At Gunkel Orchards in Goldendale, Washington, you’ll often find Joe Pulicicchio, Town & Country Markets’ produce guru, strolling through rows of cherry trees with his friend and partner-in-produce Dan Gunkel, checking in on the cherries.
Rainiers. Royal Brooks. Black Pearls. Bings. And then there’s the cherry of all cherries—Gunkel’s Private Reserve (or GPR as it’s known to insiders.) Gunkel developed this one exclusively for Town & Country Markets, and Joe and Dan named it together. Joe describes the GPR as “larger than life, super sweet, with an absolutely beautiful flavor and texture, and an eating experience that is out of this world.”
A great eating experience is more important than a supermarket’s schedule
Joe praises Gunkel’s commitment to letting fruit hang on the tree until its peak moment. Unlike so many commercial growers who’ve had to forfeit quality to meet the demands of the big supermarket chains, Gunkel follows the demands of nature. Then, when the fruit is good and ready, Dan works with his brother Ron to get it picked and delivered ASAP.
“No grower really wants to grow a bad piece of fruit,” Joe explains, “but there are growers that'll pack bad fruit. Or they'll pick it early because they can meet minimum sugar standards and get a price. But a lot of times minimum sugar is not good eating.”
Dan agrees with Joe, as usual. “Most cherries, peaches, and apples are packed by a mega packing house,” he says. Management at the warehouse tells the field workers when they need the fruit, and they just feed the warehouse whether the fruit is mature or not.”
At Gunkel, nothing gets picked before the ideal moment, period. Workers here are paid well, so they don’t mind picking fast to achieve this objective.
Nature meets future
Gunkel’s quality control system is a state-of-the-art, AI-enhanced feat of cherry-sorting genius. Laid out like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in a large barn, lanes of conveyor belts transport cherries through cameras and futuristic grading machinery that identifies imperfections and sorts each cherry by size.
“We actually had to create a new size category for the GPRs. The charts don’t go big enough,” says Susie, who manages the entire sorting operation at Gunkel Orchards, the equipment and the software that runs it, and the engineers who create ongoing system upgrades based on needs she defines. Watching her analyze images of cherries reminds me of watching a physician looking at an x-ray or an MRI.
“I have information about the size, about the color, softness, mass—I set all kinds of parameters,” Susie explains. Using these parameters, the machines evaluate and sort the cherries automatically.
Dan’s family has been working this land here at the Columbia River Gorge and maintained the highest standards for 5 generations, since Dan’s grandfather came over from Austria in the early 1900s. Technology may be part of the process now, but the family’s quality standards haven’t changed. Gunkel has been known to sacrifice an entire crop rather than ship substandard fruit.
“I’ve picked my poison,” says Dan. “This is what I signed up for. It’s what we do. And it’s satisfying to watch people react to good fruit. Because once they get that good fruit, they keep coming back for more.” This explains why Joe Pulicicchio has been bringing fruit into Town & Country on Gunkel’s schedule for more than twenty years.