New juice cups prove to be a boon for Cherry Growers

TRAVERSE CITY – Incorporated in May, 1939 by the shareholders of the defunct Cherry Growers Packing Co., Cherry Growers, Inc. is a major fruit packer specializing in frozen and canned fruit and juices.

Not only is Cherry Growers the oldest cooperative in Michigan, but also the only remaining grower-owned cooperative that processes both apples and cherries. The corporation is comprised of over 90 growers, who deliver their fruit to the processing plant in Grawn from their orchards located throughout the western side of Michigan.

As many fruit growers discovered in 2002, life can change quickly and dramatically in agriculture.

That year, tart cherries in northwest Michigan faced the worst year in the industry’s recorded history. In turn, the poor growing season affected the processing plants that depended on the growers’ fruit. In 2001, northwest Michigan produced 160 million pounds of tart cherries. In 2002, the area’s tart cherry crop was only 1 million pounds. The same weather that caused the disastrous cherry crop also affected the apple crop.

The crop failures left Cherry Growers feeling the pinch, since they depended on both cherries and apples for their product line. They needed to find a process that would get them financially through the lean crop years and allow them to keep their dependable core employees.

“We had to find something to do within our present equipment capabilities,” Mark Hetzel, plant manager, pointed out. “If we could make applesauce in a small single serve size, why not juice?”

The result was a “shelf stable” single serve juice cup that does not require refrigeration. The four-ounce juice cups are in plastic containers with sealed foil lids that peel off. This new product gave Cherry Growers’ customers in the health care services, airline industry, military and school lunch programs an advantage.

The advantage is primarily storage and date expiration. Freezer and refrigeration are considered premium space for storage. Although frozen and refrigerated juices have been the primary product on the market for single serve juices, dry or shelf storage is more plentiful and convenient.

Mandatory health service requirements dictate that expiration dates be clearly marked on perishable food products. According to Thomas Rochford, president and general manager of Cherry Growers, it is difficult, if not impossible, to place an expiration date on a frozen or refrigerated container of juice. Once it is thawed or held at room temperature, the life of the product is extremely limited.

However, shelf stable single serve juice cups have a definite shelf life that is placed on the cups when they are produced. Also, warehousing and transportation of juice cups are easier and less costly than frozen containers.

“The consumer is going to convenience. If the product is ready to go, it saves time,” explained Rochford.

After introducing the juice cups, Cherry Growers’ sales tripled in three months, Hetzel said.

With sales outstripping production, they needed new equipment to keep up with the demand. Cherry Growers was able to purchase the new filling and packaging machinery they needed with help from Charles Blankenship, president of the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation, as well as Lydia Murray from the Michigan EDC, and Green Lake Township,

The new machinery was installed last December. This year, the goal is to quadruple year-round capacity.

Cherry Growers focused on the development of the juice cup process using apples. They have since made available 13 different selections, with new flavor profiles still being added. They plan to add cherry juice to their product line during this year’s cherry crop harvest.

“We can even change the blends according to the customer’s desires,” Hetzel stated.

Research has confirmed that both apples and cherries have unique health benefits, giving Cherry Growers a marketing edge. According to nutrition researchers at Cornell University, almost all of the apple’s disease-fighting fury comes from recently-revealed “phytonutrients” (active plant components). Now, science is uncovering that the healthy components are not just in apples, but are in apple juice as well. UC-Davis researchers have discovered that the “phytonutrients” found in 100% apple juice and apples can actually help slow some of the processes in humans that lead to heart disease and cancer.

However, the most recent success story is the health benefits of cherries. According to ongoing research at Michigan State University, Montmorency tart cherries are a rich source of antioxidants that also help fight cancer and heart disease.

In addition, there are beneficial components in these same cherries that help relieve the pain of arthritis, gout and even headaches. The secret is in the pigments of the cherry’s rich red hue, They belong to a class of natural dyes called anthocyanins, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

With the success of the shelf-stable juice cup, Cherry Growers hired Larry Slade as its Director of Sales last May. This launched a new direction for Cherry Growers, implementing the change in order to focus on control of its own sales with the primary goal of improving customer service. Cherry Growers had previously marketed its products through Cherry Central and CherrCo.

“With an in-house sales force, it allows us to have better feedback from our customers,” Rochford admitted.

With the addition of Geoff Guillaume in October as Business Development Manager, Cherry Growers hopes to also focus on national sales to food service distributors, and multi-unit and industrial accounts.

Reach Cherry Growers at 276-9241 or