Dried & dipped cherries
Chukar Cherries has grown from Pam Montgomery's kitchen to a $5 million company, with 80 employees during peak season.
An expansion of Chukar Cherries's processing plant in Prosser, Washington, reflects the success and growth of the company's dried and processed fruit products business.
The Port of Benton County is building a new warehouse and shipping facility for the company next to its existing building. This will allow an expansion of the company's kitchen, where all the Chukar treats are made by hand in small batches.
Pam Montgomery began the "little project" of drying cherries nearly 20 years ago after she and former husband Guy Auld bought one of the largest cherry orchards in Prosser. Discovering a local secret from Prosser residents, who asked to pick leftover cherries from their trees after harvest for drying, she saw market potential for the natural, dried product. In the beginning, they dried about 25 tons of fresh cherries to achieve 10,000 pounds of dried fruit.
Today, her company purchases some 120 tons of fresh cherries from small, local growers. The dried market is a good way to utilize smaller-sized fruit, the preferred size because the fruit must fit pitting equipment made for processing-type cherries. While she can use "less than perfect" fruit that has blemishes from wind or limb rub, drying can't salvage split or cracked fruit. The cherries must also be sweet and high in Brix.
Gross sales from her dried cherry and fruit products, pure fruit sauces, jams, salsas, marinades, and related cherry products are around $5 million annually. In addition to selling product at their Prosser headquarters and through the Internet, they also have a retail store at Seattle's Pike Place Market. They sell about 60 percent of their products directly to consumers, with the rest sold to wholesalers, who may put their own label on the products, as in the case of Williams-Sonoma and Crate and Barrel.
Through the years, according to Port of Benton officials, the Port has expanded the processing plant leased to Chukar Cherries three times to make room for the growing food-specialty business. Even with the remodels and expansions, it has been challenging to fit the manufacturing needs into the current Chukar Cherries building of 13,000 square feet.
The new warehouse and shipping dock will house all finished goods as well as the company's shipping and receiving departments. The 5,000-square-foot facility will also have a new controlled-atmosphere storage where temperature can be consistently maintained for products with chocolate. The new building is expected to be completed in time for the 2007 cherry harvest.
Montgomery noted that Chukar Cherries has had sustainable growth the last six years, with overall growth averaging 10 percent each year. "Sustainable growth is different than just growth," she pointed out.
In the past, she managed everything, which is a lot in a company that manufactures everything it produces—from the chocolate used for dipping dried fruit and nuts to the fruit preserves and sauces. The business was very stressful and chaotic, she said. "It took tenacity to hang in there."
Now, she has "leads" (what she calls managers) that lead a team of employees for all business areas. The leads help hire their team members and are learning to balance skills and experience within a team. During their peak shipping season that begins in October, the number of employees swells from 50 to 80 as seasonal workers are hired for the holiday season.
Inventory of all ingredients, products, and packaging is updated daily to enable them to manufacture and package products when they are needed. The in-time production means that product goes out fresh, she said.
"There's a huge difference in food, especially chocolate, when the products are fresh," Montgomery said. "It's a completely different taste. The consumers know it when they taste it, although they may not be able to pinpoint the reason for the taste differences. Also, we use nothing artificial—no colors, flavors, sulfites, or preservatives."
In 2006, Chukar Cherries was named one of the top 50 gift basket businesses, by Gift Basket Review, a national and international trade publication for the gift basket industry. The company was also ranked in the top 12 for gift basket revenue for 2005. Additionally, Montgomery received national recognition last fall from food enthusiast Rachael Ray who featured Chukar's Cabernet chocolate cherries on her television show.
"In the realm of the specialty food industry, very few do what we do—manufacture all of our products," she said, adding that most use large co-packers to make their sauces and dressings and merely put their own label on the product. "We chose to do our own manufacturing because we have the fruit products and juices in our backyard, and we wanted to control quality and be able to change quickly if needed. Freshness was also a big reason because with a co-packer, you have to order in huge quantities and then sit on inventory while you sell it."
Montgomery attributes the company's successes and growth to implementing consistent processes that result in premium quality products, in-time manufacturing and packaging, and viewing customer service as a product. The growing agritourism industry in Washington and expanding wine industry in the Prosser area have also helped spur interest in the natural fruit snacks.
Montgomery is working on planting a small, trellised cherry orchard at the Prosser location to help educate visitors about production of sweet cherries.
"Everyone on the West side of the state knows about salmon, but they don't know anything about cherries or that we're the number-one fresh market cherry producer in the nation," she said.
She believes that the trees would help draw attention to the risks and challenges involved with growing cherries. She also envisions using educational posters to help describe aspects of cherry production.