If a hard freeze in April hadn't annihilated northern Michigan's tart-cherry crop, a little boy in Beijing might have been pouring Herkner's Original Cherry Topping over his mung-bean ice cream right now. But the fickle weather forced Lynda Herkner, 74, and her sisters to delay plans to export their siren-red dessert goo—"It tastes like a fresh cherry pie," Herkner beams—and focus on their domestic successes. In the three years since they committed their family recipe to 16-ounce jars, the Herkners have placed their product in restaurants, specialty shops, and one of the state's biggest grocery chains.
"It's been a wonderful ride," Herkner says. "We're really going. We want to be a Smucker's."
The Herkners first sold their topping in 1962, when President Dwight Eisenhower invited their father to join a delegation of farmers headed to Russia on a goodwill program. Ozzie Herkner discarded the letter, knowing he couldn't afford to travel halfway around the world to chat with collectivists. But after his wife, Etta, found the invitation in the trash, she insisted on opening a "Get Ozzie to Russia" stand on the edge of their cherry orchard. A photograph of the Herkner girls in shirtwaist dresses, leaning out of the booth with their double-crust pies, ran in newspapers across the country.
Lynda, Sue and Mary Jean sold 1,000 pies, bread, cherries, and a smattering of the dessert topping concocted by their parents, owners of the second-largest cherry farm on the Old Mission Peninsula, a fertile jut of land that now gets by on wineries and weddings. The elder Herkners believed they could sell even more topping, but were stumped by scaling. "They really wanted to market it, but they couldn't multiply the recipe," Herkner recalls.
Thus the topping remained a housebound treat. But when Lynda Herkner's retirement schedule soured after 28 years in the real-estate business, her sisters decided to revisit the family recipe's windfall potential. "They got to worrying about me," Herkner says. After a gangbusters consultation with a chemist, the Herkners started buying up Michigan cherries and signed a contract with a co-packer. They've since outgrown their co-packer twice.
Despite the Smucker's-sized aspirations and reliance on outsourcing, the Herkners consider themselves artisans. "We have an excellent product that's all-natural and all-Michigan, except for the pure almond extract," Herkner says. "And we started out as small as you can start."
The word "artisan" has never had a clear definition, although most producers agree it's somehow intertwined with tradition and quality. But now the term is being stretched like saltwater taffy, and its limits are being closely monitored by food producers who have to make immediate decisions about if, when and how to grow their endeavors without dishonoring the principles that first led them to the kitchen. Few artisans are vocally doctrinaire; none of the dozens interviewed for this story were willing to attach their names to the questions they raised about the legitimacy of mechanized equipment, co-packing arrangements or corporate backing. Perhaps because media depictions of artisans aren't always flattering, they perpetually emphasized their support of fellow producers' choices.
But the field remains unsettled. When determining the size and scope of their businesses, artisans must place such unwieldy concepts as beauty, social justice, heritage, sustainability and taste on opposite sides of the same scale. The process has exposed a gamut of intellectual, geographic and economic tensions in a community reluctant to acknowledge conflict.
"I just went to Japan and was totally charmed by people like the ninth-generation knife maker who makes only 70 knives a year and the eighth-generation chopstick maker who personally lathes all of the cedar chopsticks," says Nathalie Jordi of People's Pops, which makes ice pops and shaved ice from fresh herbs and fruit. People's Pops recently purchased a packaging machine so Jordi and her partners can spend time previously squandered hand-sealing bags on sourcing fruit and testing new flavors. "The stories are priceless, and you can't help but feel infinite respect for people who dedicate their lives to mastering a craft," Jordi says. "It's a beautiful and a special thing. It just doesn't happen to be what our goal is at People's Pops. I'm more driven by visions of public-school kids someday eating pops made with actual fruit. To me, that's beautiful and special, too."
People's Pops is based in New York City, but Jordi's pragmatism reflects the artisan approach that's taken hold beyond the urban centers commonly associated with thoughtful food. Herkner, for example, concedes she doesn't look much like the stock artisan caricature, with his porkpie hat, waxed mustache and bicep tattooed with a 19th-century etching of a pickle press. But as those earnest San Franciscans and Brooklynites scuffle over the meaning of artisanship, Herkner and her sisters are charging headlong toward the goal of changing the way their fellow Michiganders eat.
Matt Birbeck of Michigan State University's Product Center for Food confirms that the Herkners' confection is habitually luring shoppers away from industrially produced ice-cream sauces made with high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #40, although Herkner's quick to mention that the sauce is equally good atop whitefish or beef. "When I got here, seven years ago, it was like value-added, ha, ha," Birbeck says, using the industry term for a farm product that's taken a transformational trip through a kitchen. "Now we're on a roll. It's suddenly taken off."