Behind the Scenes of the Picnic Sandwich Shop and Parlour Bakery
Oct 27, 2015 10:57AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett
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Piece of the PieNovember 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke
People usually won’t hesitate to admit on a bad day that life ain’t no picnic. But ask Ray Ransberger, and he’ll say otherwise: it absolutely is a picnic. You wouldn’t guess by looking at him, but Ransberger is well into his 70s, and is still running Visalia’s Picnic Sandwich Shop, where today he breaks away from cleaning the meat slicer to talk about the history of the restaurant. A few customers – might as well call them friends – walk up to the register where Ransberger greets them by name, asking about their day as he rings them up.
For more than 50 years Ransberger has been in the restaurant business, and though he’s worked almost daily since the Picnic Shop opened in 1968, “you couldn’t keep me away if you tried,” he says. For him, it’s not just about business or the food – it’s about friends, it’s about family, it’s about making people happy.
The Main Street location has been a downtown fixture since 1968 (the first Picnic Shop opened on Mooney in 1967). And while it couldn’t be more centrally located, there are still Visalians who miss the shop, and many more unaware they bake their own goods.
Heidi Ransberger, Ray’s daughter, runs the bakery, the Picnic Parlour, which has been located in the back of the property since the mid-1980s.
“This used to be Don Estes Institute,” says Heidi, hands covered in flour and standing above about a dozen banana cream pies. “When I was a little girl, I used to be scared to death of running by the hall because Don Estes was going to come out and pinch my cheeks. His styling chair was right there,” she points, “and he would see me and I would try to run by.”
Heidi practically grew up in the restaurant, where she started working when she was only 8: “on my way to school,” she says, “then on my way back.”
Like many other members of her family, Heidi had plans to become a registered nurse; even her father Ray had almost attended medical school until he decided upon the restaurant business. Heidi was attending a nursing program in Fresno when her brother died in a car accident in 1992. That was around Thanksgiving, “and I came back to help out,” explains Heidi, admitting it was a rough time.
But it was also an opportunity for Heidi to return to the family business, where both her mother and father work.
That was more than 20 years ago, and the family tie was strong enough to keep her partially covered in flour. Still she laughs, “I don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up yet.” Whether it’s nursing or baking, “it’s both manual labor. I don’t know how I picked either; I was supposed to be a princess.”
Consider Heidi a princess of her own realm, with sole dominion over a kingdom of pastries and pies. Between the danishes, quiches and pies, she also cooks the meatloaf for the restaurant. And while she bakes “whatever I have time for, really,” she guarantees a staple of pies and cookies for the shelves. From walnut to coconut cream and berry and fruit pies, they sell by the slice in the restaurant, and in the bakery they sell whole for about $15.
“I keep the pies and cookies up so we have those every day, and if I have time, I’ve been making these – well, we call them Smirks. They’re like a variation on the Snickers bar.”
Just like her father, Heidi stops what she’s doing to speak with customers as they come through the door, whether they’re placing an order or sitting down at a table to eat. What Heidi loves most about the job, she says, is exactly that: “Having neighbors.” She spends a bit of time talking with “Nate the shoe guy” from Brown’s Shoes, which is a few stores down from their restaurant. “People are just happy when they get here.” And how could they not, when generally they leave with a pie or a full belly?
Heidi’s father Ray agrees. The opportunity to talk with customers, send them home happy and content after a good meal – that’s why you couldn’t keep him from work even if you tried. “I mean, every day I am here with my family. My wife works here, too,” says Ransberger. Doing what he loves with the ones he loves: proof that life really can be a picnic, when you find your place and people.
Picnic Sandwich Shop & Bakery
114 W. Main St. • Visalia • (559) 734-1847
Monday-Friday 10am-2pm; Saturay 10am-3pm