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Grab a Pint: Alta Dena Dairy Drive-Thrus

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Some car-centric businesses and amenities in Los Angeles have become more prominent over the years, while others fade into the blur of the drive-by whirlwind landscape. Most Angelenos know where their closest In-N-Out is located, especially given the local chain's ongoing growth. But do you know where your nearest drive-through dairy store is?

If you lived in Los Angeles County during the 1960s through the 1980s, you most likely knew of a place to stop for milk and other provisions, all taken care of within the comfort of your own car. Chances are, it was associated with Alta Dena Dairy. In today's Los Angeles, dozens of these heavily weathered convenience stores still have loose ties to the company founded by the Stueve brothers from Missouri in 1945. Soon after the siblings -- three out of a family of 18 children -- got into business with their one wagon and 61 cows in Monrovia, home delivery was becoming outmoded. It was time for a shift in retailing to better suit the way people lived in Southern California.


In-N-Out Burger's first drive-through opened in the late 1940s and helped test the waters of this new set-up. Alta Dena Dairy's initial experiment in 1951 also proved successful. As co-founder/owner Harold Stueve's daughter Nancy Keefe told the Los Angeles Times in his 2006 obituary, "My dad saw that in California, cars were becoming more and more important. He thought it would be a good service to give people a place to get their basics without having to get out of their cars." This type of store was referred to as a "cash and carry."

As the company grew to become one the world's largest dairy producers, Harold Stueve embraced the role of raw milk activist. He was quick to find clever loopholes in the anti-raw milk regulatory environment, and advocated for the establishment of the Los Angeles County Medical Milk Commission, which the County assumed oversight of in 1967. In 1969, Kenneth Hahn helped lead the charge among the County Supervisors to support efforts by the County Health Department to ban the sale of unpasteurized products. "Someone is determined to get rid of raw milk," Stueve, who also served as Mayor of Monrovia and was deeply enmeshed in dairy politics at the state and county levels, told the Times. Mirroring controversies that continue to this day, the paper noted that Stueve, who was briefly arrested on contempt of court over the issue, "is opposed to pasteurization because it causes milk to 'lose almost all of the enzymes.'"

The State Board of Public Health ruled the County could enforce a ban based on evidence of contamination and human illness as a result of tainted products, a directive that was overturned by the Superior Court, citing lack of evidence connecting Alta Dena Dairy raw milk to pathogens or illness. (In the early 1970s, Trader Joe's placed advertisements in the Times touting Alta Dena Dairy as "the only dairy in California which is certified to make raw milk.") But the recalls and lawsuits continued; the fallout from a 1985 listeriosis outbreak caused by contaminated cheese produced in California, for instance, lingered until Alta Dena was cleared of liability four years later. Stueve spent millions of his own fortune on political lobbying and lawsuits, leading him to bankruptcy in the 1990s.

Alta Dena wasn't the only company to offer drive-through convenience stores, but it managed to cover a significant amount of turf. Much like its competitors' retail operations, the shops began as outposts located near pastureland that comprised L.A. County's remarkably productive dairy industry, and gradually became integrated into the new residential and commercial clusters that sprang up during L.A.'s twentieth century boom periods. (While affiliated with certain dairy companies, drive-thru dairy stores were later independently owned and operated, with over 80 Alta Dena-associated drive-thrus still remaining in 2006, according to the Times.)


Unlike some more attention-getting, outlandish examples of what David Gebhard termed "programmatic architecture" and Jim Heimann documented in California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture, form followed function at the dairy outlets. Alta Dena drive-thru dairies weren't fashioned in the shape of milk cartons, but instead were generally simple structures, typically with open sides designed for easy customer access, and often capped with a low-pitched roof with deep eaves. Some locations played with the form a bit.

Other examples of this building type, however, made a stronger effort to grab the attention of passersby. Driftyland Dairy-Port in El Monte was built in 1961 and is listed on the California Register of Historical Resources, thanks to its intact Googie style and Space Age theme design elements.

By 1989, when Alta Dena Dairy employed over 70 family members, the bottling operation and a portion of the Stueve family's herds were sold to a European corporation. (It had relocated from Monrovia to the City of Industry decades prior.) For a period following the sale, the conglomerate allowed Harold to keep raw milk in the marketplace by creating a new label, Stueve's Natural. The family's Chino farmland and holdings were eventually sold in the 1990s, raw milk production and sales ceased, and Dallas-based Dean Foods now owns Alta Dena Dairy.

Signs and evidence of the local dairy industry are still all over Los Angeles. Check your grocery store aisle for Broguiere's Farm Fresh Dairy milk -- or better yet during this time of year, its eggnog -- still sold in glass bottles. And when you see a car-accessible convenience shop that resembles a large kiosk that may have seen shinier days, it might be a reminder of the dozens of drive-thru milk stores that dotted the region, when we didn't need to buy raw milk at the farmers' market to know where our dairy came from.


Green, Emily, "The Great Stueve Wars," Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2000, 3.

Grimes, Teresa, Driftyland Dairy-Port nomination to the California Register of Historical Resources, 2007.

Nelson, Valerie, "Harold Stueve, 88; Farmer Founded Alta Dena Dairy With 2 Brothers in 1945," Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2006, B11.

"Ban on Sale of Raw Milk Lifted After Court Refuses Injunction: Judge Says Evidence Fails to Support State and County Charges That Injurious Organisms Are Present in Product," Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1969, C1.

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