Chelan closes after 44 years of selling fresh produce
June 16, 2022
It all began after Dave Kensinger's buddy started an organic apple orchard in Eastern Washington and was having a hard time selling his produce. It was 1975 and still about two decades too early for organic apples, according to Kensinger, but he stepped in and helped.
Commercial sheds weren't able to pack or store them and about the only solid option for unloading stock was a few small neighborhood co-ops. Though after a few years, larger natural food stores gained momentum and markets in California opened.
By 1978, Kensinger was shipping a load of apples once a week to a wholesaler in Seattle who would then sell it to a buyer in California. But one week, the wholesaler declined the load because their buyer didn't want them.
So, there was Kensinger, in downtown Seattle with a truck load of apples and no one to buy them. Fortunately for him, the Alaska Marine Highway was right across the street. He thought fast, put his truck on the ferry and headed for Juneau.
On November 11, he rolled off and immediately sold all the apples.
"And I thought, oh, this is a good deal," Kensinger says. "So I went down and got more apples and just kept doing it for about another 44 years."
Kensinger, along with his wife, Mona, did much more than just sell apples. The couple began Chelan Produce Co.-named after where those original apples came from-and made a career of selling hand-selected fruit all over Southeast.
From day one, starting with a slice of organic apple, Kensinger sought products that could be handed out to customers for them to try before they buy. He believed that good samples would sell themselves and they did. After a while customers began to expect samples before purchasing, and Kensinger totally understood because that's what he did, too, before he bought fruit.
"I always put emphasis on flavor over just about anything else," he says. "I never concerned myself so much with price as much as the quality and the taste."
Security at wholesale warehouses has increased, especially within the last decade, changing the hand-selection process for Kensinger. But he managed to get a little special treatment, because of his long history with his wholesaler, allowing him into the warehouse to pick produce-I want these cherries, not those. Which made it possible for Chelan to keep providing top-quality produce, he says.
How it usually went was, Kensinger would spend a week in Washington buying, then spend the following week in Alaska selling. He focused on Petersburg and Sitka. Meanwhile, Mona handled Kake and Wrangell, then she'd fly to Sitka by small plane.
Afterwards, the pair would return to Petersburg, and two days later Kensinger would head back to Washington to purchase more produce, leaving Mona to hold down the fort. The arrangement worked well, because they were able to spend time together and apart, which was important for maintaining a healthy relationship, Mona says.
While her husband was away, she'd use the time to prepare for the next round. Equipment needed to be cleaned, so did trucks and Mona also had to handle employees.
She says, in recent years she would spend most of her time training new employees to make sure there were always plenty to help customers. Having backups ready to call in case someone couldn't make it, was crucial. At least eight workers were needed in Petersburg and Sitka required twice that.
Kensinger says, all told, the business employed between 500 and 600 employees. Many were gaining their first job experience. Chelan also had a special long-term employee it counted on for two decades and that man was Kensinger's father, Dave Sr.
The hot weather during summer months where Dave Sr. lived in Texas didn't agree with him, so he'd come help out, to keep cool and visit. He'd work a week, have a week off, work a week, get a free week.
"Very few people have the opportunity to have their parent work that closely with them, usually it's the other way around and a son will join a dad's business," Kensinger says. "But this was a little bit different-it was great!"
Eventually, Chelan added flowers and garden supplies to their operation and also bought the Joan Mei building, Kensinger believes that was 11 years ago. Recently the building has been sold.
Before the final decision to retire was made, Kensinger essentially offered to give the produce business to several people that he'd worked with over the years. And a couple of them showed interest. However, without a ferry system, it quickly became apparent that it wouldn't be financially viable, he says.
When Chelan began, Petersburg was ideally located because of its centralized position in the region and superb ferry service.
"You could go anywhere and didn't have to wait more than a day, sometimes two days, until there was a ferry where you wanted to go," Kensinger says. "It went from being an absolute great organization, to what I think people know it as now, a shadow of itself."
Once ferry service began to decline it became impractical to sell in Kake or Wrangell, forcing Chelan to concentrate on Petersburg and Sitka. But then, service to Sitka was cut. The business did its best to adapt by utilizing barges, but that got complicated and expensive fast. Then COVID cut deeper into what limited ferry service still existed and made it nearly impossible to fly for a while.
With all this going on the idea of retiring became appealing to the couple.
"We wish we could have kept on," Kensinger says. "But you reach a point in life where what you want to do and what your body wants to do, are two different things."
Mona says, although she is beginning to miss the "tension" of getting everything ready for customers and "buzz" from always needing to be "on top of things," she's ready for a break.
"Things just had to always-snap-snap-snap-in order to accomplish everything that needed to be done," she says. "I'm looking forward to not having a schedule."
Of all the hurdles-ferry included, obviously-the couple were always surprised at how resilient Chelan customers were, showing up in some of the worst weather Southeast had to offer. And the Kensingers know, without that love and support, what they built would not have been possible.
"A huge thank you to all the customers for making this a business, of course, a business is only as good as its customers," Mona says. "They literally came out in the rain, sleet, snow, hail and wind."