Family finds sweet success with new maple products

The Parsons family has been tapping syrup from maple trees on their farm outside Charlevoix for generations. As the family business was turned over to another generation, sisters Amber and Katie Parsons saw an opportunity to expand the family business and innovate. Today, the company produces about 75 products and owns and operates a retail store and cafe in downtown Charlevoix. 

The company: Harwood Gold is a fifth-generation family business with a history of constant evolution while respecting the past. Owner Amber Parsons and her sister and business partner Katie Parsons draw on a rich family history and connections to keep moving the Charlevoix-based company forward. Under the fifth generation’s watch, Harwood Gold has expanded beyond maple syrup, serving an ever-growing customer base and boosting its burgeoning digital and physical retail operation. And the future looks sweet indeed.

How the company began: The Parsons family has been making maple syrup in Charlevoix since 1898 and each generation has moved the company forward in its own way. Amber Parsons — who works alongside Katie, the company’s designer — opened Harwood Gold Store & Cafe in downtown Charlevoix in August 2016. Their retail product line now includes many gourmet made-with-maple products, all sweetened only with pure Michigan maple syrup, harvested and processed on the family’s Charlevoix farm.

Parsons started working with her parents in 2014. Her mother was a retired schoolteacher, and her father was a farmer. “They were ready to be done,” Parsons said. “I thought they had such a good thing going and wanted to move back to the area. I worked with them for a year, then took over in 2015; we opened the store in 2016.”

How the company expanded: It all started with maple syrup. But “we knew we wanted and needed more products to offer to our customers,” Parsons said. “Maple syrup is a product that you buy maybe once a month, or maybe every three months. We wanted to diversify.

“That first year when I worked with my parents, I learned a lot working with my mom at the farmers’ market. Not just about maple syrup, but about the operation, our customers. When the markets would close, the only way customers could get our product was to come to our house. I thought, ‘This is such an awesome product, we really need to open a store.’ That next winter we dove into our made-with-maple line.”

That line includes sauces, spreads, preserves, granola, and cooking and spice mixes, on top of maple syrup, syrup infusions and maple sweets. There’s even a cocktail cookbook highlighting the maple syrup infusions. “Diversification is important, especially in northern Michigan,” Parson said.  

Harwood Gold now has a retail line of around 75 products, and over time the company has grown to need to outsource, working with local farms. “We have grown beyond what we can produce,” Parsons said. But all of the products are sweetened with maple syrup harvested and processed on the Parsons family farm; the recipes are developed and made in house, in the cafe’s commercial kitchen. Their top three products are the plain amber maple syrup, Harwood Gold farm-style sriracha and the maple cherry granola (playing off another favorite northern Michigan flavor).

What are the resources you tapped to get the company off the ground? The family’s history and her parents’ expertise were key. And the Small Business Development Center in Traverse City gave a lot of guidance, Parsons said. The family has had some business mentors and Amber took small business leadership classes. Working with the Michigan State University Extension and the MSU Product Center was also a game-changer — the center assists entrepreneurs and businesses developing products and services in the areas of agriculture, food and natural resources.

What issues did you face? After opening the retail space, “the biggest issue that we first faced I would say was the seasonality of the town,” Parsons said. “I don’t think we were as prepared for a slow winter initially. That was a bit hard to get through that first winter, but we were pretty strategic in how we approached that.”

After that, it was mainly a matter of keeping up with demand — “which is a really good problem to have,” she said. The small kitchen initially could only make 20 cases of product at a time, so they knew they needed to become a lot more efficient.

“We knew it was a thing; people tell you you have to make your money in the summertime,” she said. “I knew I always wanted to own my own business in Michigan growing up. But I wasn’t really paying attention to how it impacted local businesses.”

What’s next? The fifth generation isn’t done innovating. “The main thing that we’re focusing on right now is creating the farm to be more of an agritourism destination,” Parsons said. “We have this great exposure having our store in downtown Charlevoix — people hear the story and they want to go see it: ‘Can I see the kitchen, can I see the farm, can I see the trees. … We naturally grow and gravitate toward what customers are already asking for.”

While agritourism has been a goal for the last two or three years, Covid-19 put a wrench into those efforts. But the next phase is opening the farm to the community. The location is ideal, about 10 miles outside of Charlevoix.

“I love that small town feel,” Parsons said. “It’s part of the reason we moved back. Everybody knows everybody. It’s a blessing and a curse, I guess, but it’s very safe, very comfortable, extremely supportive. There are some really great collaborations going on between these local small food places, which is great to see.”

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