When JoAnn Sorrenti opened a small store on her parents’ almond ranch in October 1969, she assumed it would be a seasonal gig. “I thought it would be open for Christmas and be kind of fun, you know, October through December,” she laughed.
Nearly 48 years have come and gone, and Sorrenti is still at it. Turns out the demand for the high quality nuts and dried fruit was more than seasonal, and, as she put it, “more fun than teaching school.” So Sorrenti quit her teaching job at Clovis High School to establish Sierra Nut House. Under her leadership, the small ranch store grew to become a thriving specialty store with two locations in the Fresno-Clovis area.
“We started out with just four kinds of nuts, five kinds of dried fruits,” Sorrenti recalled. But, she said, customers kept asking for more. “It just kind of grew, and it got busy.”
By 1974, the store had relocated to its current home on the corner of Chestnut and Sierra avenues in what was then Clovis (the area was eventually annexed into Fresno). The company’s corporate office and packing facility are also on the property. A larger location, which includes the J. Sorrenti Wine Bar & Bistro, is located in Fresno’s Villagio shopping center.
One key to the store’s success, she believes, was her early refusal to sacrifice quality in favor of savings. “I decided we were only going to sell the best products,” Sorrenti said. “We buy the top grade. You pay a little bit more, but it’s worth it.”
She also decided to work with experts who helped her learn the business. Early on, she began working with a nut broker who helped her source the highest quality nuts. Now, she said, “I know where the best grow. That’s the whole trick.”
Many of Sierra Nut House’s products are from local producers, but Sorrenti will look elsewhere in order to bring the best of the best to her stores’ shelves. The best filberts (hazelnuts), for instance, are grown in Oregon, and Brazil nuts are sourced from Brazil and Bolivia. Most of the dried fruit comes from the Central Valley, but she started working with a broker to import tropical fruit when customers began requesting dried mango and pineapple.
But it’s not just fruit and nuts that have found a home in Sierra Nut House. In fact, home chefs would have no trouble planning an entire meal comprised of ingredients found in the store. In the 1980s, Sorrenti said, she got interested in coffee and began roasting coffee beans in-house. Later, she became interested in cheese, hence the case stocked with California and imported artisan cheeses. Premium olive oil, balsamic vinegar, jams and jellies, barbecue and pasta sauces, chocolate and Sorrenti’s own line of grains line the shelves of the Villagio location. Many have local ties, although some of the products are imports from countries like Italy and France.
Wine, too, has found a place in Sierra Nut House. Local and regional selections, including those produced by Fresno State Winery, are available at the Villagio store, which offers tastings at its wine bar.
Out-of-towners craving a taste of home can place orders online. There’s even a “Clovis” gift pack available, filled with one pound each of the store’s best sellers: pistachios, mixed fruit and chocolate coated raisins. Sorrenti said the business has received orders from as far away as Australia and Japan.
Sorrenti admitted there’s more competition today than there was when she started. “Costco’s a mile away,” she said. “Those people are doing pallets of almonds.” Retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have also become players. But she’s confident her industry expertise and commitment to quality help Sierra Nut House stand out from the big chains. “There’s pistachios everywhere,” she said. “There are none as good as ours.”
Sierra Nut House
3034 E. Sierra Ave.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday