Cherries: A few days in Traverse City, Michigan

Last week I was invited by the Cherry Marketing Institute to join them and a few others at the Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan. I haven’t visited in over 10 years and have always heard how beautiful Michigan is in the summer but the real reason I wanted to go was because I’ve never once had a Tart Cherry. That’s right, I said it.  Sure, I know Bings and Raniers and all our other delicious sweet cherry varietals but a true sour Michigan Cherry had always escaped me. And after spending a few days with cherry experts, researchers, growers and enthusiasts I know why: they’re just too fragile and don’t ship well. At least not in their fresh state. But more about that later.

Without a doubt these are the cherries I will forever dream of. I’m not knocking my West Coast fruit but these tart cherries have a complexity, depth and certain zing that I’ve never tasted. Picking Montmorency and Balaton cherries from the tree knocked my socks off, and if you can imagine tasting spicy notes with the softest, most tender flesh then you’re close to understanding just how good they are. The colors vary from deep crimson to yellow to a bright atomic red that appears to glow in the dark, enabling you to spot the tiny fruit on the tree from quite a distance. They’re not sour like citrus but mildly tart and perfect for pie making. And more on that later, too.

After we arrived we headed to the Boat House Restaurant, nestled on the peninsula overlooking the bay. Dinner was late in the evening (according to my old man standards!) but you’d never know it as the beautiful bright sun sets so much later up north. In fact, these photos were taken at 8:40 at night! It was a wonderful meal that included Michigan cherries in every course—naturally–and it ended with Cherries Jubilee over ice cream. I always hear people talk about Northern Michigan being so beautiful but until you’re sitting smack dab in the middle of it in July it’s just hard to comprehend. This was a beautiful place with bucolic views and groves of deep lush green trees. Farmhouses dot the roads and rest across docks that go on forever into the lake. I’ll tell you this: let me win the lottery and I could easily spend my summers here. I’m not kidding. But a town is only as wonderful as its people. And the folks of Traverse City made me feel so at home. Gracious, polite and engaging, I almost forgot what it was like to have strangers make you feel so welcome and treat you like family. Add their jovial spirit with my chatty ways and you can see why I didn’t want to leave.

Our guide for the trip was Phil Korson, President of the Cherry Marketing Institute, the national cherry organization that helps promote all things tart cherries. It is an organization comprised of growers and processors across the US. Phil was a wonderful resource, answering our questions about cherries and explaining how the factors of sun, wind, heat and cold winters all determine what kind of crop the cherry trees will yield. He took us to meet Don and Ann Gregory, farmers who have been growing tart cherries for many years. We toured the cherry orchards, stopping for photo moments that included beautiful scenic views and quick sneaks of fresh hanging cherries right off the tree.

Don Gregory

Now you’ll have to excuse me for my lack of harvesting know-how but apparently shaking a cherry tree isn’t actually a euphemism for something else! Who knew? After a quick lesson we all took turns shaking the tree and harvesting the fruit. It was a remarkably old-fashioned way of removing cherries from a tree. You simply shake. Of course there are machines that do this but you realize how gentle one has to be when working with cherries. These little babies are remarkably fragile!

Cherries land on a conveyor belt after shaking and splash into very cold water. in fact, they stay in fresh cold water at every step. Nevermind the guy sitting down, I heard he got fired shortly after this photo was taken.

We also visited the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, a multidisciplinary horticultural facility that focuses on fruit production and specializes in tart and sweet cherry research. You name it and these folks do it: horticulture, botany, plant pathology, entomology, agricultural engineering and economics, the list goes on. We met with Dr. Nikki Rothwell who told us all about what happens in Cherrylandia (I made up a name for this cute facility because it rests on top of a hill overlooking acres and acres of fruit trees and I want to live there so naturally I had to give it name).  If you’re looking for cutting edge research regarding tart cherries then look no further than Nikki and this facility. She was so sweet and gave us more cherry information than my brain could absorb. However, I did retain the fact that she travels to Eastern Europe to study trees which I thought was remarkably sexy and then the conversation veered into Ukrainian and Polish desserts made with cherries and I just about lost it.

Dr. Nikki Rothwell of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station and an area dedicated to the study of insects that just happen to love cherries. Sharpen your pencils, insects, there WILL be a test.

After our agricultural lesson we headed back to the main building where there was a festival. Local cherry vendors and events for kids were happening inside while outside I tried my best at a cherry pit spitting competition. I must tell you I didn’t do too bad but no where near as close as my new friend Chef Nathan who — get this — spit a cherry pit 42.7 feet across the parking lot. Seriously!

The sweetest gals sampling cherry juice from inside a Giant Cherry and "Cherry Underwood" as drawn by Georgia, age 9. I normally detest anthropomorphism in general but this is like the cutest thing ever. Work those heels, girl!

One of our visits included Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor. This gorgeously-manicured cherry compound houses a cafe, a tasting room, a shop and outdoor seating where we indulged in all things cherry. I’m not quite sure how I feel about cherry wine though and I’ll leave it at that. But the food and treats were delightful. It was a beautiful space and we had a great lunch and a chat with Cherry Republic’s owner Bob Sutherland. I actually didn’t want to leave.

A few images from Cherry Republic. I could easily obsess over that Cherry Cream Soda.

Ok, so back to Cherry Pie. I’ve gone my whole life declining the offers of cherry pie. It just was never my thing, you know? Canned gumminess nestled in a mediocre crust has never been my favorite but being in Michigan certainly changed all that. It was a pie epiphany, a moment that will forever change my life. Real tart cherries, the perfect balance of tart and sweet, and I owe it all to this man, Bob Sutherland.

Bob Sutherland, owner of Cherry Republic

Bob said it took years to perfect his Cherry Pie. There’s not only the flavor to contend with but also the texture and mouthfeel which is important in a pie. And this right here folks, this is the real deal. This is the pie I will not be eating in California, no matter how hard I try. Michigan cherries do not travel well as their flesh is too delicate and the pits move too much during shipping, causing them to bust through the flesh itself. I’ve heard Washington state grows some tart cherries and if that’s the case I’ll fly up for pie. Or fly back to Michigan next summer because folks, it’s that good. I now understand the charm and appeal of tart cherry pie and it’s something I will never forget. In the meantime I’ll have to satisfy myself with dried cherries, juice and candies but folks, it’s just not the same. Crying, I am.

The Real Deal: this is what all cherry pies want to be when they grow up.

Thank you to the Cherry Marketing Institute and Phil Korson, Weber Shandwick and the ever-so-amazing Caitlin Solway, Bob Sutherland, Don and Ann Gregory (I miss those cookies and cherry tea!) as well as all my fellow cherry travelers. A very special thanks to the folks of Traverse City, Michigan for being one of these sweetest places on the planet.  You all have a place to stay in Los Angeles if you visit. Not all at the same time, I mean. That’d be crazy.

And it’s not all about flavor! And all kidding aside, cherries are packed with some amazing health properties. Read about them at Choose Cherries.


  1. says

    Thank you for your stunning post. I was lucky enough to spend my childhood summers in northern Michigan, and your pictures took me back in time. As a Michigan expat, I’m glad you enjoyed Travers City!

  2. Katye says

    oh what a wonderful post! Thank you for telling all how amazing Northern Michigan is. I love my state.. though I live in San Diego now… Michigan Summers are still the best. and wish we could get their cherries here.

  3. Heather M. says

    I live 4 hours from Traverse City and never seem to make it up north during cherry season. Thank you for reminding me that I need to plan a family vacation. Maybe someday my son will beat that 42’7″…since he is only 2 I imagine it will be several years. Sometimes we simply let every day life get in the way and forget the gems that our state has to offer. I’m so glad you enjoyed your visit…next time you visit you should plan time for a trip to Mackinac Island. Yes, summer in Michigan is grand! Thanks for the wonderful pictures!

  4. says

    I grew up in the Traverse City area. So you were in my old stomping grounds. The area is gorgeous and the people are so nice. Plus, I could never get enough of the cherry wine.

  5. Barb says

    I live in Traverse City, and your story makes me feel luckier and prouder than ever of having that privilege.

  6. Clark Sanford says

    My fraternal family is from Cherry Country (my Dad was born and raised in Pentwater and one of my Uncles still lives in Traverse City) so that part of Michigan and the cherry industry are both close to my heart. Thank you for a wonderful article and some great pics, too.

  7. Clark Sanford says

    And Matt didn’t even mention the world-famous Cherry Hut restaurant in Beulah. Sorry but I grew up loving their cherry pie and their location just off Crystal Lake is to die for. If you’ve ever been there in July, you know what I’m saying. Otherwise…

  8. NorthernPayne says

    Those are my two little boys in the pit spit photo – HA! Imagine my surprise when I found your blog while looking for reviews of The Boathouse…


  1. […]  My trip to this part of Michigan in 2010 goes down as one of my favorites ever taken. I heard from so many Michigan natives after that post, many of you from Traverse City, and I can shamelessly tell you that I am jealous of you. That’s right, I’m not afraid to admit it. Jealous of the sunshine during summer, the smiles and conviviality, the lake, and most importantly, those cherries. […]

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