Wow, what a busy 25th anniversary weekend! I woke up early on Friday morning to go on WTCM radio with Ron Jolly in the morning.
I was nervous – I don’t feel that I am a good fast-talking radio interviewee. But this station helped me start Cherry Republic by writing and airing Cherry Boomchunka Cookies commercials. "When in doubt, eat a cookie" was the motto we created. Ron asked some fun questions, played a popular song about us and said some nice things. It was a great way to start the day.
Touring the Republic
At 10 o’clock, I jumped on a Glen Lake School bus with 60 guests and we headed south of Empire to take a tour of the secret side of Cherry Republic – the side where we get the work done. This is new for us. We like people to think cherries are all joy and fun, and that these products magically just happen. I didn’t think people would be that excited to know about the cherry factory, but I was wrong. We could have filled that bus 10 times over.
Over the day, I gave four orchard tours with Tom Lackey. Tom owns the cherry farm across from our cherry jam and salsa factory at Triple D’s cherry processing plant.
When I looked at his sparse Montmorency trees, I asked, “Tom, did you already shake the cherries off these trees?” He surprised me by saying that his orchard was hit so badly by frost on May 26 that he isn’t even going to harvest. We regrouped and had a tour that did not sugarcoat what it means to be a farmer.
Tom wants to sell his farm and after the tour, I asked each group if they thought I should buy it. They unanimously said, “yes.”
I wish I had more time in my day, because truthfully, I get charged up being on the farm, especially one as beautiful as Tom's. But I am completely out of my element. I don’t know anything about farming or maintaining cherry shakers or fighting frost. I know my place in the industry though – it is spending every minute I can promoting cherries as the greatest of all the fruits!
Anniversary Dinner in the Grand Café
After the tours, we started preparing for our 25th Anniversary Dinner for 100 people. As the people arrived and sat down, I went from table to table asking everyone how they came to know Cherry Republic. It was fun to hear their answers. Everyone had touching stories.
Jack Sytsma, who drove all the way from Grand Rapids for the event, said, “Bob, when I first met you 20 years ago and got to know you and your humble little business, frankly, I didn’t think you were going to make it. And knowing where you’ve come from, it has meant so much to me that you’ve succeeded!”
George Nugent and his wife Marilyn were at dinner and on the tour as well. They cheered us on for two whole days. They came to everything with big approving smiles on their faces. I don’t know if my father coming back down from heaven to show his pride in what he saw would have meant as much as what the Nugent’s continual presence meant.
My Staff, My Family, and Work-Life Balance
During dinner, I was asked about my key staff. I pointed them out to the customer. Todd Ciolek, our COO, was sitting with his wife Kelly and my Mom. Jason Homa, our VP of sales and service, was pouring a special wine cooler he concocted to our guests.
Tears came to my eyes as I talked about them. I had to stop. We have been through so much together… It is almost like the WWII stories of the soldiers in the foxhole and how indescribably close those guys became. Todd, Jason, and I have been in the foxhole for 12 years battling the trials of growing a small business together, and our shared sense of purpose has bonded us like brothers.
Another table of diners wanted to know about the stories I write of my boys. I told them I am so fortunate to have a forum that makes me write every week. It is a really important exercise for me. The act of writing something positive from my past week triggers new positive things to happen in my upcoming week. Plus, I have this amazing record of family stories to pass on to my boys.
Several couples asked about how I balance all the demands at Cherry Republic with family time. I told them how reliant I am on my staff and how empowered my employees are. I told them how important it is to me, that we all try to work no more than 40 hours. We locals are here because we love the north. It would be a shame if we were working so much we couldn't enjoy it. Plus, if people have ample time away from Cherry Republic, they bring good energy back to us and work becomes much more enjoyable for everyone.
A Talent Show Surprise from Mom
My mother surprised me at the Cherry Republic 25th Anniversary Talent Show. In front of 200 people, she sang and danced out the Chiquita Banana song to new words.
She came on stage wearing a black dress with red roses imprinted on it. She put some bananas on her head which looked almost fashionable. Then she danced while singing this funny song that she wrote to the tune of that famous old commercial. We were all laughing. I was in the back. Then she finished with some sentimental verses about how proud she was of me. Tears formed so quickly. Wow, the times my mom and I have had together over these 25 years... She’s been here so long, we’ve lost track of who’s an employee of whom.
I have to give a salute to all our staff and how hard they worked and how well everything went over the weekend. I was especially impressed with our school kids cooking in the kitchens. We are similar to other businesses up here in the north — we are short workers. We have to rely on teenagers when most restaurants in other regions are relying on adults.
It is amazing to see these kids put under the stress of hundreds of meals to get out and to watch them succeed. So here’s to AJ, Nick, Tyler, and the rest of the kitchen teens.
And here's to the next 25 years. If they're as fun and thrill packed as the last 25 years, it'll be an amazing ride.