It started out as a novelty activity that was expected to take a couple days a week.
But the Ropp family’s interest in cheese quickly transformed into full-time jobs, leading to a thriving cheese operation derived from their multi-generation dairy farm.
Today, Ropp Jersey Cheese is run on 450 acres near Normal with 60 milking cows. They produce 2,300 pounds of cheese a week, selling in 240 locations within a 200-mile radius.
“We make mainly cheddar; we offer 30 different types of cheddar, with different flavors and colors,” says Ken Ropp, who is the 6th generation to help run his family’s dairy farm. “We also produce Colby, co-jack, monterey jack and smoked gouda. Half of our production goes to fresh curds.”
The difference is palpable from the first bite. Just ask the people who come into Engrained clamoring for one of our most popular and long-standing menu items: battered cheese curds, served with sriracha ranch sauce.
“The curds sell themselves. It’s amazing what fresh cheese should be like,” Ken says. “I hear that from all our different restaurants, including Engrained. There is a buttery flavor to it, salty and sweet at the same time.”
Ken operates Ropp Jersey Cheese with his wife Becky, and his parents, Ray and Carol. Engrained’s connection to the farm spans decades - owner Brent Schwoerer grew up across the field from the Ropp family.
“When Brent started Engrained, it was the perfect fit,” Ken says. “We’re both grass roots. We’re not the first cheese farm and they’re not the first restaurant, but we’re both doing something different, and that sets us apart.”
At Ropp Jersey Cheese, the family undertakes every aspect from start to finish - milking the cows, making the cheese, and running all of the distribution and sales.
Ropp has flourished within partnerships like Engrained that value local, sustainable farming.
“I’m a firm believer that if I can meet the person growing the vegetables, raising the livestock, making the food, and that person can tell me how their operation is run, that tells me a lot about the product. You can go into Engrained and ask questions, and that goes a long way,” Ken says.
“I love to go behind the scenes, working on different batters. I’m learning from them about running a restaurant, and they’re learning the cheese process from me. It’s fun,” he adds.
“With Brent, we can lean on each other and bounce things off each other as we continue to grow. I don’t get to have that relationship with all of my customers, and I don’t take that for granted.”