Business

This sour story has a sweet ending: Family finds a new home for Paso Robles farm stand

"You're back!"

Paso Robles residents in search of fresh produce are greeting Meui Saelee and her strawberries and cherries with big smiles and warm welcomes, two weeks after she and her husband reopened for the season at a new location following a tumultuous 2017.

Saelee's stand, which was targeted for closure last year, has a new home off Union Road between Golden Hill Road and Highway 46, and both loyal customers and new visitors are flocking to the white wooden structure with painted-on strawberries for a taste of their favorite fruits and vegetables.

"This is our Paso Robles vegetable stand," said longtime customer Robert Mrozowski, who stopped by on Tuesday to buy some fresh berries.

County roadblocks

A year ago, Saelee and her husband, Chan Chao, didn't know whether their business would make it to this point.

In April 2017, San Luis Obispo County officials tried to close the stand, which was previously located outside city limits near Spanish Camp Road.

“They were going to shut down my stand, and I’d lose everything that I’d put in,” Chao told The Tribune in May 2017.

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Meui Saelee and Chan Chao relocated their family produce stand in Paso Robles after the county shut down their former location. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A 20-year-old land-use ordinance prohibits businesses that aren't home-based from operating in certain county subdivisions. In addition, county farm stands must be based on the same property where the produce being sold is grown.

But friends and loyal customers rallied in support of Saelee and Chao by submitting a petition with more than 900 signatures and lobbying the county's planning department and Supervisor John Peschong.

Eventually the county allowed the stand to stay open through October. Then the couple would need to find a new place to do business.

A family business

Saelee and Chao are Laotian refugees who fled to Thailand and then to the United States after the Vietnam War.

They live in Visalia, commuting daily to Paso Robles to grow and sell their strawberries on 3 acres of leased land on Monterey Road. The family also grows vegetables and other produce on another 2 to 3 acres on the same site.

Some of the produce they offer, such as peaches and oranges, are grown by others near their home in the Central Valley.

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Tegan Dunn, 5, left and brother McCoy, 6, enjoy fresh cherries from Meui Saelee and Chan Chao's farm stand in Paso Robles. They relocated their family produce stand to Union Road after the county shut down a former location. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Saelee said she and Chao picked Paso Robles for their business when they were driving through the area on the way to the beach. She said they noticed a lack of fruit stands in the area and decided to open one for the community.

Now, even in its new location, the stand continues to draw customers who love the fresh fruit and family atmosphere.

"A lot of my regulars have been here," Saelee said. "They found us."

Loyal customers

Thom Schulz, who stopped by to pick up some strawberries, said he's been a customer for four years. He said he visits three to four times per week to pick up strawberries for friends.

"They're really a hardworking family," he said.

Nancy Peck, who helped lead the effort to keep the stand open in 2017, said the stand draws strangers together like few other places do.

"The quality of the stuff is sensational," she said. "You can't get it in the grocery store."

Moving the business has cost Saelee and Chao some money — they had to create a driveway and surface the parking lot with gravel. They're also waiting for permission from the city to put up new signs, which they need to advertise their new location.

But with support from their friends and customers, Saelee is hopeful they'll continue to make their business work.

"The community is very good, very helpful," she said.

The fruit stand is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden
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