The Tognetti sisters, Andrea and Nancy, always loved being on the family ranch with their parents and brothers, playing in the fields and on the tractors. Throughout childhood and into their high school years, they even helped out with the family’s Merry Cherry fruit stands.
But as they entered adulthood, both had different career paths in mind.
For Andrea, it was teaching. She earned her teaching credential from San Jose State University and is in her 25th year at Rod Kelley Elementary School in Gilroy.
For Nancy, it was dentistry. She earned her degree from Cabrillo College and has been a dental hygienist for 30 years, currently working at Eric Nagareda, DDS in Gilroy.
But the two sisters never strayed too far from home and, although well-established in their chosen professions, the two sisters jumped at an opportunity offered to them by their younger brother Gary to take over one of the Merry Cherry fruit stands.
“It was always fun when we were kids,” said the now 52-year-old Nancy (Tognetti) Soto who recalled fond memories of hanging out with her grandmother at the stand. “I just like being out here, talking to the customers. I love fruit and I love baking.”
So, in 2011, the two Tognetti sisters took over the Merry Cherry stand behind the Gilroy outlets while their brother Gary took ownership of another Merry Cherry stand on the outskirts of town heading east on Highway 152.
Nancy and Andrea now manage their Merry Cherry fruit stand and also run the Market 25 fruit stand on Highway 25 north of Hollister.
“For the first couple of years, it was just us two sisters only out here,” said the now 50-year-old Andrea (Tognetti) Castro. “I love being outside and it just felt good to come back to your roots.”
The Merry Cherry business began in May of 1972, the year Gary was born, as the sisters tell it. Their mother Carolyn Tognetti and grandma Mary Tognetti opened the first stand outside the grandparents’ house on old Monterey Road. They partnered with a nearby and now Christopher Ranch farmer, Don Christopher. Carolyn would run the stand in the mornings and Mary in the afternoons, switching off as to who would take care of the four children, Nancy, Andrea, Gary and Tony.
Carolyn’s husband, Ed Jr., and his father, Ed Sr., were local farmers who later on down the road formed B&T Farms in Gilroy, where today they grow mostly tomatoes, peppers, corn and, yes, cherries on parcels throughout Gilroy and South County.
Once the freeway opened up through the region, the Merry Cherry stand moved next to Highway 101 south in Gilroy. Soon after, they moved it again to the corner of Castro Valley Road and Highway 101 and yet again across the highway where Garlic World stands when diverting off Highway 25 to 101. At that time, the Merry Cherry stand was absorbed into Garlic World, which was run in part by the Tognettis.
“All we did in the summer was work in the fruit stand and then at Garlic World,” said Andrea, who graduated from Gilroy High School in 1986, three years after her sister Nancy. “Our friends worked with us as well.”
Nancy added: “We had lots of fun doing it, although if anybody called in sick we had to come in to work.”
However, after several years passed, Carolyn (the girls’ mom), stepped away from the fruit stand at Garlic World and leased it out. Wanting to rejuvenate the Merry Cherry business, Gary decided to re-open the stand behind the outlets and a second one on 152. Shortly thereafter, he asked his sisters if they wanted to take one over and they immediately obliged.
“We all work together,” Andrea explained. “He gets the produce and then we get it from him and bring it here to sell.”
Every weekend from April through Labor Day instead of sleeping in and relaxing at their homesteads, the two Tognetti sisters go out and open the stand, luring in customers, new and old, with fresh stone fruit, vegetables, and a secret weapon of garlic ice cream. They now have a staff that works the stand during the week as well. (They are opened daily from 10am-7pm on weekends and noon-6pm on weekdays.)
“The best thing is the return customers,” Andrea said. “Now we have a following. They are always asking, ‘when are you going to open?’”
Behind the stand is one of the fields where the family grew garlic back when they were growing up. The sisters smiled as they recalled going out in the field with friends and topping the garlic, which their dad would graciously pay them for.
Today, their own children come out and help at the Merry Cherry fruit stand just like they did when they were children. Andrea has two children: 21-year-old Lauren and 18-year-old Andrew (who helps his grandpa with irrigation pipe in the fields, she shared). Nancy has four children: Matthew, 26; Michelle, 24; Michael, 21; and Mark, 19.
And if an employee calls in sick or can’t make it to work, “we do what our mom did” and have one of their children come in to fill in the hours at the stand.
“Michael wants to go into farming. He’s studying ag at Chico State and plans to come back (and work on the family farm),” Nancy shared.
As for the Tognetti sisters, Nancy and Andrea, they stepped beyond their Merry Cherry fruit stand and also leased and run the Market 25 fruit stand on Highway 25 on the way to Hollister.
“It’s something I can’t see not doing,” said Andrea of selling fruit and keeping the Merry Cherry business going for years to come.
“Every year during harvesting, I can just smell it. I love that smell,” Nancy added. “It smells like home.”