Dennis Courtier has friends in the chocolate business who move their offices as far away from where the sweet, dark stuff is made as they can. After years in the business, they can’t stand the smell day in and day out.
Fortunately for Courtier, owner of Lake City, Minn.-based Pepin Heights Orchards Inc., that’s never been a problem.
“After 30-plus years of doing this, I still really like apples,” Courtier said. “It’s a blessing — I still find it to be fun and exciting. And even when we’re not shipping, I still buy them in the store.”
When Courtier, 58, moved back home and decided “to take the apple business seriously,” as he puts it, his goal was to expand the Minnesota-grown retail options beyond reds, goldens and a few other industry veterans.
“Any 10-year-old could understand our business philosophy,” he said. “Make them taste really good, and people will want more of them.”
It wasn’t easy. Minnesota, Courtier points out, isn’t even the center of the apple solar system — it’s not even Pluto. Courtier and his partners had to scour Washington, New York and Michigan to find new varieties.
Found them they did. For its pioneering work expanding the Honeycrisp market beyond farmstands, Pepin Heights is known as “The Honeycrisp Place.” More recently, the company has been an innovator with varieties including the SweeTango.
For Courtier, Pepin Heights’ success has always been about the whole groups effort. When retailers, following the current vogue, want to put his face with their apple display, he declines — if it can’t include the whole staff, he’s not interested.
Courtier’s management philosophy focuses on hiring the best people he can afford, helping them set goals and then getting out of their way.
“The division of labor is pretty simple,” he said. “They’re in charge of doing things right. I try to make sure we’re doing the right things.”
Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc., said Courtier has the vision to see that an apple variety will only flourish if the consumer is delighted with the experience and comes back for more.
“The concept seems simple, but it’s hard for many to grasp,” Pepperl said. “Dennis has helped me as well as many in the apple industry truly reach for higher goals and has made our industry stronger.”