Oakdale Cheese and Specialties: Walter and Lenneke Bulk

 


 

 


Overview of Farm Business

Year Started: 1983
Location: Oakdale, California. Northeast of Modesto in Stanislaus County.
Products: 12 varieties of gouda, cheese spreads, cheesecakes, brownies, and other gourmet products
Employees: 6, plus Walter and Lenneke
Primary Sales Outlets:

•Their store in Oakdale
•15 farmer’s markets in the Central Valley, on the coast, and in the Bay Area

Website: http://oakdalecheese.com
Contact Information: Walter and Lenneke Bulk
Oakdale Cheese and Specialties
10040 State Highway 120
Oakdale, California 95361
Phone: 209-848-3139
Fax: 209-848-1162

 



Introduction

Oakdale Cheese and Specialties is owned and operated by Walter and Lenneke Bulk, Dutch immigrants to California. Walter, a fourth-generation cheesemaker, left his family’s farm in Haarlemmermeer in 1979 and Lenneke joined him here in 1982. They started their business in Escalon 20 years ago upon finding an old, abandoned dairy barn tucked away on an almond orchard. They converted it into a cheese-making facility and started making their native Gouda, quark, yogurt, and desserts. Quark, first made in Germany and Austria, is a soft, spreadable cheese that is low in fat and high in protein. It’s also a key ingredient in their cheesecake brownies and German cheesecakes.

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After 12 years in Escalon, their cheese plant started to age. The roof started leaking, the floors kept getting worse, and the old dairy needed almost constant maintenance. Finally, in 1995, they moved to their current location in Oakdale. They built a new facility where they could both make cheese and sell their products. Large windows in the store overlook the whole cheese-making process. Customers can see the long, wooden shelves full of aging wheels of Gouda and watch Walter at work. There is also a picnic area and petting zoo next to the store. The petting zoo—home to two ducks, five geese, two sheep, five goats, a llama, a couple rabbits, one retired donkey, and two Jersey calves, Moe and Joe—is a favorite with children.

Oakdale Cheese now offers over 30 varieties of cheese and a wide range of products. They make 12 flavors of Gouda, including cumin, smoked, pepper, and garlic. Their quark spreads come in a variety of flavors too, such as sundried tomato and pesto. Every morning, their baker makes sweet and sourdough French baguettes, German cheesecakes—in flavors from Lemon Curd to Chocolate to Cinnamon Apple—and cheesecake brownies. They sell sliced meats and make boxed lunches for groups of ten or more. The retail store also offers gourmet foods like preserves, olives, salsas, and California wines and sells kitchen items like fondue pots and cheese graters.

Marketing

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When Walter and Lenneke first started their business, they sold their cheese at farmer’s markets, through a mail-order catalog, and their own unique, on-site system. They used to stock the refrigerator in their garage full of cheese and welcome customers to walk in, make a selection, and leave their money on the counter. Now their retail store accounts for most of their sales. They opened the store to establish a consistent sales presence, sell to the tourists who pass through the area, and show customers how cheese is made. The store hosts tour groups from area schools and retirement communities.

Oakdale Cheese also goes to 15 farmer’s markets now, including the ones in Modesto, Santa Cruz, San Rafael, and Davis. Three employees are fully dedicated just to going to all the farmer’s markets. They also sell their products on their website (http://oakdalecheese.com). They have found that sales via the website are good around the holidays, but not remarkable at other times of year.

Supportive Organizations

Walter reports that the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) has been particularly helpful to their business. At CMAB’s website—www.calif-dairy.com—visitors can purchase cheese, learn more about how it is made, and search a directory of cheesemakers in California to find out what kinds of cheese they make and if they offer tours.

Challenges

Though their business has been quite successful in the past 20 years, there are two main issues facing them at the moment.

cs2-3.jpgProposed road expansion. CalTrans, the state’s transportation authority, might build a bypass around the town of Oakdale. This proposed four-land highway would cut right though the current location of Oakdale Cheese. If the project goes through, they will have to tear down their house and give up the land for the petting zoo and picnic area. On the bright side, the retail store and cheese plant could stay in the same place. Walter and Lenneke think that the new road and the increase in traffic might even boost business in the store.

Economy. The economy is flat and has been bad for sales. Even though Walter and Lenneke work hard to please their customers, when the economy sours, business at their store suffers. In particular, they have found that when fewer tourists visit Yosemite Park, fewer shoppers stop at their store, and sales drop. Fortunately they report that farmer’s market sales tend to be more stable and are not affected by changes in the economy.

Three Top Tips for Other Food Manufacturers

To other cheesemakers who are just starting out, Walter and Lenneke recommend that you build a cheese plant in the best location possible—such as a busy intersection or a tourist highway—and sell straight to your customers. They suggest that you develop this sales outlet into a solid base for your business. Walter feels like if it weren’t for their store in Oakdale, they would no longer be in business.

Links Referenced in the Case Study

California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets
http://www.cafarmersmarkets.com

California Milk Advisory Board
http://www.calif-dairy.com

Oakdale Cheese and Specialties
http://oakdalecheese.com