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Bumper-to-bumper for these roadside stands

Fruit and vegetable vendors are sprouting along California Highway 152 through beautiful, dangerous Pacheco Pass. They're a way for farming families to diversify and bring in some extra cash.

October 09, 2011|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
  • Fruit stands line California Highway 152 outside of Gilroy. The stands have proliferated in the last couple of years, allowing farming families to generate some extra cash.
Fruit stands line California Highway 152 outside of Gilroy. The stands… (Diana Marcum, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Gilroy, Calif. — The cherries are gone, the peaches are about done, and now Pat O'Connell has a chance to stand back and take stock of the summer of the fruit stand wars.

For decades his family ran one of the few small roadside stands along beautiful, dangerous California Highway 152 through Pacheco Pass, the most direct route between the Bay Area and the Central Valley.

It's a winding road many motorists travel, but few stop along the way.

Then, a couple of years ago, reasons to pull off the road — in the form of fruit stands boasting heirloom tomatoes, fresh-squeezed orange juice and plates of pre-cut fruit — sprouted like a new crop.

One reason was as old as these hills: Farming families were looking for a way to diversify and bring in some extra cash.

Another reason was as new as the latest smartphone: Foodies were spreading the word about different stands on Internet message boards, creating more business.

O'Connell, 50, was living in Colorado when he got a call from his panicked 71-year-old father, Jim.

"He said, 'You have to come home and help or we're going to lose the fruit stand. We're now, like, the 12th or 14th in a row.' I didn't know what he was talking about," O'Connell said. "But I came home, looked and thought, 'Holy smoke, where did all these people come from?' There was a line of fruit stands where there used to be three."

Pacheco Pass has long been a world unto itself. There are no communities along the 48 miles between Los Banos and Gilroy. The actual mountain pass — about 15 miles of narrow highway from the top of golden hills dotted with blue oaks to the rich farmland of the Santa Clara Valley — is treacherous, its crash rate often twice as high as those of other two-lane highways in California.

Following a route originally carved by the Ausaymus Indians that later became a stagecoach trail, it connects disparate parts of the state — and, some claim, other worlds. Pacheco Pass ghost stories abound; the sighting most widely recounted is that of a woman in Victorian dress, accompanied by screams and the sound of a stagecoach thundering past, seeming to suggest the pass was never commuter-friendly.

Fruit stands have been part of the scenery for decades. Casa deFruta, on the eastern end of the pass, where the land flattens and the road is four lanes, began as a cherry stand started by three Italian brothers in 1943. It still belongs to the same family but now boasts a gas station, a hotel, two restaurants and a duck pond. Locals call it Casa de Circus.

For years, an old man with an "honor stand" sold apples and persimmons. You took the fruit and left your money in a can. He was there before O'Connell's cattle-ranching family branched out with Pacheco Pass Fruit Market 35 years ago.

The latest fruit-stand frenzy seems to have begun with Melesios Dominguez and his cherry trees.

Five years ago, Dominguez, 56, once a migrant farmworker making $11 a day, fulfilled his lifelong dream of buying his own rancheria. It came with a small cherry orchard.

Dominguez started thinking about how close those trees were to the constant stream of highway traffic. He built a stand under a big shade tree and started selling just-picked cherries on the Gilroy side of the pass. When he saw how many people were stopping for the cherries, he started thinking of other ways to bring in more cars, eventually adding tequila-flavored pistachios and fresh-squeezed juices.

"A lot of people were losing their ranches, and the fruit stand was helping our family pay our mortgage," Dominguez said. "Neighbors saw the cars here, and then this summer there were all of a sudden 20 fruit stands."

Dominguez is thinking of new ways to stand out. Next summer he may add a food truck with a specialty item.

"I'm still thinking. But it has to be something garlic," he said. "Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world."

He's not trying to capture Internet attention.

"He's never heard of Yelp or Twitter," said his 18-year-old daughter, Alex Salas. "But I've heard they talk about him."

Down the road, O'Connell credits his stand's garlic ice cream — and perhaps the dessert's Internet fame — with helping his family survive the summer competition.

"Say one person in a car of six gets the ice cream, then I tell them all to get some, because, you know, it's pretty strong — and only one person eating garlic in a car — so it's a seller."

At first, he said, he "took offense to all the new stands. But now I'm like, 'It's not that big of a deal.' "

Most of the new stands closed after Labor Day, but the Internet buzz has more people stopping at the few that stay open year-round.

Still, there are new challenges.

"We don't have no website. No Internet, nothing. My dad doesn't even know what a computer is," O'Connell said.

"We had a lady working for us who had a kind of grumpy face. She wasn't mean or anything, a real good woman. But I go look, and there they were talking about her on the Internet saying she wasn't nice. The Internet! I had to tell her to smile."

diana.marcum@latimes.com

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