Cheribundi’s New Brands Emerge from Disastrous Harvest

To call the 2012 tart cherry harvest a setback for Cheribundi would be an understatement.

It was a disaster.

Two of the largest tart cherry producing states, Michigan and New York, had terrible yields, the result of an early spring heat wave that encouraged blooms 5 1/2 weeks early — and put the tender blossoms, as well as the juice company’s own prospects, at the mercy of the snow and ice that followed.

“It tricked the trees into blooming early,” said Cheribundi CEO Brian Ross. “Then the regular spring weather kicked in and destroyed the entire crop.”

For a brand that should have been putting the pedal to the metal — after all, it had just raised $4.5 million, the resulting increase in the price of its main ingredient put the brakes on all retail programs for the year. They cancelled all promotions with UNFI, took a small price increase, and let some employees go.

“We did a lot of soul-searching,” said Ross, who joined the company a little more than two years ago. Facing a huge supply crisis, the company battened down the hatches and tried to work on a re-brand, one that Ross was set to debut at this week’s Fancy Foods West show in San Francisco.

“We wanted to go more broad market… and I’m more excited about the products now than I ever have been,” he said. “I feel like we’ve created this platform for becoming the Ocean Spray of cherries.”

The key to the re-branding, which was engineered by the Boulder, Colo. agency TDA, is a new line of 16.9 oz. products called “Refresh.” The eight SKUs — four tea blends with 5 percent juice and five 25 percent juice blends — will join the company’s more functional 8 oz. line, which attempts to exploit the tart cherry’s “superfruit” properties. Those properties include a strong anti-inflammatory component that has put the tart cherry in the training room at dozens of college and pro athletic programs, as well as a healthy dose of melatonin for sleep aid.

The new line is set to debut at Fresh Market in March, while the functional line continues to be available through several Whole Foods regions.

The refresh line, which features tart cherry crossed with lemonade, pomegranate, blueberry, raspberry and cranberry juices, has about 20 cherries per bottle — an effective dose for the functional properties, notes Ross, although one that drastically expands use occasions. The teas have about five cherries per bottle, while the 8 oz. functional line ranges from 40 to 50 cherries per bottle and carry additional functional tags like “restore” (with electrolytes), “rebuild” (with protein) and “relax” (with l-theanine), along with the original and light formulations.

The company’s ginger and cacao varieties have been dropped.

Ross said the slowdown forced by the crop losses — he was forced to go to Poland to buy tart cherries — while hurtful last year, allowed him the chance to retool the brand.

“The perspective we came at it, when you look at our old packaging, it’s interesting, it’s nice looking, but it’s not very appetizing,” Ross said.  “When you look at it now, it says this is a cherry product, it looks very tasty. And taste sells, and the benefits are a bonus for a lot of people.”