AUBURN, Calif. — For more than half a century, travelers by the thousands have turned off Highway 80 in Auburn, Calif. to visit a rare oasis overlooking the freeway: Ikeda’s California Country Market & Pie Shop.
Along with peaches to die for and several dozen types of fresh fruit pies, the store is filled with many other delicacies, from salmon steaks to chicken pot pies, wines to honey, salsa and dressings to ginger syrup from Fiji, and nectarines, melons and other fresh fruits and vegetables from the 35-acre Ikeda family farm down the road.
For those seeking a single slice of pie and lunch, crab sandwiches and a variety of chicken and Tasty Burgers, along with smoothies and milkshakes, can be ordered either to go or to eat at one of Ikedas’ tables inside and out. “We put 14 herbs and spices in our burgers,” said Glen Ikeda, 60. “It’s a recipe we’ve had for 50 years.”
Ikedas has become far more than a pit stop — it’s a destination.
“You’ve heard the terms farm-to-fork and farmer’s market — my dad created them 50 years ago,” Glen said.
On a recent Tuesday, Marcia and Bob Yasukawa of San Jose brought Marcia’s mom Sumi Higaki, who said she has been making pilgrimages to Ikedas on her trips to and from the family’s Lake Tahoe cabin for decades.
“I’ve been coming ever since it opened,” Higaki said, some years after she was released from Arizona’s Gila River concentration camp.
Higaki, her daughter and son-in-law feasted on fresh apple pie, strawberry rhubarb pie and one of Ikedas’ signature peach pie. They rounded out the meal with chicken pot pie and Bob’s favorite, a tofu burger.
“We like the downhome feel of a small family market and of course the food, especially the pies,” said Marcia.
The seeds of this thriving family business — which includes Sally Ikeda, her sons Glen and Steve, and four grandchildren — were planted by Sam Ikeda, a boy from Penryn who was incarcerated in Tule Lake from 1942-46 with his family and more than 29,000 other persons of Japanese descent. Two thirds of those inmates, including many in Sam’s family, were American citizens.
Sam entered the camp at 14; Sally was 12. “Sam saw the men with guns at the camp and asked, ‘Why are they pointing inwards instead of outwards if they are here to protect us?’” said Derek, one of their grandsons, who now does marketing for the business.
The story begins when Auburn was an old gold rush town.
“My father’s father left Japan for California in the late 1870s,” said Sam and Sally’s eldest son Glen. Sam’s father passed away during World War II, while Sam became an excellent pitcher on the camp baseball team. After the war, Sam told his sons he pitched an exhibition game against the Tokyo Giants, who beat the JACL’s Japanese American squad 35 to 1.
Not long after the Ikedas arrived in Penryn, it became a thriving Japantown, built around several markets, boarding houses, bars and the Placer Buddhist Church, which was founded in 1902 and is still open today.
At church, Sam got to know his future wife Sally, who was also incarcerated at Tule Lake. Sally’s parents were born in Hawai‘i and then joined the community in Penryn.
Before they were sent to Tule Lake, the Ikedas sold their car, belongings and what little land they had and came back with nothing but their camp clothes, Glen said.
Sam and Sally graduated from Placer High, where their relationship budded, and became migrant farm workers in the Central Valley and beyond.
Both Sam and Sally’s families — along with about 1,000 other Tule Lake inmates — picked potatoes in Minnetonka, Idaho. “They got paid 5 cents per 100-pound sack,” Glen said, about $12 a month.
“After about a year of this backbreaking labor, Sam worked as a servant boy for a wealthy San Francisco family for three years,” Glen said, “then came back and sharecropped for Italian and Portuguese farmers.”
Sam bought a house and some land in Auburn and tried to farm tomatoes. “They had zero business acumen — my grandma’s dad was a schoolteacher — and their first tomato crop all died,” said Derek Ikeda, 28, one of Glen’s sons, who now does marketing and PR for the family business.
And then Sam hit upon Ikedas’ Holy Grail: the Elberta peach, one of the sweetest peaches anywhere. You can find the plump descendants of the original Elberta peach trees at both Ikeda markets — the original store in Auburn and the Davis spinoff. The family is contemplating opening other stores throughout Northern California.
Sam started selling his produce — peaches, plums, nectarines, berries — from roadside stands out of his trailer. He approached Everett Gibson, an established grower.
“He knew exactly what to price a fruit if it was bruised or small and taught Sam all that. He said ‘Sam, I like your work ethic, I’m going to train you to become one of the best farmers in the area — you have the best fruit in Placer County, let’s combine forces and open a store,’” Derek said. They opened their own fruit stand off U.S. 40 in Auburn.
When I-80 and its interchanges replaced U.S. 40 in the late 1950s, “Mr. Gibson thought that would be the demise of the store,” Glen said. So Sam and Sally Ikeda got a loan from First Citizens Bank in Roseville where Sally worked.
“My mom got the loan strictly on merit,” said Steve Ikeda.
The Ikedas opened their current store in 1972 and “went seven years without a day off. My dad would work from 5 in the morning until 9 at night, seven days a week to create the best peach ever.” By planting his trees two feet apart without chemicals and a lot less water — Sam was one of the first to use drip irrigation — the peaches grew sweeter and more flavorful, and Sam only sold the biggest, best, unblemished fruit. To this day, when you buy fruit at Ikedas and an employee notices a slightly bruised fruit at the checkout counter, they will go and replace it.
“Everybody loved it, but he grew too much of it. In seven to 10 days it got mushy, so rather than throwing it out, we decided to make pies.” To this day, the Ikedas peel their own fruit by hand the way Sam did to create both baked and fried pies.
Following their mantra — quality, cleanliness and service — they started selling high-end wines, excellent meats and fish and then opened the restaurant.
Sam brought his sons into the business. “To us he was a hard ass, we could never work hard enough or study long enough, we didn’t get a lot of ‘attaboys’ — hard work was his religion,” said Glen, who graduated from Chico State University. “He wanted his kids to understand life was tough.”
But to his customers and community, Sam showed his big heart. “If you had a flat tire, he would change it. He’d give help to homeless people all day.”
“My dad would say, ‘the only thing I discriminate against is laziness, I don’t care if your IQ is 100.’ My dad, a high school graduate, said his IQ was 20.”
Sam and Sally never forgot the injustice of being incarcerated during World War II, even though they were American citizens. They each got $20,000 in reparations in 1988, “but the number one thing my parents wanted from President Reagan was an apology so this would never happen to anyone else,” Glen said.
Sam passed away in 2019, but his relentless work ethic lives on in his sons and grandchildren. “I’d love to retire today but we need to make sure we have a store that can withstand fluctuations in the economy,” Glen said. The store stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the restaurant was forced to close, so their 90 employees could continue to get paychecks.
Today, Glen’s sons Derek and Brendyn and Steve Ikeda’s teenage kids, Connor and Allison work at the store along with their grandmother Sally, 91, who still comes in to fold the souvenir T-shirts they sell.
Steve Ikeda, 58, said Ikedas’ magic lies in their parents, “they are the ones who took the risk and started everything from scratch. In this lifelong adventure, they are the heroes.”
Ikedas Auburn is located at 13500 Lincoln Way in Auburn, Calif. The market is open Mondays through Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Fridays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The restaurant is open from Mondays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Fridays through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Holiday hours may vary.) (530) 885-4243.
Ikedas Davis is located at 26295 Mace Blvd. in Davis, Calif. Hours are Mondays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (530) 750-3379. For more information, visit www.ikedas.com.