Memories of summer are fading as winter begins to take hold in the Yakima Valley. Thousands of acres of cherry trees are dropping their leaves, and their branches sway as chill winds scour the valley. An occasional hard, shriveled fruit is all that’s left of the luxuriant harvest of June and July, as the world settles in for its winter sleep.
But the flavor of summer lives on in a bustling factory in Prosser, where 130 employees are racing to fill holiday orders for fruits, nuts and chocolates at Chukar Cherries headquarters. The workers on the production lines move as gracefully as ballet dancers, with speed and precision, concentrating intently as they create and package confections. They will ship as many as 2,000 packages a day during peak holiday season, and make thousands more for their stores in Prosser and Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Chukar Cherries Founder Pam Montgomery says “Everything we do is cherry-centric,” and it’s obvious when you step into their gleaming flagship store in Prosser. They make 15 different kinds of chocolate covered cherries, using Rainiers, Bings, and tart Montmorency cherries. They also sell dried cherries and other fruits, nuts, whole fruit preserves, dessert toppings, salsa, pepper jelly, granola, and baked goods.
Their empire is built on Central Washington cherries, and it all started with a simple observation. Pam was running a large cherry farm in north Prosser in 1988. “We had 8,000 cherry trees, so you’d miss trying to pick all that in two weeks. You could miss a tree, you could miss the side of a tree, the top of a tree. Add up all those trees and you’ve got a lot of tonnage,” she says.
Neighbors would come to her house, asking if they could pick those leftover cherries to dry. “That piqued my curiosity,” Pam says. “They had handmade wooden boxes with window screens and a light bulb they’d turn on at night so any moisture that came in was mitigated. Of course, in the daytime they’d just cook in the box.” She grins. “They were so delicious — that’s really how Chukar started.” Pam set out to capture that flavor on a large scale. She didn’t want to use chemical preservatives or added sugar. Her husband and Chukar Chief Financial Officer JT Montgomery says “Everybody kept saying if you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to do it like you do apricots, you’re going to have to throw a lot of sulfites on it.” But Pam did a lot of experimenting and realized the reason they needed sulfites on apricots was to preserve the orange color. Dark sweet cherries simply get a little darker when they dry, so there was no reason to try and preserve the color. Chukar’s dried Bing and Rainier cherries still have only one ingredient: cherries.
JT chuckles and says “I’ve literally seen dried cherries last for three years. They do get a little harder. I’ve carried a package of Nuts Over Bings in my golf bag, it was probably two or three years old, I popped it open and it was still edible.” Every cherry, berry, peach and pepper the company uses comes from Washington state, which is why Pam decided to name the company after a partridge-like bird common in the hills of Eastern Washington: the Chukar.
As JT led me on a tour of the facility last summer, the most striking thing was how immaculate it was. Two women wearing puffy white hairnets and blue gloves were mopping the already spotless floors. JT strode purposefully into the chocolate room, which was so loud it sounded as if a freight train was rumbling through. Workers stood at huge spinning copper vats lining the walls, monitoring the hunks of chocolate rolling around inside. Chukar makes all of its own chocolate and he and Pam are proud of that.
JT is an expert at making things run better and faster, with a background in systems and microelectronics. He was living on the West Side when Pam talked him into coming to work for Chukar. “First I hired him, and then I married him,” she laughs. He’d never been to this area before. “Coming down to the Valley and seeing the grapes and the corn and the hops and everything else, it was a different world,” he says. Pam declares “He came in and helped turn around the systems and the culture to make them what they are today. He’s a numbers guy, and also a people person, which is a real hard combination to find.” They’ve been together for 17 years. She calls him ‘Pa Chukar.’
He walks over to a two-story machine used to fill packages and points out the metal chute it uses to fill them to exact specifications. “I invented that,” he says proudly. He’s always looking for ways to improve production. They employ 50 people full-time, and that number nearly triples during the holidays. JT says they’ve been very fortunate in finding labor, and many of their temporary workers come back year after year. They work in the fields and packing houses during the harvest, and when winter hits, they work at Chukar. Pam says they do regular education and training for all their workers. When you call Chukar, a real person answers the phone. “It’s nice in this day and age to talk to a regular person,” she adds.
They continue to analyze and improve their products. Last year they conducted an audit of their entire product line. “You have to make adjustments for market taste. In something as simple as the heat of a salsa or of a Chipotle flavored chocolate. The tolerance has increased so much, that what you thought was hot five years ago is now mild,” Pam explains.
“Same thing with dark chocolate. What we thought of as dark chocolate five or 10 years ago is now considered semi-sweet”
When I asked Pam what she considers her greatest triumph, she responds “Loyal customers who tell us what they like and what they don’t.” She rips open a bag of dehydrated apples sweetened with cherry juice and offers me one. “This is one of our newer products.” She watches me intently as I taste it and nod my head and smile. “Just apples and cherry juice,” she says.
Chukar Cherries has two big warehouses on Wine County Road and just leased another building in Prosser where they make their new line of baked goods. They plan to put up a new building to further streamline the manufacturing process. Pam says these days, she’s mostly in charge of the creative aspects, like marketing, packaging, and coming up with new products.
As I took the last photos of JT and Pam in the store, they were gracious but I could tell they were ready to get back to work, and their mission to make Chukar Cherries and its products the best they can possibly be.