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Striking Gold With Cherries

One family's success story

September 1, 1997 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Cherry Republic is really a 21st-century farm market. Although we don't grow cherries, we use local products in our baked and packaged goods, we rely on sampling, and we sell direct to customers.

The primary difference between Cherry Republic and traditional farm markets is that at the end of the season we get even busier. We like to call what we do "following the tourists back home," and we do it by taking our store on the road.

Cherry Republic attends some of the largest holiday mart shows in the country during the Christmas shopping season, traveling to convention centers from Milwaukee to Kansas City to Nashville and Washington, D.C. At these shows we set up our booths and cash registers, and bring three tons of product -- including dried cherries, chocolate-covered dried cherries, cherry nut mix, cherry jam, cherry salsa, cherry pepper jelly, cherry fudge sauce, cherry vinaigrette, and cherry "Boomchunka" cookies -- to sell in three to five days.

During this time, nearly 150,000 middle- to high-income people will sample our cherry products. And right then they have an opportunity to purchase. Plus, a number of shoppers give their names and addresses for our mailing list, which brings me to our second off-season marketing strategy -- sending out catalogues in October. Forty percent of Cherry Republic's business happens through catalogue sales.

Cherry Republic used to be 100% wholesale. When I started out, I had visions of getting into big grocery chains all over America. But I found out very soon that a little guy like me can't compete with the huge corporations jostling for shelf space.

Next, I went hard at specialty stores, like wine and gourmet food shops and farm markets. I am still in this niche, especially in northern Michigan. It was a nice business -- pretty easy -- wait for stores to call and ship or deliver products to them. But there really wasn't much money in it.

As an afterthought in the spring of 1994 I decided to fill some extra space in a building I had in Glen Arbor by setting up a 200-square-foot store. Slow as it was, I could see even then that direct retail sales would become the main part of my business.

Cherry Republic now makes 85% of its sales direct to retail customers. It's not that we have given up wholesale, but the retail sales end -- the Glen Arbor store, where we now have a cookie factory, a soda fountain serving cherry smoothies, and a tea garden full of flowers and herbs; the catalogue; and holiday marts -- is just growing so much faster. The retail customers are very loyal, and we get a much higher margin.

Cherry Republic takes cherries and adds value to them by making something that we can sell for more than the raw product. But packaging and labeling is just the beginning of our work! The challenge every day of the year is to create new customers and keep the old ones. So every day we need to get hundreds of people to sample our products, then get half of those people to purchase something, then get one-fifth of those who purchase to say they would like to order presents from our catalogue, and hopefully get one-tenth of those to actually do it.

Someone once said to me, "There are a lot of people marketing cherries, but no one has done it as classy as Cherry Republic." I am introducing people to cherries and people leave my store or booth thinking good thoughts about cherries. These people are much more likely to purchase a cherry product later on, even if it has a different label than mine.

We used over 300,000 pounds of fresh cherries in 1997, and there are 270 million pounds harvested in the United States. Our customer list is 9,000 people. There are 265 million Americans. We are one of the biggest direct sellers of cherries in the country and we are reaching only one-1,000th of a percent of the population!

I don't feel the cherry industry is any different from any other farm or orchard based industry. There are huge surpluses of fruits and vegetables, and hundreds of millions of people wanting to buy. To contact Cherry Republic, and some other retail sources of "value-added" Michigan food products, see the Bulletin Board on page 24.

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