Old Orchard launches niche of healthful juices

October 17, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Old Orchard Brands, the 24-year-old Sparta company that is one of the largest juice producers in the nation, is plunging in to the boutique niche of high-end, single-serving juices that appeal to health conscious consumers.

The Old Orchard Very Cherre line comes in 11-ounce round bottles and consists of four flavors; a 100 percent Montmorency tart cherry juice, plus three blends of the cherry juice with blueberry, cranberry and pomegranate juices. The retail price is $3.99 per bottle.

You won't see it right now next to the Pom bottles at Meijer's, but that day may be coming.

Kevin Miller, vice president of marketing at Old Orchard, said the marketing behind Very Cherre has a dual emphasis: the natural beauty of the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan, where all of the product's cherry juice originates; and the growing body of research that indicates cherry juice may help reduce inflammation.

"We really feel that Michigan, and specifically West Michigan and Northern Michigan, are gorgeous — rivals to the Napa Valley" and other such scenic spots, said Miller.

Development of the new product line has been under way for a year and a half. The product is "unique and new to us — obviously a very niche product," said Miller. He described it as kind of a “boutique product line” that is "very high-end, (at a) very premium price point."

The "distinct round glass bottles from France are adorned with ceramic-glazed metal caps and breathtaking photography featuring the region from which the cherries are grown," according to publicity from the company.

A Very Cherre launching party was held last week at Cygnus in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, because the hotel has been trying out Very Cherre for some time now "and they loved it," said Miller. He said the hotel's executive chefs and bartenders are developing food and drink recipes to include Very Cherre juices. The hotel serves it to guests and bottles are for sale in retail outlets in the hotel.

"Visitors and tourists to West Michigan will be able to sample the product at the hotel and also buy it to take back home," said Miller.

Old Orchard Brands is a privately owned company with annual sales of about $150 million, according to Miller. The company started with apple juice but now produces a variety of juices — about 75 million 64-ounce bottles of juice annually at its plant in Sparta, where all of its bottling is done. Counting its sales reps throughout the nation, Old Orchard employs about 85 people.

"We are the second largest frozen juice brand in the nation," after Minute Maid, according to Miller; it is the fourth largest bottled juice brand.

Old Orchard juices are sold at many major retailers across the country, including Wal-Mart, Meijer, Kroger and Target. However, he said Very Cherre will be sold initially in specialty goods and gift shops across the country, and not in the major retail stores.

"Our plan is to launch it as a national brand but it will be kind of a slow, controlled growth," said Miller.

According to an Old Orchard news release, researchers at the University of Michigan School of Cardiac Medicine determined that Very Cherre "has nearly twice the antioxidant value of other premium juices such as 100 percent pomegranate and Concord grape. In addition, Very Cherre juices are a natural source of melatonin, a potent antioxidant produced naturally by the body's pineal gland that helps regulate biorhythm and natural sleep patterns."

Michigan has the largest tart cherry production in the nation, but for generations the annual crop has often been marked by an oversupply, so the cherry industry has long sought to develop new markets for cherries beyond pie filling and jam.

"In the last four years in particular, we've really tried to reposition tart cherries as superfruit," said Phil Korson, resident of the Cherry Marketing Institute in Lansing. "We're really looking at the health benefits and trying to position our industry to get it more in tune with today's consumers."

He noted "the old folklore" that cherries are a natural treatment for arthritis and gout, and in fact, concentrated tart cherry juice has been sold for years at many supermarkets as a purported health food. Korson said science has not proven anything conclusive about cherries helping arthritis or gout, but the CMI has funded a lot of university research around the country for the past 15 years regarding muscular inflammation, and he said there does seem to be a connection involving the remedial effects of eating tart cherries.

"This whole launch with Very Cherre is a neat concept, because it really is another avenue, another way to consume cherries," said Korson.

When asked if he thinks Very Cherre is intended to compete with Pom, Korson noted that the rounded shape of the bottles is somewhat similar. He said Old Orchard is "not trying to copy (Pom)" but rather "trying to create an image that people will associate with high-quality health benefits."

Michigan's tart cherry crop in 2008 was worth $68 million to the farmers, while the entire U.S. crop was worth $82 million; Michigan alone produced 75 percent of it. The price in 2008 was about 36 cents a pound for the 214.4 million pounds of tart cherries harvested in Michigan.

"This year it was a huge crop — 355 million pounds was our total (U.S.) crop size, and with a crop that large, we don't know where the price will end up yet for 2009," said Korson.

Michigan accounted for almost 265 million pounds in the 355-million-pound national total this year. The second largest producer was Utah, with 45 million pounds.

The federal government tries to support tart cherry prices in the overabundant years by requiring all growers to leave a certain percent of their crop on the ground in the orchards. This year about 23.6 million pounds out of that 355 million total were left on the ground.

The founder and owner of Old Orchard Brands is Mark Saur. In 2007, Allied Capital Corp. acquired a majority interest in Old Orchard for $64.6 million. However, Miller said Allied is "no longer part of the picture."

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