“If you can understand how to learn and you have a learning mindset all the time, you can pretty much do anything.” – Pam Montgomery
This week on the Gooder Podcast, I had the pleasure of talking with Pam Montgomery, the founder and CEO of Chukar Cherries – a pioneer in boutique food processing, that turned Pacific Northwest cherries into a global gifting brand. We discuss the history of Chukar Cherries and the a-ha moment of Pam’s product idea, including the acquisition of chocolate making “tools” from a famous chocolatier. We also learn about Pam’s leadership for driving an inclusive workplace. Along the way, we hear the amazing journey of a dedicated woman who lead the way in clean food processing, environmental stewardship, equity, and has a deep passion for the agricultural community of Central Washington State.
In this episode we learn:
- About the history and inspiration of Chukar Cherries.
- The stories of hunting for and finding THE right ingredients and tools to make a premium delicious gifting chocolate. (pre-internet!)
- How she uses her real-estate back-experience to grow her brand.
- Pam’s emphasis on inclusivity, team fulfillment and leadership in Chukar’s workplace culture.
- How “box-checking” isn’t the path to growth.
- How the pandemic has impacted the business and the opportunities that came along with it.
- The drivers behind the trend of biodegradable and compostable packaging in her business.
About Pam Montgomery:
Pam Montgomery started multiple businesses in her 20’s, but it was in Northwest cherries, chocolate & wine in the late 80’s that she found her calling.
Early childhood tragedy accelerated Pam’s self-reliance, independence, and problem-solving. She was just shy of 5 years old when her mother died of polio. Her older sisters and newborn brother were sent to live with relatives in California, but Pam stayed with her father—a forester for Weyerhaeuser stationed in a tiny logging community outside of Olympia, WA. On weekdays, Pam and her dad would climb into the work truck and drive into the mountains, walking for hours inspecting new tree plantings. The family was eventually re-united, and Pam’s French-Canadian grandmother cared for Pam and her siblings for several years, during which homemade soup, fruit pie, and suet pudding were the heart of the home.
Fast forward to 1988: Pam and her young family escaped the bustle of Seattle to purchase the largest family-owned cherry orchard in Washington State. 8000 trees and three daughters (under the age of four) later, she had an idea. On her daily walk around the orchard, Pam noticed that cherries left on the tree after harvest increased in natural sugar while slowly dehydrating. Their flavor was incomparable! A question nagged her, why couldn’t cherries be dried without adding sugar for a healthy year ‘round snack?
At the time, no one was drying cherries without preservatives, sulfites, or added sugars. Pam reached out to UC Davis—the research center for California’s raisin and prune industries. They told her it could not be done. Undeterred, Pam started experimenting on her own and found that the natural sugars in a cherry that was allowed to fully ripen on the tree were sufficient. Pam began dehydrating Bing & Rainier cherries with no added ingredients whatsoever.
Later, on a trip to London, Pam visited the famous Harrods department store and their huge art deco confectionery hall filled with European fruits—preserved and chocolate covered. Visually, it was stunning, and the naturally dried dark sweet cherries covered in chocolate astonished her. She purchased a jar to take home as inspiration to create a Pacific Northwest chocolate-covered cherry.
Over the next three decades Chukar’s product line blossomed from naturally dried & chocolate covered cherries to cherry & nut energy snacks, fruitful preserves & sauces, baked goods & granola, and now regional wine & chocolate pairings—all made with clean ingredients and local cherries. When the pandemic stopped many businesses in their tracks, Chukar continued in their capacity as a food processor, selling their goods at CHUKAR.COM
Since 1988 Pam has remained the creative force in Chukar Cherries—creating a team culture committed to excellence in product development, customer retention, and sustainability.
Perhaps Pam’s greatest contribution has been mentorship within her company. Notably, she’s willing to “take a chance” and hire young people in whom she sees potential, regardless of their level of experience.
Guests Social Media Links:
The University of California, Davis is a public land-grant research university near Davis, California. Named a Public Ivy, it is the northernmost of the ten campuses of the University of California system.
Harrods Limited is a department store located on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, London, England. It is owned by the state of Qatar via its sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority.
The Guittard Chocolate Company is an American-based chocolate maker which produces couverture chocolate, using original formulas and traditional French methods. The company is headquartered in Burlingame, California.
AT&T Inc. is an American multinational conglomerate holding company, Delaware-registered but it is headquartered at Whitacre Tower in Downtown Dallas, Texas. It is the world’s largest telecommunications company, and the second largest provider of mobile telephone services.
Battelle Memorial Institute (or Battelle) is a private nonprofit applied science and technology development company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.
Whole Foods Market, Inc. is an American multinational supermarket chain headquartered in Austin, Texas, which sells products free from hydrogenated fats and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. A USDA Certified Organic grocer in the United States, the chain is popularly known for its organic selections.
Amazon.com, Inc. is an American multinational technology company based in Seattle, Washington, which focuses on e-commerce, cloud computing, digital streaming, and artificial intelligence.
Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is a culinary event that consists of three incredible days of cooking demonstrations, wine tastings and panel discussions by world-class chefs and wine experts.
Diana Fryc: Hi, welcome to The Gooder Podcast, I’m your host, Diana Fryc, as partner and CMO of Retail Voodoo, an award winning branding agency, I have met and worked with some of the most amazing women in the natural’s industry food, beverage, wellness, fitness. As such, I decided to create The Gooder Podcast to interview these great people and subject matter experts and have them share their insights, expertize and passion and help businesses around the world become gooder or be better or gooder, it’s all good.
Today we get to talk to a trailblazer, we get to talk about natural snacking, gifting, indulgence and a bunch more other things with my guests today, Pam Montgomery, who is founder and CEO of Chukar Cherries out here from– well, you’re not in western Washington. You’re in eastern Washington, Washington State. Chukar Cherries is a Northwest favorite, snacking and gifting fruit brand and more. But I’ll let her share more about that; and I’m a super fan, a little star struck, as I told her before, so I might trip a little bit more than usual for those of you that are longtime listeners. But I’ll get into it here pretty easy. So welcome, Pam. How are you today?
Pam Montgomery: Very good, thank you.
Diana Fryc: And are you in eastern Washington today?
Pam Montgomery: No, I’m in Bellevue. We have a house on this side, and we have a store which we’ve had for about 20 years in the center of the main arcade at Pike Place Market. So and I grew up in Olympia on this side. So I consider myself one of those rare birds that not only have lived on both sides of the Cascades, but understand the culture and love both sides.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, well, in the cultures are distinctly different between Eastern and Western Washington.
Pam Montgomery: Yes, very much.
Dian Fryc: Well, we have a lot to share about Chukar Cherries and that’s what I’m so excited about and your story specifically. But before we get into the past and talking about leadership and your story, why don’t you tell us a little bit about who Chukar Cherries is now and why does it exist?
Pam Montgomery: I’ll start with the last question first.
Diana Fryc: Okay.
Pam Montgomery: It exists because when I was 30 years old, I got married for the first time and my husband really wanted to farm. He had grown up in the Midwest. I was selling commercial real estate and residential too. During those 10 years during my 20s in Seattle. Anyway, I met my husband. He wanted to farm. We go over into the Yakima Valley, past Yakima on weekends and on one weekend after starting many little businesses in my 20s and selling them, I had a few houses and my former husband had a few houses. We went on a weekend; we bought the largest cherry orchard in the state of Washington, 8000 cherry trees. Moved over there with a two week old daughter and had to learn to farm and it was a shock.
Diana Fryc: Was it?
Pam Montgomery: Yeah.
Diana Fryc: I can imagine. There’s probably some romance around owning an orchard, but then the reality hits and it’s probably quite different.
Pam Montgomery: Yes. Yes. Oh, there’s nothing as beautiful as a cherry orchard, really. However, this beautiful fruit of the seasons, the orchard, are really quite daunting if you have to go through pollinating. So during the week of pollination, when the bees are pollinating the blossoms, that’s early April, early mid-April. If the weather is too cold or too windy, the bees will not fly. The temps have to be 65 or above. So you’ve got that then, once that is over with and you’ve got these fruit buds, if the temperatures are too cold, they can freeze the fruit buds. So that’s why you have these heaters around the orchard and then after you get through that, you’ve got lots of workers. And over the 18 years that we’ve farmed;
There were times when in the early days where migration of pickers from Mexico was considered legit then labor and workers rights and went in there and designated that they had to be legal or have a green card. Okay, and then in this state, labor and industries actually is that you’re required to have the state by the state insurance, and they don’t necessarily understand what’s going on in the ground. So it’s a very difficult process. And in this particular orchard, which was an older orchard, 8000 cherry trees had to be picked in two weeks.
Diana Fryc: Oh, my Gosh. So you were picking the cherries. I want to get to the yummy part where people get to know, what do we get?
Pam Montgomery: Well, what happened was the opportunity the reason Chukar exists is because I saw that many in these two weeks, thousands of I mean, hundreds of millions of cherries were being left on the tree and they were tree ripening and they got better and better and better. And then as I walked my daughters around the orchard every day that I noticed that as the weeks went on, the natural sugar belt, and they would preserve themselves and wrinkle up. So then I started taking samples, dating them, putting them on Ziplocs, on top of my refrigerator and I noticed that they were preserved. So I called UC Davis and they said, “No, it won’t work. They just won’t last.”
Well, they did. And what it is, is most of the studies were done with low grade fruit. This was premium fruit. So that’s really how Chukar started, and it was about the same time that sour cherries were being dried in Michigan and they were being dried by large co-ops, grower co-ops; and they had to add a lot of sugar to preserve the fruit. Well, I was determined from the very beginning to have no sugar added or very low, no preservatives, which all the fruit, dried fruit back then had sulfites at it.
Okay, and then I really wanted to – to me, it was just such a wonderful, wonderful food and then it wasn’t a couple of different experiences, moved me from just drawing different cherry varietals, including Bings, Rainier’s and Montmorency tart and even some berries to covering them in chocolate and that was a wonderful story. We went on vacation to London and the famous Harrods department store back then, and this was while it was really owned by London people, and for decades it had been the premier, if you wanted anything premium from Europe, you went to Harrods. And so they had a rotating exhibit of preserved and chocolate covered European fruits. And I tasted a dried bing cherry coated in premium chocolate, it was in a Harrods little container, but I assumed it was probably from Germany and it was so good. I brought it back and I was determined to find out how to do that. And back in those days, you didn’t have Internet, so I would go to the library and get an index card, and the other trick I had besides real index cards with the library, was I would call cities.
And back then the woman that- usually a woman would answer AT&T. “AT&T information,” like I remember and I’d say, “Is there a chocolate company in San Francisco or is there a chocolate company or a chocolate man?” They’d kind of help you. So that’s how I found Guittard outside of San Francisco, because they were taught to not only look at the city you gave them, but the surrounding area. And I called up Guittard and what I usually did, and it worked almost always is I would ask to speak to the owner, and I would just act like I should be able to speak to the owner.
Diana Fryc: I love it.
Pam Montgomery: And I was giving Gary Guittard, who was the fourth generation, and then he was CEO of Guittard Chocolate Company, and they are a premium domestic Cacao manufacture. And at the time, they were just taking off into doing really high end European style chocolate, meaning high end, very good Cacao, smooth process, high cocoa butter content, lower melting point; top ingredients and they had always been good, but they were really doing a focus on this, which I didn’t know. But anyway, so I flew down and met with Gary Guittard and told him what I wanted to do and he said, “Well, young lady,” I was a young lady back then. “We just happened to be upgrading and automating all our chocolate coating equipment. Our graveyard is outback. I’ll call da-da-da and he can take you out there and you can have anything you want.” Wow. So I went back there and I bought 13 Giant, rotating with motors, these rotating kettles, copper kettles on motors stands, I bought 13 of them on a promise. I asked him what he wanted. He said 2500 dollars. A promissory note is fine.
That’s how I got started, and then I had to get back and figure out what to do with this equipment because I had no idea. And luckily, you remember the days one of my first real estate jobs was at James Albright Realty and Dana Davenport put in a dilatant chocolate store and everything was Dana Davenport. It was his great Chocolatier, his relative was the bizarre of chocolate, Russia’s chocolate. Anyway, he did this. He knew fine chocolate and his chocolate was all from Europe. So he wouldn’t train me, of course. But he had a brother who had also and his brother Greg, who developed DaVinci Syrup was kind enough to let me hire him for two or three days of consulting. And he knew how to use the equipment and showed me and that’s how we started.
And from day one, I knew I wanted to be direct to consumer. I still have my very first customer, T.P Schwartz from Providence, Rhode Island. And back in the early days, this is before I even was chocolate coating T.P Schwartz and his family. His wife was from Kennewick, Washington and summers, they would drive through and someone had told them that I was drying cherries. So he bought some. And my little catalog then, I hand typed it and I had a local artist that would draw the line illustrations. That was my catalog. And he was my very first customer and every year he orders.
Every year I send him a complimentary gift and every year I get a handwritten letter and that is really how Chukar developed. It was a time and a place of taking advantage of opportunity, but from the very beginning, knowing what I wanted and then just nurturing that.
Diana Fryc: Well, it is a very nostalgic way of doing business, and now you and I have been chatting back and forth over for the last several years and I know you’re a relationship person. Even like how I know you felt the operations in your team, it’s just you are very much the way business was done and it still works for you guys. Like it’s in fact, I think you told me this last year was a banner year for you, which may have been because more people were online searching and that sort of thing. But what inspires you to keep running the business in this particular way versus, say, using some of the modern leadership techniques or, I don’t know how to exactly ask that question, but I think you understand what I’m asking.
Pam Montgomery: We do use the modern leadership techniques, but the ones that work are age old. I’m telling you my side of the story, but the story is not about Pam Montgomery anymore. Chukar is its own entity. We have an incredible team. I would say that we have a lot of Latinos, one of the misnomers about Latino employees is that they might not or they’re probably not all legal, that’s not true. Everyone we have is legal and has been for decades. And if they weren’t legal, we’ve worked to get them legal and we mentor our people, we do, because we’re manufactures, and our manufacturing is core to who we are. In the early days, I tried doing what they call of what is that term where someone else makes your product? Yeah core manufacturer; and I couldn’t get what I wanted, and some of it is, a manufacturer makes more money, more margin, if it’s high volume.
So a manufacturer will require that you do high volume. A manufacturer cannot do everything fresh or just in time like we do. I wanted everything to go out fresh so early on I was fortunate enough. I got on a washing and manufacturing services. Are you familiar with what that is? Well, it was a state federal organization that state and federally funded that was developed and it very successfully in states like Vermont where you have a lot of smaller manufacturers and you want them to stay in business and become efficient. So I was asked to be on the board. In fact, that’s how I met my dear husband, my second husband. He was on the board, but I was asked to be on the board about 18 years ago and because I always wanted to be a manufacturer, because I wanted to control the quality. So in order to do that, I had to learn just in time manufacturing and we have to then teach our teams how to break it down, how to develop a standard that’s the most efficient;
Cycle of time they can do in any process, and then how to break down the steps so that they’re trainable and can keep up that standard. So we do that continuous improvement is a mainstay. It’s foundational to every department. Everything we do, we spend a lot of time and money on training and we don’t set it up once it’s a continuous improvement. Every department is continuously improving. It’s very exciting because we’re training people that don’t even have any reference to what we’re trying to get across and so we’re learning how to be better communicators. One of the things that are really important that we do a lot is defining the problem. So what is the real problem and why is it a problem? What’s the impact it’s having now if you come up with some solution, how does that change the impact? And is there a way to test it? Is there a way to train it? So, no, no, no, we’re not just Pam with her relationships anymore.
But I must say that one of my favorite things, and I still do this. Yes. And I should probably be careful when I say or I’ll get a lot more letters, but I do insist on we have any complaints or suggestions are discussed in the morning meetings and put into a log, and then any of them that are impactful or serious or customers unhappy, I write them. Or call them, and if I call them, then I write it down. And many of our guidance in where we go and what’s important are from our customers and it’s been that way for decades.
I’ll give you an example. As you know, the packaging industry has not kept up with the public’s need for biodegradable compostable packaging materials. And Chukar has worked really hard to get our packaging as close as possible and that includes belonging to organizations that are putting pressure on major packaging and material companies. It also means like our cavity trace, for instance, in our chocolate assortment boxes. These, full of our chocolate covered fruits and nuts, the cavity trays that hold the product we were able to push to get those compostable. Then I got a letter when we were shipping our freshly made pies, cherry pies, we had to keep them frozen and we were using Styrofoam only because there was no alternative. And a customer wrote me and I talked to her and I said, “I get it and I will double down.” Lo and behold, I did and I couldn’t find packaging companies that had a compostable cooler, but I could find – So what I did is I started ordering product. It’s an expensive way to do it. But I thought maybe somebody else knows can find it. And lo and behold, I found a compostable cooler.
Turned out that it had just gone on the market and they wouldn’t take us as a customer because they didn’t have enough volume, enough capacity. So it took us a year to get in their queue. But now we have our compostable cooler. Another biodegradable issue, that kind of the big the last two I‘m working on are a ribbon and flexible packaging. The bags; flexel bags.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, the flexel bags are tough.
Pam Montgomery: Yeah. So only because it’s finally available, are we going to be able to move towards compostable packaging now won’t have a window, will have to do a photograph of the product. But we tested that last year with our fruit nut mixes, we took the window out and put in a photo. So that’s kind of the way we do things. Well, we’ll say, “Okay, this is where I want to go, how do I give the customer what they want at this end need because they want it from Chukar; high quality, no preservatives, gift of all packaging where that’s food forward.” Okay, because we don’t use fillers, we don’t use junk. They don’t want the product covered up. It’s beautiful. So that’s kind of how we solve things.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. So very much a test and learn approach where you’re not going to, you’re willing to make small areas of testing before making a big commit.
Pam Montgomery: Absolutely!
Diana Fryc: Rather than just going, we’re going to go for it.
Pam Montgomery: Right, because there’s always going to be unanticipated consequences, always. And I don’t care how big you are, how small you are, how smart you are, how many people you have doing it, you’re going to have those.
Diana Fryc: Okay, well I’m thinking about what I’m hearing here is somebody who’s very clear about what they want and from our conversation beforehand, I know you’ve got a little bit of fire and tenacity in there as well. And I’m curious where the drive comes from and do you feel like you’ve transferred that tenacity into the organization or is that just uniquely yours in the organization might behave a little differently? You understand what I’m asking?
Pam Montgomery: I do. No, it’s not uniquely mine. I think I’ve always had that. I think it’s hard to be someone you’re not and there’s plenty of people who will tell you that, right?
Diana Fryc: Yeah, for sure.
Pam Montgomery: So what’s hard also is to find your place in the world and probably especially as a woman or whatever your limitations you find yourself with or societal expectations or limitations, but I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to in my 20s, I started small businesses, always with the idea of supporting myself, never with the idea of having anything of value that could be sold. I didn’t know how to do that. I had attended Evergreen State College for two years. I was the very first student body by the way.
Diana Fryc: Really? Oh, that’s a big deal. Wow!
Pam Montgomery: Yeah, but I was too impatient to graduate and so I went out in the work world and I started a several small companies, including a Laundromat and dry cleaners before starting Chukar. I think the people; we have an incredible team, but some of it is when I met JT, my husband on the board at Washington Manufacturers Services;
His great gift is empowering people and I learned that from him really. Yeah, I really did. He did turnarounds at Boeing and Turner and was ran operations and early electronics start ups, but this was early, early days. And then he’s a widower and his first beloved wife was the first female software programmer at Boeing.
Diana Fryc: Oh, my goodness. Wow.
Pam Montgomery: So when I met him, I went. He likes smart women. And our company has a lot of smart women. And when I think of what I really admire with women, it isn’t just women that are business oriented by any means. We have incredible single mothers that work for us. One is stayed single and raised her children. She moved from Chicago and all the way to Washington State, started in customer service and J.T. and I were able to mentor her. She’s been our operations manager for decades. And just in dedicated, smart woman, we have several mothers that started with us and are really highly skilled ones, that incredible copyrighter, and now lives in North Carolina raising her adopted children and the other lives outside of Portland and highly skilled women that wanted to focus on their children and their family life at the same time have this drive to keep their skills up.
So we work with them. And the email is always, Beth, I need this, I need it by this date. Is it possible or is it not. Just tell me. And we have other options and we also have worked with people that we knew were so good that they would never stay with us. One of the very first people I hired was a high school kid with long hair from Benton City that was a computer jockey genius and totally out of touch. Nobody in his family had ever gone to college. I want to say they came from somewhere in the south like ARC, I don’t know. There’s no reason this person should have succeeded. And when I met him, I said, “Okay, you can do all this. You can run. You can get us digitally set up. You can’t stay here. I’m going to make sure in a couple of years.” Well, he ended up at the next job after us was Battelle. Was there five years got a PhD and do you know that for years his dad, when he came to visit would stop in and thank me. And on this person’s LinkedIn profile, it still says that his first job was Chukar Cherries.
Diana Fry: How awesome.
Pam Montgomery: Is that great?
Diana Fryc: Yes. That’s a testament to the kind of culture that you have within your organization.
Pam Montgomery: And I’ve worked with people that have anxiety issues and yeah, we do have an incredible culture, and now we have an incredible general manager which really allows all of this company, all these systems, all these processes, because our quality has to stay high.
And our product has to stay fresh. And it allows me to just do the creative, like my husband always says, “Pam, opportunities are like busses. They come by every 15 minutes.” And I always say, “Yeah, and I want to chase after everyone.”
What he taught me, and other than that, I don’t really work with him at all. But he taught me, he said, “Build your case and bring it to the team.” So that taught me to build a case and also when you build a case, that always also taught me how to communicate my packaging, how to communicate in advertising, who am I talking to? What do I want to accomplish? Who is our customer? How much of this do they buy? Why do they buy it? Who do they give it to? Why will this upgrade? How will it affect that? So I learned to build a case and I’m really, really proud of that because it’s something that I teach my team because they just want to do it. And it might not accomplish the goal.
Diana Fryc: Yeah. We call it box checking in our shop. In fact most of the time box checking is absolutely relevant. However, sometimes box checking is not always in the best interest of whatever it is that you’re working on. And you need to have to have an opportunity just to step back and go. Just like what you were talking about earlier. Is this the best thing for the project? Can we be doing it better, smarter, faster? And if so, how do we go about doing it and then build your case?
Pam Montgomery: What are we trying to accomplish? What the problem we’re trying to solve? Who are we talking to? Well, the other the other thing you mentioned that Chukar did well during this horrible past year.
Diana Fryc: You guys did really well, I think, right?
Pam Montgomery: Yes. We doubled our customer base, but Chukar was set up, we had been direct to consumer from day one, and over the years even we’ve been running like four or five businesses because we have key wholesale accounts and we go to the fancy food show and we do trade shows. But we’ve always focused on not the big box stores, not even the wonderful Costco. But let’s make sure that we’ve got a premium gift that we’re creating and offering and a website and catalogs that support it and a couple of company owned retail stores for people to taste, which we have, one in Pike Place Market and one in Washington, wine country and the former Pam factory. So we have this whole direct to consumer hub we’ve had for decades then we have this whole wholesale hub, and people say, “Well, why aren’t you in this? Why aren’t you in that?” Or they try to get us to go in there. And what it is, is you can’t be special if you’re everywhere.
The other thing is not a lot of people know this, but when you sell your product, you can’t tell them what they can sell it at. So people would use our product. We would find it at Whole Foods at what we sold it to them for or we would find it in Amazon. And they would have, you know how there can be people that buy your product and then put it on Amazon? Well, if the product was a year or two old and someone bought it on Amazon and it didn’t taste good, they call Chukar.
So we’ve really do everything we can to support the quality and the freshness first and then make sure if someone’s giving a food gift and you know how awful the gourmet gift market is, it’s not screaming with quality. So we want Chukar to be the exception.
Diana Fryc: Well. I want to talk a little bit about kind of this family approach now, we talked a little bit about this, and there’s a little story on some of the podcasts and articles that I’ve done research on about kind of in the beginning days, your kids were involved. I mean, they didn’t have a choice because they were we. But I wonder how much of family is still involved in the business at this time or have they flown the coop, so to speak?
Pam Montgomery: Oh, they’ve flown the coop years ago, and I think they didn’t have to work in the business, they did if they wanted to. Often they would work in the retail store. My oldest daughter, Vivian, worked on packaging design and worked at Pike Place Market for a while. Alexandra, who went to the You managed the Pike store when she was there. But what’s really, really wonderful is lessons learned. They’ve taken a lot of it with them, and recently, Alexandra, who lives in Geneva, she teaches at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She teaches Renaissance English. Well, she was looking at going into training in corporations because she started developing training programs and she was recently interviewed. I’m not going to say who it was, but it was a very, very high end European brand known as the best.
Here she has an undergraduate degree from the University in Economics and then her PhD in Renaissance English and teaching. And she can develop training programs for anything. She knows how to do the research and break it down. And because she would not only be a trainer, but a brand ambassador of sorts, they asked her what other companies do you really admire? And she thought about it a minute and she said, “Well, my mom‘s company, Chukar Cherries.” And told them all about it and our values and our principles and our ongoing improvement and how people are trained. That just gave me shivers because that’s what you want for your children. You want them to have wings, right?
Diana Fryc: Absolutely.
Pam Montgomery: And the world is changing so fast, they’ll do many, many things in their lives. So learning skill set is really valuable.
Diana Fryc: I think we like to say learning the ability to learn, how to learn. If you can understand how to learn and you have a learning mindset all the time, you can pretty much do anything because maybe 20, even 30 years ago before technology and the speed of life is where it is now, it was kind of known that people might have one or two, maybe a total of two different careers. Now, I think that’s changed to four because people are in the market. First of all, they’re working longer. They want to work longer. Some people don’t want to work longer. But there are people who might have one or two careers and then they’ll retire and then do something completely different or do multiple things completely different.
And I think those that are just open to learning and that have the fire and the tenacity of like you and constantly looking at improvement, not for improvement sake per say, like not for just like you’re checking the box of we’re improving but doing it because it’s what’s right and what’s necessary or simply because it’s fun. I think times have changed. And I think it’s a great sign when you have kids that are out in the universe and can think fondly back to their early days, whether it’s with the family business or whether it’s with somebody else, you want them to have those first few experiences to be amazing for them.
Pam Montgomery: Yes. I think that the word empowering, confidence building.
Diana Fryc: Absolutely. So now with all of this globalization and with Chukar, like I know you guys have been on the straight and narrow all the time. Has the pandemic changed the direction of Chukar? Are you seeing more opportunities or different opportunities or are you kind of keeping in line with the direction that you’ve been talking about?
Pam Montgomery: There will always be opportunities. We are always on the lookout for opportunities. Last year we became a winery, because there is nothing better with Chukar Chocolate than a good Washington winery.
Diana Fryc: I believe that.
Pam Montgomery: So that totally expanded our gift line and we’ve always had this wonderful no sugar added snacks with very minimal ingredients that are so nutritious and good, and then we have these wonderful chocolate covered fruits and nuts, cherries, nuts and berries. So then we repackaged our sauce line last year and we have very cherry centric. And the reason we say stay cherry centric to a large degree is because it’s an opportunity and a niche because you can’t find good cherry pies or preserves or wonderful dried cherries other than maybe one variety. We just keep finding opportunities, and I think that is, now, we have a bakery that was two years ago, we put it three years ago, we put it in a bakery.
I see us is very much staying with using our local fruit. I think we have wonderful partnerships with small growers. We can purchase from all different regions in the northwest which have different weather and different seasons. They get ripe at different times. They pick at different times. That’s where I think we are in the near future.
Diana Fryc: Who knows 20 years from now is going to look like.
Pam Montgomery: We really do focus on the present and the near future and have faith that everything else will take care of itself.
Diana Fryc: Well, we’ve covered so many wonderful things, I’m just curious before we kind of go into that wrapping up portion of the episode. Do you have a favorite cherry or do you have a favorite product?
Pam Montgomery: It changes. Yes, it changes. I love the dry Rainier cherries.
Diana Fryc: I’m a huge Rainier fan, I got to say.
Pam Montgomery: Yeah, nothing added, they have a lot of texture and they’re big and juicy and really and they are of all the foods we do when we’ve gone to like the Aspen Food Festival. People like Rainier, they just go to it.
To them, they understand it. They get it, and their little tip on the Rainier’s get a little bamboo skewer, put a couple on the end. Six cents bamboo, skewer, put a cup two to three Rainier’s on the end, put it into a nice VNA or a really good Sauvignon Blanc and it’ll suck up the wine. And then as you sip your first glass of wine, you’re chewing this wonderful Rainier wine cherry and it’s filling your stomach. It’s putting good food in your stomach.
Diana Fryc: I’m going to have to do some research and try that out.
Pam Montgomery: Yeah, and then the chocolates, I must say, I just love the Black Forest. It‘s an ultra dark chocolate on a dried sweet cherry rolled in unsweetened cocoa.
Diana Fryc: That sounds amazing.
Pam Montgomery: Yeah, it’s a mouthful. Oh, and my new favorite sauce, oh my gosh. If anyone wants to give a Mother’s Day gift, this is it. We have and two new fruit sauces, sour cherry fruit sauce and sweet Bing cherry fruit sauce and they look incredible. I take a little bit and I put it on anything, but also mix it with raspberry spread for my toast or use it as a rub on chicken breast, I mean, it’s just incredible.
Diana Fryc: That sounds super yum, I love it. Oh, well, thank you so much. I know there’s so much more that we could talk about and maybe that will be another time. But we’re getting wrapping up on our time here and I have a set of questions that I like to ask everybody. And the first one is, do you have any kind of, I call this a happy hour fact. Do you have some sort of interesting little fact about maybe Cherrie’s or farming or I guess you call it farming, orcharding, I don’t know. Do you have some sort of fact that we could share?
Pam Montgomery: Oh, I do. This is a great thing. Most people don’t know that the Rainier Cherry was developed in 1960 at in Prosser, Washington where our factory is at the Washington State Agricultural Experiment Station, and it’s the cross between the Bing Cherry, dark sweet cherry and another dark sweet cherry. Like if two people with dark hair have a blond child.
Diana Fryc: Yeah, how did that happen? That’s just genetics.
Pam Montgomery: Well, they were developing it and it worked. Now in the dark sweet cherry market, it used to be that the Bing was the premier fresh market cherry. Now there’s a number of dark sweet cherries with all kind. We’ll look at them and say, those are Bings, but they all are slightly different. They’re looking for firmness. They’re trying to breed firmness, sweetness, resistance to disease. So it’s all dead…
Diana Fryc: I have a question for you. I know this is a little off track. I heard that cherry pits, regardless of the size of the actual fruit, maintain pretty much a consistent size. Is that correct? I guess I learned that maybe a year or so ago, and I thought that was super fascinating.
Pam Montgomery: Yes. It is, and it’s one of the reasons they can use them in a certain pellet stoves, they make a very good filling if they’re dried and really roasted. Please don’t burn your house down. But, yeah, you can poke really neck pillow with them because they’re about the same. You just use them as a stuffing.
I know people that use them as in place of gravel in road covering.
Diana Fryc: Who knew?
Pam Montgomery: I know, little factoids or weird things.
Diana Fryc: I love weird things. Are there any women leaders or rising stars, whether in our industry or not, that you’re kind of paying attention to or somebody that you maybe just want to elevate, give visibility to?
Pam Montgomery: That’s a good question. This is terrible, but I’m pretty insular. I get a little nuts when I look out because you never write what someone’s really dealing with. You never know and what looks on the surface like, oh my gosh, that’s the greatest thing, I could be doing that or I should be doing that or how are they doing that? What I found is that makes me a little nuts. And I left my focus and I don’t think about the opportunities in front of me and what I can improve.
Diana Fryc: I think that’s fair.
Pam Montgomery: And some of my most favorite women aren’t in business at all.
Diana Fryc: I would say that that would be true for me, too. Well, there’s a few people in science.
Pam Montgomery: Yes, Science. I agree with you. But I guess like I said, I pretty much keep my head down.
Diana Fryc: So what are you doing to keep yourself safe and sane these days? Or may not safe, but sane.
Pam Montgomery: I am exercising. Sane, I am on a big exercise. I’m trying to build my physical strength. And I quit doing drinking.
Diana Fryc: How does that feel with the wining thing?
Pam Montgomery: Well, honestly, I enjoyed wine for so long that I know my wine and I’m not saying I’m going to quit drinking forever, but just about a year ago, I just decided that I was drinking a little too much and I wasn’t enjoying it as much. And I wanted to really focus on health. And yeah, that’s decided to do that. So that’s been a learning experience and then paid more attention to relationships with women, with my friends.
Diana Fryc: And then my last question is, if somebody wanted to connect with you for any reason, is there a preferred way? Are you linked in person or do you prefer?
Pam Montgomery: The best way is email, I have trouble doing social media and working too. I do need personal life.
Diana Fryc: What’s that? I don’t know. So you had a general email that I can put in the notes afterwards?
Pam Montgomery: Sure. It’s Pam@Chukar.com.
Diana Fryc: Well, Pam, I have really just enjoyed our time today and your commitment to not just the business of Chukar, but your commitment to the consumer, your clients, your customers and the end product and their experience with your brand. Really just wonderful to have spoken with somebody that’s been within the same company that happened to be yours, like through this journey. So often I meet young entrepreneurs or people who kind of have been here and been here and been here. And it’s really just a lovely story and time well spent with you learning about your time and Chukar.
Pam Montgomery: Thank you.
Diana Fryc: So thank you for your time.
Pam Montgomery: Thank you Diana.
Diana Fryc: Yes, and I’m really hoping that I get to see you at a trade show in the near future, I don’t know when that might be, but seeing your face again would be wonderful.
This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a Creative Marketing firm specializing in growing, fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industries. If your natural’s brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at retail-voodoo.com. And so there you go. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much for hanging out with us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this channel and share with your network. Until next time, be well and do gooder.