When two sisters took over their family’s business, they became the fifth generation to run it — and the second generation to make maple syrup during a pandemic.
CHARLEVOIX, MICHIGAN — What do you call a family business with over 100 years of history? Fighters, in a climate like this.
Sisters Amber Munday and Katie Untalan are the fifth generation taking their family’s business to the next level as the economy re-engages. This pandemic won’t stop their drive to keep their century-old traditions alive.
Plus, business savvy never hurt an entrepreneur.
Where It All Began
Harwood Gold began in 1898 when the sisters’ great-great-grandfather Parsons started making maple syrup on his farm.
“He just started doing it as a hobby,” Munday told The ‘Gander. “My grandfather dabbled in wholesaling, and my parents took it to the next level with wholesalers’ online and farmers’ markets.”
When she saw the success her parents were having, Munday realized there was an opportunity to continue scaling the family business. She and her sister officially took over in 2014.
Munday handles production and operations while Untalan is the artistic mastermind behind the company’s product labels, promotional materials and website.
“I just get out of her way. She’s outstanding,” Munday said of her sister’s talents.
Not Their First Rodeo With A Pandemic
Today, Harwood Gold maple syrup is still produced on that same Charlevoix family farm. The company has added other maple-infused products like barbecue sauce, ketchup and sriracha. In 2016 they opened a storefront in downtown Charlevoix that doubles as a cafe.
The storefront and production facility closed when the coronavirus pandemic hit Michigan. But the business – and the family – have survived a pandemic before.
Just 20 years after the first Parsons man found a hobby in making maple syrup, an influenza pandemic hit the country. The CDC estimates that one-third of the world population was infected, with about 675,000 lives lost in America alone.
But the family survived. The first generation of maple syrup in the Parsons family would give way to another before Dave Parsons took over the art and business from his own father. He and his wife, Terri, are Munday and Untalan’s parents. And they taught their daughters as much as they know about the business.
“We sell these really cool Harwood Gold hand pies,” Munday said. “They’re really popular and the feedback that we were getting is that because the store was closed, people couldn’t get these delicious hand pies and the sauce to go with them.”
The sisters’ 2020 business plan already heavily relied on bolstering their online sales. Instead of panicking in the face of the pandemic, Munday and Untalan leaned into their original plans and sold as much product online as possible.
“We already had those stepping stones in place so it was a fairly easy transition for us,” Munday said, noting that there were “a ton of hiccups along the way.”
The company saw demand for product rise and shipping times delayed, but a loyal customer base and some smart business pivoting is keeping the 120+ year enterprise alive. New partnerships also helped the Northern Michigan product extend its reach.
“We’ve paired up with Fustini’s and started selling in their stores and their online market,” Munday said. Fustini’s is an Ann Arbor company known for its specialty olive oils and vinegars.
Finding Strength Together
Harwood Gold has partnered with The Purple Beet, a smoothie subscription box service headquartered in Boyne City, to expand the market for their vegetarian hand pies. Maple syrup and other sauces are available in the Family Fare, Westborn Market, Plum Market and Olsen’s grocery stores.
While production is halted, the family kitchen is resuming its role as birthplace of the Harwood Gold goodness, with special help from the previous owners.
“I think they’re always kind of happy to pitch in where need be,” Munday said, speaking to her parents’ help during the pandemic. “They’re not the retirement kind to just sit around.”
The times could be reminiscent of Harwood Gold’s beginning. Maple syrup is a springtime endeavor that kept the family together.
“Every March and April we’d be out in the sugar shack eating dinner out there, playing games out there,” Munday said. “Just watching my grandpa and my dad make maple syrup. That was always a very normal thing for our childhood.”
If the past is any indication of future trajectory, Harwood Gold will continue to be a Pure Michigan staple. Gov. Whitmer’s latest phase of the MI Safe Start plan will see the Charlevoix storefront reopening soon.
While many of the area’s annual summer festivals are cancelled this year, the storefront and online store are ready to handle all of customers’ needs.
“I remain positive as I try to always be. We grew up making maple syrup. It’s just a part of our life,” Munday said.
And it could be part of the Michigan story for another five generations to come.