C.J. Olson Cherries: Harvesting Abundance for 113 Years
C.J. Olson Cherries: Harvesting Abundance for 113 Years
By Susan Ditz
The breathtaking sight and heady aroma of lush springtime blossoms on a sea of cherry, prune, apricot, pear and walnut trees prompted the Santa Clara Valley to be known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” through the first seven decades of the 20th century. Until the mid-1960s, it was the largest fruit production and packing region in the world, with 39 canneries spread throughout the valley.
The Olsons are one of the pioneer farming families in Silicon Valley and their farm stand on the corner of El Camino and Matilda in Sunnyvale has been a landmark for 93 years. It continues as a highly valued reminder of the region’s rich agricultural heritage, thanks to the ingenuity, tenacity and teamwork of third-generation grower Charlie Olson and his daughter, Deborah.
Farmers and ranchers like the Olsons have had to muster bucket-loads of innovation, resourcefulness and resilience to survive the vicissitudes of Mother Nature and the impact of a technology boom that totally changed the economy and character of towns like Sunnyvale. Sometimes that’s meant sacrificing one piece of land to save others.
In 1999 the Olsons made the difficult choice to pull out their 16-acre orchard so they could lease the highly desirable land to a developer. This enabled them to work a deal with the city so the father could continue to farm on a smaller scale (he’s 77 and going strong) and his daughter could grow the business and make it more sustainable, while maintaining the integrity of their brand.
“It was a tough decision,” Deborah Olson recalled, “and this has been a lifelong labor of love.” The farm stand, a busy year-round operation, sits at its original location surrounded by retail shops, restaurants and the Cherry Orchard apartment complex. While navigating the changes, Olson worked diligently to keep the farm stand right where it had always been. The business survived the challenges of the recent economic downturn, “but some of the shops are empty and sometimes I think people are surprised we’re still open,” she said. Competition from large retail grocery chains has also made for some difficult times.
Olson grew up in the business, picking fruit, working in the shop and learning to cook with her grandmother Rosie (who started the stand in the 1930s). Like her father, she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. As a young woman, after getting a degree in food and nutrition at Long Beach State, Olson spent summers in Sunnyvale and winters honing her culinary skills at schools like the famed La Varenne, then apprenticing at restaurants and resorts in France and Monaco. It was a great adventure, which contributed ideas and inspiration to the growth of the company whose products over the years have gotten raves from Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Prince Albert of Monaco and Martha Stewart.
Olson is nourished by the loyalty of longtime customers, the opportunity to carry on the values she learned at her grandmother’s knee and the chance to work with people she’s known her whole life who are part of the extended family. The majority of products are made and packed by hand, and many employees have been with the company for decades—several are in their mid-80s. She is happy to pick them up and take them home because they share her pride in creating a high-quality product and she wants to have them with her as long as possible. Her dad has the same approach with the orchard team.
Along with maintaining high standards, Olson has kept the business going through tough times by creating new marketing strategies, cultivating new customers, keeping on top of new food trends and developing new product ideas. “We’re staying true to our roots,” she said. “I’ve added delicious edibles, locally produced.”
In addition, she works globally, buying cherries from farmers in Chile, Oregon and Washington to offer mouthwateringly fresh products from April to mid-September and from November through mid-February.
“We try to provide one-stop shopping,” which also includes fresh seasonal produce, dried fruit arrangements that look like art, beautiful gift baskets, artisanal gift items, such as decadent French Griottines (cherries in brandy, Cointreau or kirsch), luscious chocolates, jams, conserves, sauces and premium nuts.
Capitalizing on the nutritious high antioxidant value of high-fiber, low-cal cherries (also high in vitamins A, B and C and lots of minerals, particularly calcium, iron and potassium), they also offer cherry concentrate, specialty teas and cherry extract capsules, as well as several sugar-free treats such as chocolate-covered Bing cherries.
Get a sense of how “Life is just a bowl of cherries,” as the proverb says, and head to the Olsons’ fruit- and treat-filled farm stand at 348 W. El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. Or order from www.CJOlsonCherries.com. These iconic Silicon Valley treats are also available at their airport kiosks at Mineta San Jose International between Gates 19 & 20 and the Southwest terminal at Oakland Airport.
Several years ago Deborah wrote Life is a Bowl of Olson’s Cherries, which tells the history of the family and includes recipes featuring cherries and apricots. Here is a special-occasion dessert:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups Olson’s Bing cherries, pitted and halved
Sugar to taste
2 ounces kirsch
1 ounce Grand Marnier
1 ounce cognac
4 large scoops rich vanilla ice cream, frozen hard
- Melt butter in a skillet and add cherries. Cook gently until cherries begin to soften. Sprinkle with sugar and stir.
- Add kirsch and Grand Marnier to pan. Continue to cook gently until rich, dark syrup begins to form.
- Add cognac, increase heat to warm the mixture, then light carefully and pour over ice cream.