It's a sure sign that fall is here and winter is just around the corner: Tanaka Farms' fruit and vegetable stand in Cypress, a fixture on Katella Avenue for almost 40 years, folds its tent, packs up the strawberry flags and banners, and puts everything away until mid-March.
The trick, lately, is finding the stand when March rolls around.
After being forced to move from its longtime location on Katella near Valley View Street in 2001, Tanaka Farms, which closed for the winter Oct. 31, is facing another eviction notice from the owners of the land near the Los Alamitos Race Course.
The owners of the 7-acre parcel, nestled between a new Marriott Residence Inn to the west and the racetrack to the north, are negotiating to sell it to a developer.
"We're hoping we'll be in the same spot," said Glenn Tanaka, 46.
But he knows that rapid development along Katella leaves little room for roadside produce stands.
Tanaka Farms, however, is not just any roadside stand. It's a neighborhood icon that sells more than 40 types of fruits and vegetables the family grows on 50 acres of farmland leased from the Irvine Co. in Irvine.
And just as Tanaka Farms is a fixture in the community, Aimee Buck, manager, is a fixture at Tanaka Farms.
Once she gets started talking about the blessings of fresh fruit and organically grown vegetables, it's hard to stop her. She lives for this. She can talk about it forever.
"You name it, we have it. We have strawberries, apples, bananas, bell peppers, all the berries, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, Anaheim chiles, and our white corn is to die for."
So, Aimee, what about ....
"Wait, there's more. We have eggplant, cucumber, grapes and all the lettuce. Melons, onions. We have Maui-type onions. They're grown here, so you can't call them Maui onions. We have some that are as big as your head. You ever barbecue onions? You make an X on the top, put on a slice of butter, put it in some foil -- oh, God, it's like eating onion soup."
This is what her customers have come to expect from Buck, 49, who has run the stand since the Tanakas took it over in 1987.
For eight months of the year, seven days a week, Buck is like a good-earth minister, preaching the power of fresh produce. The fact that it all takes place under a tent makes shopping at Tanaka Farms sort of like a revival meeting for lovers of fresh produce.
"People want to know how many calories, what's the vitamin content. So I wrote a little book. It's my life. I love it," Buck said.
Customers also love it. Some travel great distances just for a taste of Tanaka's produce. "We have people who come from Mammoth to buy our strawberries. One customer comes from San Bernardino every two weeks."
Buck says she asked the customer once if she had a doctor or some other important reason in town for making the trek. Nope, just Tanaka Farms.
But how long can it last? With farmland disappearing under housing tracts and business declining in Cypress about 20% in the last four years, a roadside stand seems to be an endangered species.
"You can see it in stores now," Tanaka said. "There are prepared salads, the vegetables are pre-cut. They're fresh, but the work is already done. It's a trend. Everybody's busy."
Busy or not, some people still prefer the results from cooking and eating fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables. "Store strawberries are not as good," said Linda Negron, 37, of Los Alamitos.
"They're more fresh" at Tanaka Farms, said Kayoko MacInness, who lives nearby. She said the farm is more convenient: "You drive up and walk right in. Supermarkets are more crowded. The service is poorer."
At Tanaka Farms, "if the melons aren't ripe, they'll say come back tomorrow," she said.
Tanaka Farms started in Irvine more than 25 years ago. The family opened stands in Westminster, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. They then took over a little stand at Katella and Valley View in the late 1980s. The Irvine and Cypress stands are the only ones that remain. At first, they sold just strawberries. Then tomatoes, corn and the rest were added. But to this day, the stand is still most famous for its strawberries.
But there's no rushing perfection. Strawberry lovers are at the mercy of the plants. That's why the owners can't even give an exact reopening date for the stand. It depends on when the first strawberries are ready for harvest.
So the faithful keep their eyes peeled for the big sign Buck puts out at the site announcing the opening date. "It's all up to Mother Nature," Buck said. It's usually around the second week of March.
Buck swoons as she describes that first week, those first berries: "The ones that are the first picked are the sweetest ever."
Throughout the season, from March to June, the strawberries are picked that morning and sold that day.
Tanaka Farms sell about 1,500 pounds of strawberries a day at the Cypress stand during season, Tanaka said.
Chances are good that Tanaka will find some spot in Cypress or nearby Los Alamitos next March, and the mailing list will keep many customers informed of their whereabouts and opening date.
For up-to-date information, they suggest checking their Web site, www.tanakafarms.com, which could prevent a repeat of the experience of Raymond Beaty of Lakewood.
"We looked for 'em for a year and a half," he said.