The devastating accident that paralyzed Enrique also reunited his family and brought seven varieties of wildly delicious fresh dates to adoring fans all over the United States and Canada.
The story begins in Mecca, California, where Enrique and his bride, Graciela, raised their five children in the shade of a date palm. Alicia, Maricela, Alvaro, Jaime, and Enrique Jr grew up near the shores of the desolate Salton Sea, across the street from the Ranch where their Padre served as foreman and devoted father and Madre cherished her life as a dedicated wife and mother while also assisting with the date harvest and packing.
Enrique's work ethic, ingenuity, and loyalty during his 10 years at the Ranch had earned the utmost trust and respect of the Ranch's original farmers, the Wendlers. Upon their retirement in 1999, the Wendlers offered Enrique and Graciela first option to purchase the Ranch, and in a telling display of their respect and confidence, extended a private loan to make the purchase possible.
The family – Enrique and Graciela and their two daughters and three sons, along with each of their young families – gathered to the Date Ranch across the street from their childhood home, and have worked at the farm ever since.
The Bautistas continued the Wendlers' three farmers markets in Torrance, Santa Monica, and Culver City. Though participating these markets required 3 a.m. wake-up calls and hundreds of miles of driving week after week, the markets were also the Bautista Family's connection to their customers.
Under Enrique's expert care, the date harvests grew. Son Alvaro learned how to care for the trees and the crop. With a mighty dose of persistence, he convinced the managers of several more markets to give the family an opportunity to sell their dates. For the next several years, Bautista Family's fresh dates enjoyed modest sales at farmers markets and to a handful of mail order customers.
Then, on a late winter day in 2004, Alicia's 13-year-old son Fernando called home with terrifying news: Grandpa is bleeding and unconscious. Fernando had loved accompanying Enrique to sell dates, as he had this day. They had been driving home to Mecca after another long day of farmers markets in Los Angeles when a car accident forever changed life at the Ranch.
This is a family that sticks together: meals at the Ranch, for example, are glorious feasts of carne asada, birria, and other traditional Mexican favorites, prepared by Graciela and her daughters and daughters-in-law and shared by tios y tias, hermanas y hermanos, primos y primas, nietas y nietos. The ladies in the packing house and workers at the Ranch join in too, passing ensaladas, aguacate, chiles y tortillas over laughter and rollicking conversation.
It's that closeness that saw them through such a challenging time. With steep bills for surgeries and hospitalization, ever deepening debt, and a home and Ranch suddenly inaccessible to the man who had spent most of his years among the date palms, the struggles that the Bautista Family faced were fierce.
With the determination and work ethic that had seen them through, Enrique designed a way to be the Ranch's foreman once again. His family got to work building paths navigable by his electric wheelchair, and they sold palm trees to get by.
Six years after the accident, a grueling schedule of farmers markets continued to wear on the family. Hundreds of miles of driving every week, overnight stays, and exhaustion were separating this close-knit family, and the traumatic memories of the car accident loomed large.
But farmers markets were their livelihood, 90% of their income. The humble dream of keeping the family together at the Ranch seemed entirely out of reach.
Then in November 2010, a phone order from an excited new Bautista Dates aficionado led to an unusual conversation. Alicia had never met the voice on the other end of the phone, a near-stranger who sensed something special about the family behind these mindblowingly delicious, yet inexpensive and largely undiscovered dates.
She called to order dates, but the questions were tugging at her. After all, in the age of Amazon and Ebay, what farmer would ship out a package full of mouthwatering gems without any prepayment – with an envelope tucked inside for mailing a check? What a display of trust – and vulnerability! As date aficionados, how could we eat far inferior dried and packaged dates when Bautista Dates exist? What an injustice that even the most knowledgeable fruit enthusiasts have heard of only Medjool and Deglet Noor dates, when from this little farm in Mecca come seven varieties, each with its own distinct personality and charm? And what an extraordinary work ethic it must take to farm the land in extreme temperatures and still trek hundreds of miles to farmers markets each week. How is this family getting by? She peppered Alicia with these wonderings.
And then, a deeper question: Alicia, what is your dream?
It is not in Alicia's nature to seek pity or to ask for help. She is strong, brave, a stoic beauty who is thoughtful and selfless. Alicia does not volunteer the story of the accident and her family's struggle. But what is your family's dream, Alicia? As unexpected and ethereal as the question was, Alicia knew it was no joke.
Then, a pause, a moment to reflect.
Her dream, her family's dream, was to keep the family together at the Ranch, Alicia answered, and to explain the emotion behind her words, she recounted the heartbreaking, astonishing, inspiring story of the accident and the reunion and struggle that followed up to the present day.
When 90% of sales are at farmers markets, how could the family still make a living without relying on markets? How could her family ever break free of the exhausting cycle, and be able to go only to their favorite markets, while spending most of their days together at the Ranch? It was a wild, crazy, outlandish dream.
Little did she know that on the other end of the phone call was someone who had a knack and a passion for making dreams come true. And for the Bautista Family, it didn't take long.
January 2011 saw the debut of the original 7HOTDATES: a sticky name for a sassy webstore dripping with James Bond-style innuendo. By May 2011, mail order sales had grown 8,000% and the family was planting more date palms as quickly as possible to feed the appetites of their new, devoted Bautista Family Organic Dates aficionados.
It's those same fans who have supported the Bautista Family not only by purchasing boxes of dates throughout the season, but also by spreading the word about these affordable, incredible fresh dates and by pitching in on everything from photography to writing to navigating the hurdles of shipping fresh dates to Canada.
And remember that outlandish dream? Within the first few months, Alvaro was able to remove several markets from the weekly rotation, to trade them for the joy of more days of togetherness at the Ranch, more smiles from the ladies in the packing house, more vibrant carne asada lunches with the entire extended family.
Now, managers clamor for Bautista Dates at their markets, but the tables have turned: time and time again, Alvaro gratefully declines. Though the Bautista Family still appreciates their connection with their farmers market regulars – the families in Long Beach, the chefs at Santa Monica Wednesday market, the snowbirds in Palm Springs – their current sampling of markets is feeling just right. After all, their dream has come true.
And as it has for them, it also has for each of us, the aficionados of these seven hot dates.