“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.
Episode Sponsor – Retail Voodoo:
A creative marketing firm specializing in growing, fixing and reinventing brands in the food, beverage, wellness and fitness industry. If your natural brand is in need of positioning, package design or marketing activation, we’re here to help. You can find more information at www.retail-voodoo.com
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