Casa de Restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary

The travelers' stop at Casa de Fruta continues to evolve and serve its customers

Nestled in the Pacheco Pass north of Hollister and east of Gilroy stands Casa de Fruta, an institution whose sprawling complex is a welcome sight for anyone traveling to or from the Santa Clara and Central Valley. Casa de Fruta is an “Orchard Resort” that features a restaurant, an R.V. park, an inn, a winery, a service station, and an amusement park for children, all standing alongside its original food stand and store that sells fresh and dried fruit, assorted nuts, and other gourmet items.

The Zanger family, who owns and operates Casa de Fruta, and who has developed orchards in the valley since 1908, this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Casa de Restaurant, the restaurant and bakery on site, this month. 

Though the property is large now, the original Casa de Fruta was a humble roadside fruit stand underneath a large oak tree that sold baskets of cherries to travelers in their cars in the 1940s. The stand was operated by three Zanger brothers: George, Eugene, and Joseph. Clara Zanger, their mother, also had a say in the business. It was Clara’s idea to add a bathroom for customers of the fruit stand. That decision turned out to be life-changing. Clara suspected that adding a bathroom would encourage visitors to stop and take a longer break from driving. She thought those customers might buy more cherries before getting back on the road. She was right, and in fact, customers eventually wanted a lot more than cherries.

Gene Zanger and Gretchen Blatter, cousins and descendants of the original Zanger brothers, told BenitoLink that thinking about the customer’s needs first was always vital. Zanger says that “first, they had a cherry stand … and this was the stand that always did the best [so] they put in a bathroom, and a playground for the kids. People were stopping, and started asking, ‘hey can I get something to drink? Can I get something to eat?’ So in 1967, that’s when the restaurant was opened.”

Blatter added, “We’re proud it was our grandmother who was the businesswoman and entrepreneur. It wasn’t the man. [Clara] lived up in San Jose, but her three sons would go up there every weekend and discuss business with her.” 

The business-savvy brothers, who recognized that their clientele was mostly families, eventually added a zoo and playground for children, and a gift shop and winery for adults. Today’s business also includes the recent launch of a new Casa de Beer, created in partnership with Gordon Biersch Brewing, and a thriving online business. 

Casa de Restaurant opened on July 18, 1967. The 24-hour cafe served breakfast, lunch and dinner, in order to accommodate customers who drove through the valley at all hours. The restaurant at the time had 104 seats. A story in the Evening Freelance, written on opening day in 1967 about Casa de Restaurant, says that the “modern redwood shake-roofed building” was designed “to give diners a view of the surrounding orchards and hills.” In today’s Casa de Restaurant, that view hasn’t changed much, except for the highway that was eventually developed. Today’s customers are still seated next to large windows that look out over the valley’s rolling hills. 

It took only seven weeks to erect the original building. Gene Zanger remembers the opening of the restaurant. “I was 5 years old when the restaurant opened and I remember coming up here when they were building, and there were guys everywhere. On top of the roof, in the building, guys were moving things. Everything was happening at once. It was amazing.”

Of course, even building the restaurant was a family affair. 

Blatter says, “I was 9 (when construction was happening), and I remember laying the bricks around the outside of the restaurant. It was fun.”  

According to the newspaper story, the original restaurant also featured “the most modern in stainless steel kitchen equipment, including an automatic dishwasher that cleans dishes in 60 seconds.” 

“You’ve got to remember, this was 1967,” Gene said. “That dishwasher was a big deal!”

Today’s restaurant does have some changes, and Zanger says change is key to Casa de Restuarant’s success. “We’ve continually evolved,” he says. For example, the restaurant has expanded a few times. Where once 104 customers could sit, the capacity has expanded to 240. The kitchen was renovated around 2007, and there have been multiple refreshes of the restaurant’s interior and furniture since then. Zanger  says that there are “plans underway for an upgraded interior for a new look, including new tables, chairs, floors and walls to update the space for the next 50 years.”

In emails with BenitoLink, Eugene Zanger, Gene’s father and one of the three Zanger brothers who started the business, remembers seeing many families return to Casa de Fruta.   

“Our guests came from the local area, all of California and the world, on their way to Monterey, Disneyland, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento and Yosemite. We would see some of them 2 to 10 times a year over the course of the decades. It was magical to see them again and again, and renew acquaintances, watching their families grow. Each guests had a story on why they stopped at Casa de Fruta’s restaurant and we were humbled to be a part of their family’s story.”

Zanger also remembers difficult times, and the role Casa de Fruta played to locals seeking comfort. 

“The week after the 1978 and 1989 earthquakes, most our staff was not able to come in, but we still opened with limited service. The roads were quiet and there were few guests, but those that stopped were coming back home, not sure what had happened to their communities and homes. They were especially appreciative that we were open.” 

Zanger also praised the staff that contributes to Casa de Fruta’s success. He says they have had “innumerable outstanding members of our staff during the 50 years. It was a team effort, and that spirit continues today.”

Some of the original staff still works for Casa de Restaurant. Jorge (Corky) Esparza started at the restaurant in March 1974 as a busboy, before moving to the kitchen as a cook in 1977. He still works at Casa de Fruta, but has moved from the kitchen to the store after an operation made work with his right hand difficult. “I’m enjoying my life now,” Esparza says with a smile, “less pressure.” Esparza isn’t the only employee to stick around. Gustavo Farias, who started started at Casa de Restaurant in 1971, still works in the kitchen today. 

Gene Zanger speaks highly of all his staff, and the long-time employees like Corky, saying, “He spent the better part of this life working here and we’re fortunate to have had him done that, and we look forward to keeping it going.”

To celebrate the restaurant's 50th anniversary, on July 18, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., a cup of “Cup Flipper Coffee” will be served in the restaurant for 15 cents per cup, the same price a cup of coffee cost when the restaurant opened.  




Jessica is a writer from Los Angeles, California. After studying Literature and Film Theory at Harvard, she traveled the world as a journalist. To date, Jessica has visited more than 40 countries and written about international civil rights, subversive art and music, Chilean wine, and everything in between. Jessica is also a skilled content strategist and has lent her storytelling expertise to leading tech companies in Silicon Valley. Find her on Twitter @JessicaCaimi