MURPHYS, Calif. - Once they were in their 80s, the Darby brothers, Lloyd and Ken, found they could no longer run the Red Apple. Around 2005, they all but closed the orchard/farmstand/bakery on Highway 4 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which had been in the family since their grandfather planted the first apple trees in 1903. For the next few years the shop opened intermittently for a few hours at a time around holidays.
Sixty-five miles away, in Hughson, a small farming city in the Central Valley, Lloyd and Chris Bunch were trying to figure out how to rebuild their lives after both lost teaching jobs within a year of each other. Lloyd was a high school agriculture teacher and Chris taught fourth grade. They lived on an almond farm and also grew peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries. “Why don’t you talk to the Darbys about reopening the Red Apple?’’ urged Lloyd’s brother Gerald, who had a mountain cabin nearby and recalled how popular the spot had been in its heyday. “That place would be perfect for you.’’
As Lloyd Bunch tells the story, “I drove up to Murphys to talk to Lloyd Darby, and at the end of the day we had a handshake agreement.’’ He and Chris would lease and run the business. Adds his wife, “I thought he was crazy, but I thought it was the best crazy idea he’d had so far. If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to make pies.’’
The Red Apple is back in business. Tourists on their way to Calaveras County wineries or Big Trees State Park stop in for apples, cider, pastries, vegetables, honey, and doughnuts. The locals come for pies - apple, fruit, and nut creations made from Chris’s family recipes.
Chris made her first pie when she was 12 years old and boasts that she has never in her life bought a pie or a pie crust. She makes every pie at the Red Apple from scratch, hand rolling the dough. In a typical weekend she sells 100, but sales can approach 300 before a holiday. The apple filling is Lloyd’s specialty, says Chris, perfected after much experimentation with different apple varieties and spices.
Apple doughnuts and apple butter come from the Darby family. Before he died, Chris said, Ken Darby gave them his doughnut recipe and even came in to show them how to use the doughnut dropper, a contraption that shapes doughnuts and drops them into the hot oil.
“The first week we opened, people were lined up to get doughnuts,’’ Lloyd says. “On Labor Day weekend we made 7,000 doughnuts - of just one kind!’’ With that volume, the fryers are going nonstop, so when people buy a doughnut, it’s usually still warm.
All the baking is done on the premises, Chris said. Vegetables are grown either on site or at local farms. Most of the fruit that goes into the jams comes from the Red Apple or the Bunches’ farm. Cider is made from the Bunches’ apples by a local family. Lloyd’s other brother Troy, a beekeeper, supplies the stand with raw, local nectar.
The Bunches grow 22 varieties of apples on a seven-acre orchard, including heirlooms such as Arkansas Black, which dates to the 1860s, and Stayman Winesap, grown since the early 1800s, says Lloyd. He plans to introduce new varieties, such as Honeycrisp or Cameo, while maintaining the traditional ones, and renovate the orchard. Long-term he would like to see the Red Apple partner with local farms and wineries to run farm-to-table dinners and work with local schools to become an educational destination.
The Red Apple is still a family business. The Bunches’ three teenagers work at the stand, squeezing their shifts around baseball practice, dance lessons, and choir rehearsals. Lloyd’s mother assembles pie boxes, and an assortment of nieces, nephews, siblings, and spouses work in the kitchen and the shop.
About a year after they reopened the Red Apple, Lloyd and Chris flew to Boston to look at an apple peeler and slicer for sale at an orchard in Fitchburg that was closing. “We were peeling apples by hand,’’ Lloyd says, “and we needed a vacation.’’ They bought the machine- Lloyd describes it as “totally cool’’ - and had it trucked back to Murphys. It can peel and slice 800 pounds of apples an hour.
Lloyd Darby is still a regular at the Red Apple, though he no longer checks on the new managers daily as he did at the beginning, says Lloyd Bunch. Patrons treat him like a celebrity, and he’s always willing to share stories of the early days, like the time his grandfather earned a ribbon for his apples at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair.
Darby, now 89, is pleased with the change of hands. The Bunches, he says, are “nice people and nice friends. I think this is the only time I’ve ever been happy that someone lost their job.’’
The Red Apple,4950 East Highway 4, Murphys, Calif., 209-728-8906, www.theredapplebunch.com.