The timing couldn’t have been worse, or so the Samuel family thought.
In 2007, the California cherry growing family’s drying facility burned down in the middle of harvest. “We were so devastated, too, when it happened,” said Jake Samuel, a fifth-generation Linden cherry grower. “It was the middle of cherry season; we had no idea what to do.”
In the end, it proved a blessing by forcing the Samuels into a new business model.
Before 2007, they had been drying cherries at their Linden ranch. They removed the stems, dried the cherries and then sent them away to be pitted. However, the process did not allow them to control the consistency of their quality over a large volume.
The year of the fire, they scrambled to send their whole cherries to a Yuba City prune dryer and realized they could handle up to five trucks a day, five times their volume before the fire.
Drying large volumes of cherries first and removing stems and pits later gives them the ability to store fruit without cold storage facilities and custom process year-round.
“One of those unfortunate, fortunate mistakes or accidents, I guess,” Samuel said. “Kind of a crack-up really.”
The farming family is first and foremost a fresh cherry producer working with area packers, Samuel said. They then purchase culls for their drying operation, called Sunrise Fresh Dried Fruit and Nut Co.
Like many California farming families, the Samuels trace their history back to Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.
They added cherries in 1954. Since then, they’ve always had some form of cherry processing, just not always on a commercial scale. They developed a maraschino business with some neighboring growers for a few years in the 1990s.
The family considers the business a unique niche in the rapidly growing arena of dried fruit products.
Jake Samuel is a jack-of-all-trades at the company, helping direct processing operations and steering through the shifting world of food safety and sales.
His parents, Jim and Jane, lead the company and manage day to day production. His brother Zach, 25, manages the orchards, while Case, 21, works for the company while finishing college.
Sunrise Fresh dries only Bing and dark sweet cherries, adding no sugar or any preservatives. Customers include several California grocery chains, snack manufacturers and direct sales through Amazon.
They bought up culled cherries from the rain-damaged 2010 and 2011 crops, still trucking to Yuba City and another dryer in Fairfield, about 50 miles northwest of Linden.
In 2012, they built their own rehydration and pitting line and set it up in an old Del Monte warehouse, where they store dried cherries before custom processing. Dried cherries with pits store much longer than without.
The family got a break in 2012, when a harsh freeze wiped out fruit across the Midwest and East Coast and gave the Linden family a six-month run with Costco. “It was nice,” said Jim Samuel, Jake’s father. “I mean, truckloads of cherries going out in bags.”
However, Costco was interested in volumes they couldn’t fill, so the retail giant returned to the Michigan tart cherry industry to sell dried, unsweetened tart cherries under the Kirkland brand. But the Costco stint gave them exposure and they kept growing.
Today, Sunrise Fresh produces 400,000 pounds of dried cherries a year, 10 times what they did in 2008. The family even has been known to buy cherry culls from Northwest growers.
The business has taken off so fast, Jake Samuel shut down his family’s walnut processing operation in 2015. There are 110 walnut processors in California but only a handful of dried sweet cherry processors on the West Coast. The family still grows walnuts, however.
The Samuels don’t pretend to be the only cherry driers, and it’s unclear how novel their process is. Bella Viva Orchards in nearby Hughson, California, has been drying cherries for 25 to 30 years, said Victor Martino, who owns the business with his wife, Angela.
He declined to say whether he dries before or after pitting, but said the most important factor is to find a method that removes all the pits and pit fragments to leave clean fruit for the consumer. Both companies do that well, he said, and most in the industry keep some processing details proprietary.
Consumer health awareness is driving the growth in dried cherries, especially those without added sugar, Martino said. “We’re going into this period where sugar is the new devil.”
Cherry dryers also add value to the industry by providing an outlet for fruit that may not make it into fresh boxes because of missing stems or small blemishes, said both Martino and Samuel.
“It helps us along the way,” Samuel said, “but it also helps the industry, too.” •
– by Ross Courtney