SEVERAL years ago, Japanese consumers thought tart cherries were - well, the pits. In 1993, however, cherry growers expect to export 6 million pounds of the fruit to Japan, largely as a result of the television show "Twin Peaks."
After changes in European Community regulations, cherry growers had to look for other markets for their fruit, says Gary Davis, export marketing director at the Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI) in Okemos, Mich.
Farmers of the sour, bright red fruit became eligible for assistance under the USDA's Targeted Export Assistance Program in 1989, and tart cherries began to be shipped to Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
The initial reaction of Japanese consumers was not encouraging, however: "They thought they were very sour," Mr. Davis says. Finally in 1992, after several years of intense marketing efforts - and a lucky break - tart cherry sales took off.
As cherry growers worked to promote their product, reruns of ABC's "Twin Peaks" were becoming immensely popular in Japan. And, thanks to the show's cherry pie-loving FBI agent Dale Cooper, tart cherries were suddenly in vogue. In nearly every episode, Cooper sits down to a piece of cherry pie at his favorite diner and comments, "That's fine cherry pie!" Japanese fans of "Twin Peaks" are "...like Trekkies," Davis says.
Prior to 1990, 8 percent of cherry exports were headed for Japan, estimates the CMI, which represents growers from Michigan, Utah, and Wisconsin (Michigan accounts for 75 percent of cherry production). By 1992, this number had jumped to 25 percent - representing a change in volume of millions of pounds of tart cherries.
Futile marketing efforts turned into nearly instant success when a large Japanese bakery used the "Twin Peaks" logo, Davis says. "They were able to put [cherry] pie in 20,000 stores in two months," he says.
Now cherry pie filling and dried cherries are being packaged for Japanese consumers, and cooking clubs are baking their own pies. The Japanese have adapted recipes to their own taste, making smaller pies and using Japanese "chocolate," made from red beets. Japan is well known for its flowering cherry trees, but the majority do not produce fruit. Until recently, only sweet cherries were commonly available. Influential Japanese chefs have created new recipes, like Cherry Marzipan, more suited to the Japane se lifestyle. Now there are even flavored gum, beverages, and hard candy.
Richard Johnston, managing director of CMI, hopes American growers will export as much as 30 million pounds of cherries to Japan within the next 10 years. "We would like every citizen to consume one-fourth of a pound per year," he says.
Though cherry pie might be a fad begun by the "Twin Peaks" craze, Japanese consumers will continue to enjoy tart cherries, Mr. Johnston maintains. "They enjoy good food and variety."