The Loleta Cheese Factory
The Big Cheese
By Jordan Venema
“Everybody calls me Bob,” begins Robert Laffranchi, the owner of Loleta Cheese, whose courtesy would pervade the entire conversation. Even the smallest gesture can speak volumes, and it became clear that Bob’s cordiality wasn’t just a formality, but also the foundation of his business and, as far as cheese making goes, an ingredient as essential as milk.
The name Laffranchi, explains Bob, is of French origin, though his family emigrated from Italy. “The building where my grandfather was born in Italy in a village in the mountains was built in 1545,” continues Bob, painting an idyllic picture of a quiet village, of generation after generation of Laffranchis churning milk to cheese.
“I’m sad to say, no,” Bob says with a laugh. “We love cheese, but you’re actually talking to the beginning of the family line of making cheese.” No, Loleta Cheese wasn’t born during the 16th century somewhere in shadow of the Alps, but during the late 1970s in a Eureka High School classroom, where Bob was a teacher.
“One day one of my students came in and asked me how to make cheese and I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m a cow man, not a cheese man,’” recalls Bob. He gave the student $15 to buy a book on the subject, and as a project, his class made its own cheese.
“We made something like a cheddar, and everybody wants to know how it turned out and I tell them, ‘Well, the forester teacher would eat anything,’” Bob chuckles.
It would be fun to think of Bob as the Breaking Bad of Cheddar, the Heisenberg of Limburger (though that’s the one cheese he doesn’t like), except everything about
the cheese business is above the table, though it is dangerously addictive. Also, it wasn’t
from medical necessity, but for the love of Gouda that Bob and his wife began Loleta Cheese in 1982.
More than 23 years later, Bob is still the Head Cheese of a company churning more than 30 varieties made from California dairy. And here in the small town of Loleta, an area that Bob believes “is like the better regions of Europe would be for producing cheese,” the town’s name couldn’t better describe a more welcoming place to call home.
“Loleta is actually three Indian words,” explains Bob, “and they mean pleasant place at the edge of the water.”
While those three words speak only to Loleta’s geography (it’s about 15 miles south of Eureka), it hasn’t stopped the Laffranchi family from adding to the town’s reputation as a pleasant place to be.
Any factory able to make as much as 2 million pounds of cheese per year is more than just pleasant –that’s downright heavenly. But taste in cheese aside, Bob wants visitors to Loleta Cheese to feel welcome.
“If you come into our business,” says Bob, “I want you welcomed right away, even if I’m busy.” Even when he’s occupied, the Head Cheese makes time for his guests, many of whom he speaks of as friends.
“I may go get a cup of coffee and it may take me five minutes, or it may take me two hours,” says Bob, who enjoys chatting with visitors about anything from cheese to local history. The factory attracts guests from all over the world, which Bob says “is just plain fun.”
The fun is probably the only “plain” thing that comes out of the factory, whose cheeses range from herb and spice Havarti to aged cheddars, some flavored with smoked salmon, others with garlic. Each flavor is available to taste at the factory.
“You’ll never leave without knowing whether you like a cheese or not,” Bob says. Friends enjoying the free samples have threatened to eat him out of house and home, but that doesn’t worry Bob. “No, no. My biggest problem would be if they didn’t like the cheese.”
As if free cheese samples aren’t enough reason to visit Loleta Cheese, Bob invites people to watch the cheese-making process through the factory’s large viewing windows, adding that Mondays and Tuesdays are the best days to come.
Even days when they’re not making cheese, the factory is still open. They’ve built a garden that many people, locals and guests alike, use for picnics. And whether you’ve come for the cheese or just a beautiful place to sit and enjoy a meal, you might find yourself greeted by the Big Cheese himself, and no promises you won’t be offered some of the best cheese around—just don’t expect any limburger.
Loleta Cheese Factory • 252 Loleta Drive, Loleta
www.loletacheese.com • (707) 733-5470
Open daily, 9am – 5pm