Six miles east of Merced is a unique business that regularly sees visitors from all over the world — who take with them products that can only be found in California.
It's the Merced Fruit Barn, a combination welcome center, delicatessen, ice cream shop, zoo, gift shop, produce stand, big bird aviary, convenience store and seller of dried fruit and gourmet coffee.
Heidi and Paul Raggio bought the business on East Highway 140 from their neighbors 11 years ago. Ironically the Merced Fruit Barn sees more foreign visitors than local customers.
"It's been fun, always an adventure," Heidi Raggio said. "We have a lot of unique people. We average 10 tour buses a day in the summer season from April to October. In the wintertime it's maybe one bus a week."
As evidenced by the guest book signatures, Merced Fruit Barn visitors come from Korea, Japan, China, France, Russia, Spain, Germany and Austria, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, Norway and Finland among other exotic locales.
Merced Fruit Barn has 12 employees. Heidi Raggio said the store tries to get everything from California.
"If it's not manufactured in the state I try not to carry it," she said. "California has so much to offer; it is such a diversified state. You can get just about anything you want."
How does Raggio buy the dizzying array of products the store carries? Her rule of thumb is she buys what she likes and keeps her standards high. If it's not a good product she said she doesn't carry it.
Visitors first are greeted by a row of talkative parrots, including three macaws, a cockatoo, cockatiel, African gray parrot and a green Amazon. Conceding these feathered ambassadors are loud and the aviary is kind of like a holding station, she said most of the birds belong to other people who come by to visit them regularly.
Towards the back of the four-acre complex are a donkey, llama, two potbellied pigs, sheep, pygmy goats, a jersey cow, geese, ducks, rabbits, turkeys, two emus and a peacock. C.J. the orange tabby cat has been with the Raggios for 15 years. Most of the animals were hand-raised and given to the Raggios by friends.
Angie Guillen has been a clerk there for six years and said Merced Fruit Barn is a good place to work. Guillen said some people are really friendly and will try to strike up conversations, even if their language isn't familiar.
"I do a little bit of everything. We get people from a lot of different races," Guillen said.
Most of the time the store's visitors are on vacation and in happy moods. Raggio said tourism fluctuates and the Euro is bad now, which means the number of Europeans visiting here has dropped. When a rockslide closed Highway 140 near El Portal years ago, business dropped dramatically until a detour was established. Most of the tour buses bound for Yosemite National Park come from San Francisco or Los Angeles areas.
Raggio said not a lot of locals visit Merced Fruit Barn but the store is seeing the number of lunchtime visitors from nearby businesses including utility and railroad workers increase. She said she has learned to speak a little bit of German and a few simple greetings in Japanese.
The most unique products sold at Merced Fruit Barn? Raggio guesses that would be the unique cooking or salad oils they sell which are made from almonds, grapeseed, walnuts or hazelnuts.
Browsing through the 2,500-square-foot store, visitors notice signs, plaques and pottery. A Mariposa woman supplies a wide range of gourmet seasonings and artists from Jamestown provide arts and crafts products. A Planada woman's knitting is available for sale and all the honey comes from the local area as do the fruits and vegetables.
Store employees are kept busy from about 10 a.m. to noon. Then there is a lull but things get busy from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Raggio said.
Merced Fruit Barn is open from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the summers and 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the winters.
The mother of three grown children and one newborn granddaughter, Raggio thought she would remain a veterinarian's assistant.
"Then this came up," Raggio jokes.
— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.