| Stop by Windmill Farms any day of the week and you'll find an open-air market, run by a jovial family that boasts some of the best produce prices in the East Bay.
Stop by one year from now and you could find an empty lot.
The 33-year-old outdoor market, a beloved symbol of old time San Ramon Valley, may be forced to shut down by next August if it does not abide by a county health department mandate to build four walls and a ceiling. The order comes due to the market's size, the sale of bulk food and cut fruit.
But building a fully enclosed store is an endeavor the Smith family, who has run the market since it opened back in 1974, says it just isn't capable of financially.
"The No. 1 thing I think about is my parents," said Carol Smith Benavidez, who manages the market. "This is their retirement money. They are 60 - what are they going to do if this goes away?"
According to county Director of Environmental Health, Sherman Quinlan, the problem is that Windmill Farms sells foods - like bulk candies and sliced melon - that easily can become tainted in an outdoor environment. The county has been both patient and lenient when working with the farm, he said.
"There's a whole lot more opportunity presented for contamination in the open air. Rodents, insects and birds can make people sick, and they do," Quinlan said.
But the appeal of the market is that it is open-air, Benavidez explained. Most customers come for the old-fashioned country ambiance. In between unloading produce, her brother Jason Smith, stopped to agree.
"If we had closed walls, what would the difference be between coming here and going to Safeway?" he said.
California retail food code, redrafted last year, states that whole produce, shelled eggs and prepackaged foods are the only products permitted to be sold in the open air. Even these foods must be distributed underneath a canvas or tarp.
The family says the business has been at the same capacity since 1985 and they are wondering: Why the tough crackdown now?
In the city of San Ramon, where development has swelled in the last 10 years, the Smiths suspect their real estate has something to do with the strong enforcement.
"They want the land," Benavidez said. "Their interest is in developing the area ... (but) we can't prove it."
But the county's intention, Quinlan insists, is not to shut the shop down. It's to keep potentially hazardous food practices from hurting people.
"We are just trying to protect the food selling," he said. "We'd be neglecting our responsibility."
The reason the county is making the mandate now has more to do with a redevelopment and rezoning period the city of San Ramon has been undergoing, county staff speculated. Since the zoning dictates what standard the market needs to meet, the health department likely held off on enforcing the law until it was determined.
After catching wind of the mandate, longtime customers in the Valley have launched a small movement with the family to get the health services ruling reversed. Customers are circulating a petition and contacting county officials.
"This place is the next best thing to going out in the field and picking it yourself," said Larry Gagnon, a long-time patron, who says the market represents rural values. He has bought his Christmas trees from Windmill Farms and says it has the fairest prices around.
Customers and owners say farmers markets are allowed to be set up in the open air and so should they.
The long and short of it, however, is that both the state and the county view farmers markets very differently from Windmill Farms. First, farmers markets are temporary - set up to run a few hours at a time. And second, the purpose is to give farmers the independence to sell their goods without going through a retailer.
In this case, Windmill Farms is the retailer, Quinlan said.
As far back as 20 years, county health inspection records of Windmill Farms show no serious health violations or shut downs. There were complaints about rodent sightings documented in 2001, from an anonymous source, but further investigation by the environmental health division showed there was no evidence of rodents.
"If we'd had numerous complaints, I'd understand. But we've always had a clean working environment," Benavidez said.
Quinlan, who has been inundated with phone calls from the farm's supporters in the past two weeks, says there is a possibility the county could permit the whole fruit stands be wheeled outdoors. Potentially hazardous foods like sliced fruit and bulk food would remain in the enclosed retail store.
"I think that's pretty liberal," he said. "If they got their (remodeling) plans going, we would work with them."
Bulk produce and cut fruit account for about 25 percent of the business sales, owners say.
A grandfather clause tied to food and retail code states that markets opened before 1985 can continue operating as they always have, assuming the menu hasn't changed. The Smiths argue that no products have been added since 1985, while Quinlan says their menu has indeed expanded over the years.
"We've been here since there was nothing. We're an icon - my ambition is to keep the legacy going," Benavidez said.
To read the health department's response to frequently asked questions about Windmill Farms, visit www.cchealth.org. To sign the petition, visit the market at 2255 San Ramon Valley Blvd.
Are you receiving Express, our free daily e-mail edition? See a sample and sign-up for Express.