When Gelson’s market posted on social media in late May that the over-century-old Broguiere’s Farm Fresh Dairy processing plant and market in Montebello would soon be shutting down, owner Ray Broguiere Jr. hadn’t anticipated the mountain of support to keep it open. Now, the humble milk bottler is considering giving his beloved business, which has been in the family for four generations, another chance.
“The outpour of support from the community from Southern California has been overwhelming,” Ray Broguiere Jr. told KCET on a phone call. “People love the product and business, and it got me and my son to rethink [our plan to close] and we’re trying to keep it going.”
Broguiere’s has been a pivotal fixture of the community, popularly known for its old-timey glass bottles filled with creamy milk, hand-mixed chocolate milk and seasonal eggnog. Its containers are adorned with the drawing of a horned cow and the playful words, “Milk So Fresh… The Cow Doesn’t Know It’s Missing” on the front, with images on the back that periodically change. They’ve become so popular over the years that fans collect them. eBay has a collection of special-edition vintage Broguiere’s bottles that pay tribute to everything from the Los Angeles Kings to Halloween.
About 20 years ago, Huell Howser, the late host of KCET-produced “California Gold,” filmed multiple TV segments featuring the dairy producer. Ray Broguiere Jr.ended up printing special eggnog bottles emblazoned with Howser’s face. The host said, “I’m sending bottles back home to my family in Tennessee to prove to them that I really have made it!”
Howser was just one of the dairy bottler’s ardent fans. Customers travel from all over the state to get a taste of its milk, and some have been visiting Broguiere’s Montebello drive-thru market for decades. "After some 50 years of buying milk with my kids and granddaughter it's really a sad moment they have to leave," customer Gloria Lespron told NBC Los Angeles.
It’s this kind of small-town charm that makes Broguiere’s one of the last vestiges of our local dairy industry, one that’s rapidly changing not just in California, but around the country due to mounting governmental regulations and changing tastes.
Up until the Gelson’s announcement, 73-year-old Ray Broguiere Jr.hadn’t planned on making a formal announcement yet about shuttering operations. It wasn’t clear when that would actually happen, but he had already made his last shipments to grocery stores throughout the Golden State, with plans to only sell his milk at his drive-thru. By this point, his chocolate milk had sold out.
The news came as a surprise even to Montebello Mayor Jack Hadjinian, who tweeted, “I am shocked by the news of Broguire’s Dairy closing their doors. They have been a staple in our community, and an institution for many generations. Their products were of the highest quality and and [sic] promoted our City on every glass bottle of milk sold.”
Ray Broguiere Jr. told Whittier Daily News that he originally thought there was “no chance” his dairy plant could stay open. “But the people [have been] coming through and the phone calls, it’s changed things around,” he said. “My son’s thinking has changed.”
He and his son, Chris Broguiere, who is the vice president of their family business, have been speaking to suppliers about ways to keep the company running, according to CBS Los Angeles.
“I’ve been here all my life and had my mind set up one way and Gelson’s blew it up,” Ray Broguiere Jr.told KCET.
A History Over a Century in the Making
It’s hard to miss Broguiere’s drive-thru market on the residential-meets-industrial stretch of Maple Avenue. A statue of a piebald cow is perched on the roof under a weathered sign that reads, “Montebello Sanitary Dairy.” (The use of “sanitary” in its name was apparently the “in word” for dairies in the mid-1900s, Ray Broguiere Jr. told Howser.) This quaint roadside store seems like something that would be more fitting along Route 66 rather than in the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley, which makes it stand out even more. In addition to bottled milk, the shop also sells quick grab-and-go items like fresh eggs and bread.
While Montebello has vastly changed over the last century, Broguiere’s has an old-town charm that has stuck around, and is one of the last links to the city’s agricultural past. “Back in the 1920s and ‘30s, there was — [to] my understanding — 27 or 28 dairies in Montebello at one time — all small,” Broguiere told Howser, adding that his is the only one left in the area.
Ray Broguiere Jr.originally thought his family business started in 1920, but recently realized it actually dated back to the early 1910s after finding a photo of his grandmother, Mary Broguiere, washing dishes on site, according to Whittier Daily News. When his grandfather, Ernest Broguiere, a French immigrant, first bought this acreage, it was a lemon orchard. He quickly found out that the lemon business wouldn’t work out.
“When his first crop came in, he shipped them back to Chicago, and instead of a check — he thought he’d get a check for his lemons — he ended up getting a bill,” Ray Broguiere Jr.told Howser. “The freight cost more than the lemons were worth, so he came back and tore out every lemon tree and went into the milk business.”
Ernest Broguiere turned the land into a five-acre dairy farm with 150 milk-producing cows. Business boomed after he began delivering bottled milk to customers on a horse-drawn wagon. When his son, Ray Broguiere Sr., took the reins of the business in 1965, he had to make some tough decisions, like getting rid of the cattle less than a decade later. “The cities really frowned on dairies having cows,” the younger Broguiere, who took over the business in 1975, told Howser.
Nowadays, a local farm delivers milk in a tanker to the Montebello plant. The magic happens onsite as Broguiere’s team pasteurizes and homogenizes the dairy, and then bottles it. A lot of the process is done by hand, the old-fashioned way, like how employees hand-mix the chocolate milk and eggnog.
Even though bottling milk in glass is a more expensive and laborious process than using plastic or cartons, it’s for good reason. “We think it’s the best way to buy milk,” Ray Broguiere Jr.said on “California Gold.” “[If] you want to taste the pure taste of milk, glass bottles is [sic] the way to go.”
The Times They Are A-Changin'
It’s been an emotional time for Ray Broguiere Jr.as he’s had to think hard about whether to close his family business. After all, he practically grew up there. “I’ve been on this property for 73 years and I’ve been coming to work every day since I got out of high school,” he told CBS Los Angeles.
This isn’t the first time Broguiere’s has run into problems. In 2016, they were threatened by the proposed Montebello Corridor Grade Separation project, which would have led to the construction of an underpass and bridges on Maple Avenue and Montebello Boulevard. It would have blocked public access to the drive-thru dairy. But in a few weeks’ time, the city made the decision to build an overpass instead, saving Broguiere’s from potential relocation or closure.
Ray Broguiere Jr.’s children also have seen their dairy business go through major changes, including when it transitioned from being a farm to just a plant and market. His daughter, Monique Broguiere, lamented in a 2001 L.A. Times article about its evolution: ”I remember playing in the haystacks and making these tunnels we used to run through. It makes me sad that all my daughters get to see is a business side of it all. All they see is a big metal machine."
The patriarch of the family has been honest about the difficulties he’s faced in the dairy industry. He’s had to deal with competition from larger corporations and an overwhelming amount of tough governmental regulations. “I’m older, and it’s tougher to roll with the punches,” Ray Broguiere Jr. told Whittier Daily News. “They keep coming out of Sacramento. You have the water issues, air issues and minimum wage, and that factors into your workers’ compensation too.”
The trajectory of Broguiere’s is reflective of the times. His is not the only dairy business that is hurting. The L.A. Times reported last fall on how the California dairy industry has been going on a downward spiral since 2014. Dairy producers have been suffering from the drop in milk prices, which are so low that even the cost of production is higher than what they get in return.
The problem is happening all around the country, as farmers are facing a supply and demand issue. American tastes have changed: Consumers are drinking less milk and the sales of its byproducts, like cheese and yogurt, just don’t cut it, according to the Times Herald-Record in New York. Farmers have been plagued with a surplus of milk.
Dairy producers have also had to manage growing governmental regulations on livestock care, methane production, and groundwater extraction. It’s hard for them to keep up. Fortune reported in February that the dairy farms in Wisconsin — a major dairy state — were shuttering at an “unprecedented rate,” with 700 of them gone last year.
Locally, in Chino, a city 30 miles east of Montebello that was once populated with 400 dairy farms at its peak in the 1980s, lost one of its last ones, J & D Star Dairy, last year. Farmland has become a hot commodity for developers, which in turn is pushing farmers off their properties. The land that J & D rented from San Bernardino County ended up getting auctioned off to a developer for $65 million.
The export market isn’t faring any better. It seemed like overseas sales for dairy had the potential to help the ailing industry, but since last summer, China and Mexico have imposed tariffs on products, including dairy items, as pushback to the Trump administration’s recent trade war, according to the L.A. Times.
Despite the uncertainty of the dairy industry, things may be looking up for Broguiere’s. As of late May, Ray Broguiere Jr.told KCET that they ordered more milk caps and chocolate syrup, something they hadn’t anticipated doing. “Whether we hit the markets, that will be another story,” he said.
Top Photo: Exterior at Broguiere's | Jean Trinh