GLEN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Every year Mary Dana Gershanoff and her husband, Jim Maguire, stop at Cherry Republic for lunch featuring the company’s signature cherry products. But they’d never learned how those products are made.
That all changed this month when the Boston couple boarded the company’s big red bus for a Cherry Orchard Tour.
The tours, offered Tuesdays and Saturdays from late June to early August, take visitors behind the scenes for a look at how farmers harvest, wash and pit cherries and how the fruit is turned into tasty products sold and shipped around the world.
“It’s part of giving our customers a better experience of northern Michigan and a better experience of Cherry Republic,” said Danny Kleinhenz, co-director of the Cherry Republic Experience, which also includes a summer day camp called Cherry Stompers.
On a recent Tuesday Gershanoff and Maguire joined visitors from Los Angeles, Iowa, Chicago and elsewhere at the company’s Glen Arbor headquarters. After walking through a colorful perennial garden they gathered on the shady porch of the wine-tasting room for an introduction by owner Bob Sutherland.
“What you see is 28 years of expression by a creative person,” Sutherland told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “Everything is an expression of a dream about how running a business in northern Michigan should look like.”
He said “Life, Liberty, Beaches and Pie” isn’t just the company motto but represents its core values, which are “local,” ”freedom,” ”fun” and “generosity.” In fact, the company offers summer staff a college savings program and a 36-hour work week so they can enjoy the outdoors, collects a 1 percent tariff on products to give to local farmers and donates 1 percent of sales to community projects like the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
The unique business began in a 10-foot-by-10-foot cinder-block garage with T-shirts and few products for sale displayed on shelving from a farm market that went out of business. After expanding five times its campus now includes a store, a cafe and a wine-tasting room, plus five other stores scattered across Michigan. Each captures the “Up North” lifestyle.
Sutherland said the campus will expand again with the addition of a new brewery next summer and a new store in summer 2019.
After his talk, visitors boarded “Big Red” for a short, scenic trip to Empire where the company has its production, packaging and shipping facilities. Inside the production facility, they crowded the big windows that overlook jarring and bakery production to watch a crew make cherry salsa with cherries from supplier Shoreline Fruit.
After the cherries go through a metal detector to check for bird shot, they’re prepared and heated by propane in double-layered pots with water between for even heating and consistent taste.
Jams, barbecue sauces, pie filling and other products also are made here, but the 17-oz. Original Cherry Salsa remains the best-moving jar product and is made weekly, said Jordan Green, co-director of the Cherry Republic Experience.
On the bakery side, crews use ice cream scoops to scoop cookie dough onto big baking sheets to bake hundreds of Boomchunka cookies at a time. Cookies are the company’s best-selling bakery product as suggested by a quotation displayed on the window: “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.”
The jarring production and bakery area also boasts an ice cream machine that makes 20 flavors of ice cream. Last year the company sold 80,000 scoops, Green said.
As visitors headed down the hall they took in wall displays of “Fun Facts” like, “If we lined up every cherry we sold in a year it would reach to St. Louis and back” and “If you stacked up all the gift boxes we send out a year, it would be about 21,000 feet tall. That’s taller than Denali.”
The next stop was the assembly area, where crew members weigh, package and label treats like milk chocolate covered cherries, imperial malted milk balls and sour cherry patches from 25-pound bags of product made off-site with Cherry Republic recipes.
The company is already stocking up for Christmas, when it will employ 350 staff, Green said.
“Everything we make in two months of summer we’ll sell in 12 days of Christmas,” she said.
After a quick look at the light production area, visitors posed for pictures with Cherry Republic’s furry bear mascot and sampled mini-cherry pies and chips and salsa.
Then it was back on the road for a visit to a 100-acre cherry orchard and a look at how cherries are grown and harvested. It takes five to seven years for cherry trees to produce, said Kleinhenz. The life of trees is about 20 to 30 years but the use of shakers for harvesting cuts that by about half, he said.
As a special treat, visitors got to pick tart or sweet cherries to buy and take with them. Ann and Max Kramer picked yellow sweets to take back home to their condo at The Homestead in Glen Arbor.
“These are just for munching,” said Ann Kramer, whose daughter, Jennifer Kramer, joined them on the tour while visiting from Los Angeles.
The final destination was a brief roadside stop at the Triple D Orchard cherry processing facility to watch cherries being processed. Fruit is first dumped into a vat of water, and then sent up a conveyor belt into a building, where it is sorted and pitted.
On the ride back to Glen Arbor, visitors played a game of Cherry Republic trivia to win products. Each also received an “I Survived the Cherry Tour!” sticker.
“This was terrific,” said Gershanoff, whose grandfather was born on the Old Mission Peninsula, giving her a natural interest in cherries. “We stop every year here for lunch but this is the first time I saw the cherry tour.”
Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, http://www.record-eagle.com
— Marta Hepler Drahos, Traverse City Record-Eagle
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