Made There: The origins of the Northwest’s iconic Chukar Cherries

Pam Montgomery took a chance on a Prosser orchard 35 years ago — and pioneered sweet success in the form of a fruity chocolate drop.

The setting sun casts a golden glow over the Horse Heaven Hills that overlook Prosser, Wash. Pam Montgomery emerges from a sliding glass door, walks across her patio to a glass-top table and sets down a small dish of dried cherries as she sits to watch the last light of the day. A stray beam of sunlight glints off a wine glass. Montgomery smiles, enjoying the pairing of dried cherries and red wine. This moment, nearly 40 years in the making, is a well-deserved reflection on the legacy she’s created with this iconic Pacific Northwest treat. An impulse became a vision that resulted in decades of growth for Chukar Cherries, a beloved Washington institution with no signs of slowing.

Montgomery was a new mother when she relocated to the Yakima Valley town of Prosser. She’d just sold her laundromat in Seattle for a new endeavor. After regular weekend visits to her sister, who’d married into a hop-farming family, she became enamored with a cherry orchard for sale. Sensing an opportunity of a lifetime, Montgomery, ever the entrepreneur, and her husband went all in. Without much of a plan, they purchased 8,000 cherry trees on 100 acres and moved their two-week-old daughter to start a new life. This was in 1983.

It was a risky venture for a small business. The labor and luck required for an orchard that size makes it more than a two-person job. But three years and a set of twins later, things were going well. Montgomery would pass the time with her young brood by walking through the trees, pulling cherries left over from the primary harvest. It was on these orchard walks that her latest idea formed. Seeing the leftover cherries shrivel into sweet, dried morsels opened the door to another potential revenue stream.

“I rediscovered something our ancestors knew,” Montgomery says. “You let the fruit sit on the branch, the natural sugars build inside naturally, and it acts like a preservative.”

By 1986 she spoke to experts at the University of California, Davis about developing dehydrated cherries without adding preservatives. They told her it was impossible. But Montgomery was undeterred. She’d been seeing success with her cherries and decided to forge ahead on her own.

“It started really slow because I have three daughters,” she says. “But gradually over time, Chukar Cherries developed and now we’re celebrating 35 years. And that happened with a lot of incredible teammates.”

Montgomery credits a lot of people and events as she recounts the blossoming of Chukar Cherries. That she made all this happen before the extreme connectivity of today’s internet makes her journey feel as if it had been guided by the hand of destiny. She often found herself speaking to AT&T operators while looking for patterns and collaborators in cities across the U.S. – legwork that led her to an inventor in Portland who had developed a rotating carousel air dryer and who delivered and installed it personally. Later she met Jim Hayes, a renowned artist who designed a plethora of Chukar Cherries labels. She also had the good fortune to find dedicated early employees, some of whom are still part of the team.

As all the pieces fell into place, ideas swarmed around what else she could do with dried cherries. Bing, Rainier, and Montmorency Sour cherries were certainly good enough on their own, but Montgomery was finding inspiration everywhere. On a trip to England, a tasting of fruit covered in fine chocolate began her quest for partners to replicate the confections with their harvest, and they began covering their cherries in chocolate. In the Prosser factory, they still use the original copper drums Montgomery acquired from San Francisco.

“When you coat a center, it’s the centrifugal force and adding the chocolate and working with heat, warm or cold air that’s piped into the opening that either sets or spreads the chocolate,” she says. “It is remarkable.”

The product line has since exploded. Cherries are paired with appropriate chocolate –  some are dusted, some are candy-coated. Seeds, nuts and granola have been added to Chukar’s product line as well as pantry items like pie fillings, preserves and sauces. 

While the entire Chukar Cherries line is produced and sold from the Prosser headquarters, Montgomery re-entered the Seattle business market soon after its launch. A catalog and online presence round out the company’s reach.

“We’ve been at Seattle’s Pike Place Market in the center of the main arcade for almost 30 years,” she says. “That space just came up and because I knew Seattle, it didn’t scare me – the distance. And so we’ve been a pit stop, if you will, at the Market all that time.”

Montgomery ’s innovative spirit permeates every aspect of Chukar Cherries. Though ideas of sustainability have always been one of the company’s standards, she has leaned into a commitment toward environmentally friendly practices. From using all-natural ingredients and plant-based packaging to partnering with a recycler who uses cherry pits on dirt roads to control dust, sustainability is a key element in operating a business in a changing climate. 

Montgomery has seen a lot of change through the years, but one constant has been family. She never expected her children to join her business, but today is thrilled to have her eldest daughter, Vivian, leading the Seattle location, while one of her twins, Wynne, heads up marketing. It’s a joy for her to see her daughters thriving and loving a business that began in their childhood. She hopes to continue working alongside them as long as she can.

“I love what I do, I wouldn’t stop unless I had to. But I do have two daughters in the business, which I never thought I would. And we have people that are committed to it. I really consider them family. So I think we’ll just keep going,” she says. “You never know what the future holds, right?” 

A chill sets in on the hillside as the last of the light filters over the mountains. Montgomery leans back in her chair, reaches for the dish of cherries – the simple dried fruit that has captured hearts and tastebuds throughout Washington and beyond – and pops one into her mouth. From those first batches of home-dried cherries to the copper kettles to the involvement of her children, Chukar Cherries has deep roots and continues to evolve. As she savors the dried cherries and a glass of red wine on her patio, she can take pride in the sweet legacy she has created.

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