It started with a fruit stand. In 1950, Sam Ikeda had the idea to cut out the middleman and sell oranges, juicy peaches, ripe pears, and other fruit grown on his small farm directly to customers. He and his wife Sally formed a partnership with Everett Gibson, another farmer with strong business contacts, to start a roadside stall. They set up shop off Highway 40, which was then not more than a two-lane road conveying travelers from Sacramento to Reno. This was well before the idea of getting fresh fruit direct from a farmer became a quintessentially Californian thing to do, making the fledgling farm-to-table operation a couple decades ahead of its time.
Today, thousands of cars speed by Ikeda’s market on six lanes of traffic — three in either direction — as they drop into the Central Valley or begin the climb into the snowy Sierra Nevadas. Many pull into the spacious parking lot and step into the destination grocer, no longer a simple roadside stand. These days the building encompasses a casual counter-service restaurant; an upscale market selling everything from organic rice to Ora King salmon; and a locally famous bakeshop, where a team of bakers produces nearly two dozen varieties of fruit, cream, and savory pies.
But if Ikeda’s has changed over the last 70 years, so has California. The state’s population more than tripled in the last half of the 20th century as the Bay Area and Silicon Valley became the epicenter of a booming economy largely driven by tech. Through it all, Ikeda’s has continually adapted to meet customer demands, never sacrificing quality in the process. Those two things — responsiveness to changing tastes and commitment to quality — are key to the Ikeda’s longevity, says Derek Ikeda, Sam and Sally’s grandson and the third generation to run the family business. “Right now everything is going up,” he says, referring to rising prices due to inflation. “But we always do listen to the customer. That is what drives us.”
Steve Ikeda, Derek’s uncle and the younger of Sam and Sally’s two sons, grew up working at Ikeda’s alongside his dad, who passed away about five years ago, and his mom, who’s now 90 years old but still lends a hand folding T-shirts and generally keeping everyone in line, her grandson says. As a teenager, Steve would spend summers helping out in exchange for spending money, but it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that he decided he wanted to focus his career on the family business. His parents, however, insisted he get a college education first, and he graduated from Sacramento State with a finance degree in 1986.
Back then, and to some extent still today, Auburn was a small community, Steve says. Ikeda’s was first and foremost a market that served “Auburnites,” and a place where parents could pick up quality produce grown on the family’s 40 acres of farmland and pantry staples for dinner on the way home from work. “My mom used to say our goal is to gross $100 a day,” Steve recalls. “So, it was more simple then.” For decades the business grew almost exclusively through word of mouth, known for its reputation as a tidy, friendly local shop.
When Steve’s older brother Glen Ikeda graduated from college and took up his place helping run the business, he came up with the idea to start baking pies, the family agrees. Glen saw how blemished or otherwise imperfect fruit couldn’t — or rather wouldn’t — sell to customers looking for the perfectly peach-shaped peach or smooth-skinned apple. “It was like, ‘What do we do with this?’” Steve says. The answer: Turn them into pies. So the family hired a team of bakers and the Ikeda’s pie shop was born.
Today, most people who know Ikeda’s recognize it as a sort of culinary roadside attraction, a must-stop spot for one of the signature Tasty Burgers and a slice of freshly baked apple or peach pie. The 200-square-foot bakery, tacked onto the back of the market, bustles with workers shuffling around speed racks stacked high with unbaked pot pies, while a stainless steel apple slicer hulks against a wall. During peak fruit season, Ikeda’s produces between 20 and 22 different kinds of pies — everything from Dutch and French apple or cherry cobbler to key lime and, of course, pumpkin — and the market sells upwards of 120,000 pies every year.
If the introduction of pies marked a major turning point for Ikeda’s, fueling its transformation from a popular local market to a regional landmark, Steve says it’s only because the family ensured the evolution never pulled the business too far from its commitment to maintaining high-quality standards. “Our niche is we’re not going to be the cheapest,” Steve says. “We’re not trying to compete with Safeway. We’re peeling apples every day.”
Thanks to its prime location just off I-80 and its legendary pies, Ikeda’s has most recently become a popular pitstop for anyone driving the northern route between the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe; often, those travelers want to be able to not only grab a quick bite on their drive but also stock up on groceries before arriving at their final destinations. That’s why Ikeda’s now stocks marinated chicken cutlets, plastic-wrapped uncooked porchetta, and vacuum-packed tomahawk steaks. In addition to fruit grown on the family’s farm, there’s a fridge section with bagged salads, plastic containers of fresh herbs, and prepared foods like salsa, guacamole, and creamy blue cheese dressing. In crowded dry good aisles, customers can stock up on Ikeda’s brand jam and cashew butter, Bragg apple cider vinegar, or Jacobsen salt. Perhaps most notable are the two aisles dedicated to wine; the bottles range from a $20 red blend from Sonoma’s Angels & Cowboys to a 1.5-liter bottle of super-luxury red from Napa’s the Prisoner Wine Company, which retails at Ikeda’s for $110.
The Ikeda’s of 2022 is almost equal parts high-end grocery store and roadside fruit stand, which Derek says helped insulate the business from some of the impacts of the pandemic. Ikeda’s closed for only about a week during the health crisis, and pivoted away from selling teriyaki burgers and Dungeness crab sandwiches to road trippers and toward providing groceries to Bay Area residents heading up to their mountain retreats. “The number-one thing I learned during the pandemic is people still need to eat,” Derek says.
Steve Ikeda says the business does bump up against the usual industry issues: rising prices for food and ingredients and difficulties with finding staff. Ikeda’s employs many local high school and college students, but they’re also lucky to have a number of staff who’ve been with the business for years, decades even. The list of longtime staffers includes general manager Tate Sterrett, a born-and-raised Auburn resident, who says he lived up the street and started working at Ikeda’s after graduating from high school. “I liked it so much I never left,” Sterrett says with a shrug. Part of the reason he says he’s stayed is the opportunity to work at a place where you interact with the owners on an almost daily basis — a fact Steve also counts among the market’s keys to success, if also one of his personal challenges. “This is hands-on,” he says. “I mean, you have to live it. You have to want to be here. It’s got to be a passion.”
These days, however, both Steve and Glen have started to step back in order to let Derek take a more hands-on role within the business, a first phase in passing the business on to the next generation. Derek has a strong vision for its future. Right now he’s focused on bolstering the Ikeda’s brand, including building the market’s new website and growing the Ikeda’s merchandise line, which currently includes branded T-shirts, hats, stickers, and stainless steel water bottles. He’d like to see additional stores open throughout the Bay Area and Northern California; a Davis outpost debuted in 2000, though it’s more of a true fruit stand with no restaurant attached, and Derek cites Monterey and South Lake Tahoe as potential outposts for future Ikeda’s locations.
But he understands growth can’t come at the cost of the original Ikeda’s magic. There will always be a selection of quality fresh produce, including the fuzzy yellow peaches that helped make the original fruit stand a worthy stop. The family still operates 20 acres of farmland on which they grow apples, nectarines, plums, pears, satsume, mandarins, and apricots — plus several varieties of peaches. The Redhaven peaches are always a hit, but Derek says it’s the Bonjour variety, grown on mountain spring water and allowed to ripen on the tree, that customers seek out in June and July. “I would say they’re probably the best peaches you’ve ever had,” Derek says.
They’ll continue to deliver warm service and quality products, translating the charm of that original roadside California fruit stand into a form for the future. “I want to create a whole immersive experience,” Derek says. “So when people come here, they’re mind-blown, like, ‘I stepped into a California orchard.’”