559-897-4634. Bravo Farms cheese is made in three 500-gallon vats. After processing, the blocks are aged for up to nine months before being sold to customers.
Boersma brought his time-tested recipes into the partnership. Van Ryn brought his production knowledge and marketing ideas.
“In four years, we have quadrupled our business,” said Van Ryn. That business expansion has included opening a restaurant and cheese store at the Preferred Outlets Mall in Tulare last fall.
It’s a steady, cautious growth. The partners recently purchased an additional acre of land adjacent to their Traver complex, where a wine retail outlet may be added to complement Bravo Farms’ cheeses.
“We have a lot of dreams,” said Van Ryn. “But we have to make sure Tulare does well first. A lot of people want to do things with us.”
Van Ryn’s father, an antique collector who moved his Tulare County dairy to New Mexico, is credited with bringing many of the collectable items to the Traver complex.
“He doesn’t play golf. This is his hobby,” said Van Ryn, explaining his father collects nostalgic signs, statues, furniture and just plain “stuff” that are on display and for sale at Bravo Farms.
And what about the Nash Metropolitan on top of their building? There’s no deep meaning. Like a lot of the stuff at Bravo Farms, it’s just there for the fun of it.
This article appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Feb. 7, 2010.