March 18, 2019

The Gold Standard

Two sisters are transforming a four-generation family business into a modern-day enterprise
By Geri Dietze | March 2, 2019

Two sisters, sharing a commitment to family, an appreciation for the land, and some serious entrepreneurial chops are making their mark on a prominent corner in downtown Charlevoix. Harwood Gold, their café and retail destination is an extension of Parsons Centennial Farm, south of Charlevoix, where four generations of family have produced maple syrup and other maple products. Amber Parsons Munday and Katie Parsons Untalan are the fifth generation to take up the business, and with the opening of Harwood Gold, in 2016, they have made it their own, with a 75-product lineup that elevates pure maple syrup to another realm.  And, unlike many shops on Bridge Street, Harwood Gold is open year-round to serve residents of northern Michigan. Says Munday: “I want people to know who we are and that we are available for them.”
 
A LOOK INSIDE
Harwood Gold has the vibe of a country general store — if that general store were in a hip urban neighborhood. “Rustic contemporary,” is how Munday describes the setting. Shelving and tables are fashioned from wood repurposed from the family farm. Counter-height tables are topped with the marble slabs originally used by Murdick's Famous Fudge — the previous tenant, for more than five decades — and above, a restored tin ceiling speaks to the building’s history. Generous windows frame views of East Park and the marina.
 
NOT JUST FOR PANCAKES ANYMORE
Maple syrup is a nuanced, subtle flavor that pairs easily with an endless variety of ingredients. Under the Harwood Gold umbrella, it takes and inspires dozens of forms: Infusions (currently numbering 16) include roasted hazelnuts, saffron and apricot, and Madagascar vanilla. Spreads and sauces range from black fig and maple paste, and horseradish maple mustard, to farm-style catsup, maple BBQ, and maple Sriracha. Harwood Gold preserves pair sweet maple sugar with a variety of local fruits, from blueberry lemongrass to strawberry rhubarb. With so many products from which to choose, the tasting bar is both a necessity and a shopper’s treat. All Harwood Gold products are rigorously tested and then produced in small batches by chef Christina Yost in the farm’s state-of-the-art kitchen. And, three versions of Harwood Gold maple syrup represent the brief sugaring season in its entirety: delicate Golden, rich Amber, and robust Dark.
 
COME ON IN AND SIT A SPELL
While the promise of taste-testing draws is reason enough to draw guests, the café offers reason aplenty to stay. Its salads, soups, and wraps are generous, inventive, and healthful, but it is particularly well known for its gourmet version of Aussie hand pies, the ubiquitous Down Under convenience food. Fillings include braised beef brisket, chicken and portobello mushrooms, and braised lamb shank, all encased in a rich, buttery crust that achieves both firmness and flakiness. More than a dozen coffees and teas, plus a half-dozen smoothie choices are also available.
 
WORD OF MOUTH
Since Charlevoix has been a vacation destination for well over 100 years, the clientele of Harwood Gold stretch from coast to coast. Add a very active word-of-mouth component, and Harwood Gold products are, well, flying off the shelves. Product goes out via internet orders to the Midwest and beyond: California, Texas, Colorado, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire among others. “We really didn’t think about out-of-state orders, but our online sales have skyrocketed,” Munday said. She admits that meeting demand is becoming a challenge, thanks to their rigorous small-batch process, but said, “That’s the kind of problem I’m happy to have.” Indeed, Munday and Untalan are preparing for future growth. “Expansion is always on the horizon,” she added. “As our business grows, so will its menu, products and events.”
 
In the immediate future are Harwood Gold’s Third Thursday dinners — featuring three-course meals and cocktails — which run through June. (Reservations required.) Farther down the road is a plan to offer a truly immersive Harwood Gold experience by creating a bed and breakfast on the family farm. In the meantime, visitors are welcome to celebrate a March tradition the Harwood way: By visiting the farm and taking a grand tour of the family’s syrup operations (and sampling some treats, of course) during their annual Maple Syrup Season open house, 11am–3pmMarch 23 and 24.
 
Find Harwood Gold Café at 230 Bridge St., in Charlevoix. The farm and syrup-making facility is located about 10 miles south of Charlevoix, at 00061 Parsons Road. Learn more: (231) 437-3900, www.harwoodgold.com.
 
BACKSTORY
A Century in the Making
In 1898, John Parsons homesteaded 186 acres bordering Harwood Lake, approximately 10 miles south of Charlevoix. Circa 1910, his visionary son George collected sap and boiled it over an open fire, finishing it on the wood-burning cook stove in the farmhouse kitchen, starting a tradition that continues to this day. By the late 1930s, George’s son Bill improved upon the family syrup production with a new sap house, complete with a King Evaporator to create the family’s “liquid gold.” By the time Bill’s son Dave took over, sap season was a big affair for family and friends. “Every spring, we joined our dad and grandpa in the sap house during syrup season, taste-testing as much as possible,” said Katie Parsons Untalan. Eventually, Dave and his wife, Terri, expanded the line and Terri, seeing the growing demand, took their products to town, setting up shop at the area’s many farm markets.
 
Ironically, neither Untalan nor Munday had any plans of returning to Charlevoix and creating an agri-tourist destination. When they received their degrees — fine arts at the University of Michigan for Untalan, and business, with an emphasis on marketing and communications, at Grand Valley for Munday — both girls spent years working on opposite coasts. It wasn’t until Dave and Terri decided to retire that the idea of taking over the farm became a viable option. Today, Munday runs the farm, the Harwood Gold store, and takes care of the business end. Untalan handles signage, design, and all things creative. She lives with her family in Ann Arbor and relocates to Charlevoix in the summer. Even long distance, the sisters work well together.  “Our skills are extremely complimentary,” Munday explains. “Katie’s design skills and her role as creative director are crucial to our brand identity and to attracting the interest of new and existing customers and vendors.”

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