Bob Sutherland’s up north empire started with T-shirts.
Ann Arbor’s new Cherry Republic sells cherry jams, cherry butters, cherry jellies, cherry cookies, cherry BBQ sauce, cherry bath salts, cherry soda, cherry soap, cherry coffee, cherry candy, and of course cherry pie. In all, the company carries 163 more products made with Michigan’s best-known fruit: at Cherry Republic, the cherry reigns supreme.
But Bob Sutherland’s cherry empire (the Ann Arbor store is his fourth) didn’t begin with actual cherries. It began with a T-shirt he designed that featured a drawing of a cherry tree and the slogan “Cherry Republic … Life, Liberty, Beaches & Pie: the Michigan Northwest.” In 1989 the twenty-eight-year-old was living up north and selling his T-shirts to tourists out of the trunk of his car. After a couple of years and several thousand shirt sales, he put the logo on a label and slapped it on bags of dried cherries and of their first signature product, Cherry Boomchunka Cookies. Every product since has had something to do with cherries.
The inside of the Ann Arbor store, formerly Occasionally Gift Baskets on Main, has a rustic, northern Michigan look, with products piled high on pine shelving and wooden crates. You pay for your purchases at a magnificent cherry wood counter. And if you can’t decide which of the dizzying selection of products to try, there are free samples all over the store.
Sutherland’s other stores are in Glen Arbor, Charlevoix, and Traverse City. As his online business grew, he began to look at opening a fourth. “We thought, do we do another Northern Michigan location … or go down to another spot that we kind of look at as another tourist area,” he remembers.
Sutherland thinks Ann Arbor is the perfect choice. “It hits a core of our [up north] customers, but it also hits a large group of visitors to Michigan that never make it up,” he says–for instance, parents picking up their kids from college, or people in town for a conference. He likes the Main Street location, too. “We thought if we’re going to be in Ann Arbor, let’s make a big splash and be in the best spot we can, and we’re lucky enough to make that happen,” he says.
Sutherland confirms a rumor regarding the famous Traverse City cherry festival held every July. Michigan may be the cherry capital of the world, and Traverse City the red-hot center of cherrydom, but not all the cherries sold in Traverse City are necessarily from the Traverse City area, or even from Michigan. But that’s true only during the cherry festival. “Sometimes the cherries don’t ripen until after the cherry festival is over, or right at the end of it,” Sutherland explains. “So for the first couple of days we bring in cherries from out of state or downstate to serve the people.” But once the harvest is in, its sheer size is staggering. “I think there’s 175 million pounds that’ll be grown up here this year.”
Cherry Republic, 223 S. Main, 585-5231. Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. www.cherryrepublic.com