Hidden Gems off I-5: Find an oasis amid the eau de bovine at Harris Ranch

COALINGA – Hardly hidden, Harris Ranch can be seen from at least a mile away as you head south on Interstate 5, its palm trees in the distance the only vertical in a pancake-flat stretch of Valley floor. You think it a mirage until, closer in, you can make out the red-tiled roof and pastel facades, not to mention the neon signs of the surrounding fast-food joints.

More pointedly, if a northeasterly wind is blowing, it can be smelled from even farther away. That would be the stench – odor or even smell is too kind a descriptor – emanating 4 miles north from the cattle ranch abutting the interstate, the place from which those succulent cuts of prime rib or filet mignon at the three Harris Ranch restaurants originate.

On breezy days, especially, the driver’s eye is drawn, even as the nose is repelled, to row after row of cattle, 123,000 in all, queued like morning commuters on a train platform. It just goes on and on, acres of brown, slow-moving shapes, some seemingly staring at the freeway with bovine melancholy. But that’s just one perspective. To others, the sight and fragrance of cattle is a sensory cue to unleash the salivary glands, to unsnap the seat belt from a long road trip and strap on the ol’ feedbags.

“You gotta look at them as delicious,” said Stephanie Papagni-LaPlante, Harris Ranch’s marketing director, with a wink.

There’s more to Harris Ranch than just a sizzling slab of beef on a plate, though the food is lure enough when a motorist’s other options are the fast-food trifecta of McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Carl’s Jr. What many don’t realize is that, aside from a place to gas up and chow down, Harris Ranch boasts a 153-room hacienda-style hotel with an Olympic-size swimming pool, three hot tubs, suites with La-Z-Boy chairs, patios and armoires, and a country store that sells much of the yield from crops grown on Harris’ 18,000 acres of agricultural land.

With the restaurant and inn site, the feeding and beef companies, the nearby meat-processing plant, its own airport and gas-station complex, as well as Harris Farms, a thoroughbred horse operation that has resulted in the scores of winner’s-circle photos adorning the site,, the Harris family has built a multipronged dynasty in dusty rural Fresno County.

All the public sees, of course, is the retail, touristy aspect of the empire. For many, that is enough. They don’t really care to know the details of the cattle’s migration from freeway-close feedlot to the killing floor 45 minutes east. They cruise on by the orchards that provide the almonds, pistachios, garlic spices and pecans for their famous Pecan Drop cookies, perhaps only concerning themselves with the packaged finished product.

It’s a classic traveler’s way station, with most visitors staying an hour, tops – just enough time to stretch their legs and expand their bellies. Papagni-LaPlante says the restaurants serve up 1,500 entrees a day, and rake in a healthy amount from the meat counter and deli – everything from slabs of steak packaged so it can stay fresh for eight hours, to beef jerky made daily, to baked goods known to ruin many a diet. What’s less obvious is that, according to general manger Kirk Doyle, the hotel has an 80 percent occupancy rate, impressive since there are no attractions nearby. Coalinga is 13 miles to the west, the Lemoore-Hanford metroplex 30 miles east.

The attraction, then, is the destination. Or vice versa.

“A lot of (hotel) customers come from the L.A. basin or the San Francisco area because we’re 200 miles dead spot in between,” Doyle said. “People see this as a layover. They eat well, get a good night’s rest and are on their way.”

“Plus,” added Papagni-LaPlante, “we get a lot of Fresno-Hanford people who just want to get away for the weekend. We like to think of it as an oasis.”

Hence the palm trees, yucca plants, boxwood hedges and finely crafted topiary that dot the grounds, augmented by long strips of bright green grass near the parking areas that dogs long to visit. All that foliage takes a lot of water, so it’s ironic that a video of farmers lamenting the drought and the siphoning of water “meant for the Valley” runs on a loop in the lobby.

Doyle and Papagni-LaPlante said the ranch is looking at its water usage. Already, it has stopped running most of its fountains.

“We’re pursuing maybe reclaiming some of our wastewater and see if we can use that for irrigation,” Doyle said. “We’re a self-contained little city so we have our own water treatment facility. Certainly, we’re looking into some artificial landscape and things of that sort, changing the nature of the plants we plant. I hate to use the term Arizona (style) landscape, but we’re kind of heading in that direction if things continue. But we want to keep our palm trees and as much of the permanent plantings as we can. People like that.”

One overnight couple, Denny and Ruthie McLeod, from the Bay Area town of Piedmont, have been stopping at Harris Ranch for 30 years and watched the place grow from a single restaurant and gas station shortly after I-5 was built in the 1970s to the addition of the inn in 1987 and expansion shortly thereafter. The McLeods don’t always stay the night, but always stop.

“Oh, it’s just lovely,” Ruthie said. “It used to be the only place to stop. Now, there’s all kinds of chain places, but we still come here. It takes a little longer. It’s more expensive. But it’s worth it.”

Denny shook his head as he sat in a cowhide chair with horns for arms in the lobby outside the country store, waiting for Ruthie to buy muffins for the trip back home. He looked at his surroundings with wonder. To his immediate right was the Jockey Club, the high-end steakhouse restaurant with booths made to resemble horse stalls; down the hall the family restaurant decorated in full ranch and farm theme; and straight ahead the Horseshoe Lounge, a bar and full-menu grill so saturated with horse-racing memorabilia that it resembles Santa Anita north.

“They just keep building,” he said. “Gets bigger every time we come.”

As immaculate as the grounds are kept, with native and non-native foliage trimmed and a vivid green against the surrounding dusty brown, and air conditioning a constant indoor presence on the kiln-like days, Denny said, you still know you’re smack in the middle of farm country.

“I respect the entire operation, but I’ll tell you something I don’t like,” he said. “I don’t like the smell of the cow s---.”

“Oh, honey, they tell you it’s unusual to get it this strong,” Ruthie quickly added. “They said the wind was blowing the wrong way.”

“And some farmer parked his big farm vehicle alongside our car last night,” Denny continued. “It rained last night and there was slop – not mud, cow s--- – all around our car.”

“But look around,” Ruthie countered. “And lovely.”

Strolling through the Harris Ranch complex is akin to stepping into a Steinbeck novel. Not the evil landowners in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but maybe the Trask and Hamilton scions in “East of Eden.”

Everywhere is evidence of the Harris family’s ranching roots and Western aesthetic. Papagni-LaPlante said the design, featuring Spanish colonial tiles and pastel stuccoed exterior, lushly vegetated grounds and an interior replete with artfully displayed farm implements, ranching artwork and photography and even lamps in the shape of cows, is the doing of matriarch Carole Harris. But the horse-racing motif is all John, who presides over a thoroughbred operation with more than 400 racehorses.

You can’t walk 10 feet without seeing framed photos of horses owned by the Harrises, draped in roses, and the jockey in green and white diamond silks.

Above the urinal in the men’s main bathroom, there’s Super High, winner of the 2002 California Cup Matron race at Santa Anita. In the lobby, as you wait for a table at the Horseshoe Lounge, there’s Rebuild Trust, winner of the Lakeview Thoroughbred Farms Stakes race in 2000 at Hollywood Park. Behind your seat in the restaurant is a framed photo of Image of Glory, winner of the Soviet Problem Handicap in 2001 at Golden Gate Fields. In the restaurant bathroom are a succession of smiling winners, all owned by Harris Farms, from Quickly Gone to Like New Money.

Speaking of money, the Harrises seemingly make a lot from the restaurant-store-inn complex, though Papagni-LaPlante did not elaborate just how much. But the store does a brisk business selling everything from ranch-branded barbecue sauce to wine to chocolate-covered almonds.

“We’re the farm-to-fork concept,” she said. “We like to say we’re the innovators of it. Everything served here is grown on our farms, and it’s literally brought out of the crate on our farms, into the kitchen. These are our almonds at the store. From the olive oil to the wine, they are our olives and grapes (used). Our beef comes from the feedlot to our kill floor in Selma 45 minutes away and then here. It’s that fresh.”

What the public doesn’t see – except by that pungent sight on the side of the freeway – is the revenue generated by the cattle operation. Harris Ranch puts out more than 150 million pounds of beef a year, making it the largest producer in the West. But the ranch didn’t start out as a carnivorous-centered enterprise. In the 1930s, it dealt primarily in cotton and grains; it now produces more than 30 crops.

Yet, with the construction of I-5, the family saw an opportunity.

“It started with just a hamburger shop,” Papagni-LaPlante said. “It was a joint here in the parking lot for ranchers, not really for tourists. Ranchers and farmers. They had to eat somewhere. The early ’80s is when they started building on. You can see what happened.”

What happened is that people exited the freeway, lemming-like, to indulge in food without having to answer the question, “Do you want fries with that?” On a Friday morning in early March, the wait for breakfast in the cavernous main dining room was 20 minutes. At the country store, the line was six deep at the bakery and three deep at the meat counter. Elsewhere, people browsed. One woman gave an audible yip of surprise when she examined a small package of Funkychunky Pretzels, with caramel, chocolate and pecans.

“No way!” exclaimed Robin Fielding of Moraga. “It was two ounces and cost $7. I’m sorry. That’s beyond greed.”

Harris Ranch is not a cheap date, that’s for certain. Sure, you can eschew the hotel for the Motel 6 across the freeway, and you can pass on the filet mignon in favor of a Big Mac. But why not indulge a little on the road?

Lisa Fong of Alameda, returning to the Bay Area from visiting her father in Pasadena, said it’s a family tradition to stop at Harris Ranch for snacks. She was traveling solo this time, but made sure to stop to buy cookies for her children at home.

“I was just thinking how much I love coming here,” she said. “It’s a nice in-between stop. It’s something to look forward to. I was driving in and I thought, ‘Oh, I hope I don’t miss it.’ I know there are signs and everything, but I saw Hanford and Lemoore signs and I was worried I’d passed it by.”

No worries, though. Her nose led her to the spot.

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