Inspiration struck when Pam Montgomery was strolling through her Yakima Valley cherry orchard and snacking some leftover cherries that had dried on the trees.
Her brainstorm led her to start Chukar Cherries, a Prosser-based specialty food company that creates dried cherries and chocolate-covered cherries and nuts for customers all over the United States and in Canada, Europe and Asia.
The Tri-Cities is home to some food manufacturing giants, like frozen potato manufacturer ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston. And there are many small food manufacturers like Kennewick’s Adams Place Country Gourmet.
But there are few medium-size food manufacturers like Chukar Cherries, said Gary White, the Tri-City Development Council’s director of business retention and expansion. He calls Chukar Cherries “a specialty food rock star.”
Montgomery said she saw other good start-up specialty food companies fail because they tried to grow too fast. She didn’t want to have that happen or to get to the point where debt was calling the shots and not her and her team.
Chukar Cherries’ slow, steady growth for 26 years is one ingredient contributing to their success, she said.
“We have survived and thrived, which is a very difficult thing in value-added food,” Montgomery said.
White and other Tri-City economic development officials hope to help other companies find their own recipe for success. White says the lack of medium-sized food manufacturing businesses is an opportunity for the Tri-City area.
This week, TRIDEC organized its first FABREO Columbia Basin show to help connect food and beverage manufacturers with potential customers and investors. The idea of the Food and Beverage Retention & Expansion Opportunities event was to help grow the industry.
For being the first year, White said it went better than expected, with more than 100 companies signing up to exhibit at booths and more than 20 buyers, retailers and brokerage firms coming from Los Angeles, Seattle, Spokane and Portland.
He’s hoping to draw in outside businesses to open a facility in the Pacific Northwest, as well as support and grow current Tri-City area food and beverage manufacturers. The effort is trying to build off the bountiful local agricultural industry, as well as our proximity to Asia.
Officials with the Port of Pasco and the Pasco Specialty Kitchen also are putting their heads together on how to help small food manufacturing businesses grow.
The Pasco Specialty Kitchen helps incubate small businesses, allowing them access to a commercial kitchen, classes and other support. Currently, 45 businesses are clients, and that’s growing, said Marilou Shea, the kitchen’s director.
What the Tri-Cities lacks is the next step up, something to support businesses that have outgrown the kitchen but don’t yet have the ability or need for their own manufacturing facility, Shea said.
Ideally, she’d like to see a shared processing facility developed to help those small companies expand.
“It is very much a real need,” she said.
Support is one of the things Montgomery said helped her business. Leasing the current manufacturing facility from the Port of Benton helped lessen manufacturing start-up costs.
Bringing together a great team of workers also was critical, she said. About six of her employees have worked for her for 15 years. And many of their seasonal employees return year after year to help during the holidays when production climbs and staffing jumps from 35 to 85.
Chukar Cherries also has found a specific niche. They sell direct to the consumer, and have many gift options available for those who want to give something they can’t find in a big box store.
Most orders come through the company’s website, but it also has retail outlets in Prosser, Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Leavenworth.
Montgomery said they’ve tried to respond to what customers like ever since the company began. They used to get letters but now they hear comments through social media.
She and her employees have always responded to them, and she’s made many changes to products, packaging, customer service, training and management based on that feedback.
About half of Chukar Cherries sales are chocolate covered local cherries and regional nuts. They also create dried fruit, granola, dessert sauces, savories, preserves, cherry almond biscotti and more.
Dried cherries were the first Chukar Cherries product. Everything else has built on that.
When they add new products, they also discontinue something else. It’s key to staying fresh, she said.
She also said she has been deliberate about making sure she takes time to recharge to avoid the burnout that often torments small business owners.
But, ultimately, the product has to keep customers coming back.
Cherries picked for Chukar Cherries hang on the trees for about two weeks longer than the ones headed for the fresh market. That makes them sweeter, Montgomery said.
They are dried at the company’s Prosser manufacturing plant, and then stored to be used year-round to create fresh chocolate-covered cherries and more.
Employees pour melted chocolate into rotating copper panning kettles. Cool air blows on the cherries or nuts, helping to evenly coat the nuts and cherries.
A customer’s order is typically made shortly before being sent whether it is during the summer or Christmas season.
“Nothing goes out that is older than about two weeks,” Montgomery said.