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Tart cherries gain popularity on quick-service menus.
Tart cherries becoming popular on restaurant menus.

They might taste sour, but tart cherries can be a sweet addition to quick-service fare, as some chains are finding out.

San Diego-based, buffet-style soup, salad, and bakery concepts Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes are hyping June as Cherry Month, and McDonald's restaurants in Canada are offering baked pies, sundaes, and shakes featuring the fruit all summer long. Golden, Colorado-based Boston Market debuted a tart cherry cobbler as a limited-time offer in January, and the promotion was so successful the chain brought it back in April.

"It is our No. 1 selling dessert item right now," says Angela Proctor, communications director for Boston Market.

Most tart cherries are of the Montmorency variety, as opposed to the sweeter Bing cherry variety. Their sour-yet-sweet flavor profile pairs well with meats or nuts and balances out sweeter fruits, such as strawberries, says Jeff Manning, chief marketing officer for the Cherry Marketing Institute, an organization funded by North American tart cherry growers and processors. The cherries can be featured as ingredients in salads, bakery items, and desserts; used as a topping for cereal or ice cream; or blended in smoothies and milkshakes.

"They're incredibly versatile," Manning says.

One study even suggests that consumers might choose cherries over blueberries if given the choice. Of 1,000 consumers surveyed, twice as many said they prefer cherries compared with blueberries, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute.

"Take a look at where blueberries are being used, and see if cherries don't fit as well or better," Manning says.

Like Boston Market, Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes offer tart cherry desserts—a tart cherry and apple cobbler and a cherry-chocolate sugar-free mousse—but the fruit is also featured in an entrée, the Cherry Chipotle Salad, and as a snack or breakfast item, in the form of cherry-nut muffins.

This is the third year of the chains' Cherry Month promotion, which fits into a larger summer focus on fruit. In the past the success of the tart cherry limited-time offer has overshadowed that of other features, such as pineapple, says Joan Scharff, director of brand and menu strategy for Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes.

"For us, it’s a real win with our guests," she says.

The promotion, themed "A Cherry Good Time," is featured on in-store merchandising and outside print advertising. Signage includes information about the health benefits of tart cherries, which are gaining popularity as a newly christened "superfruit", so called for their high concentration of antioxidants and nutrients.

"People have been using and consuming tart cherries in concentrate form for hundreds of years as folk medicine, but there was no science behind it" Manning says. "It was really in the last five years or so that science has really started to support that idea."

Take a look at where blueberries are being used, and see if cherries don't fit as well or better."

One study of antioxidant-rich foods ranked tart cherries higher than other leaders such as red wine and dark chocolate, and another found they have 19 times the vitamin A of blueberries and strawberries. Research also suggests tart cherries could help ease the pain of arthritis and gout, protect against cardiovascular disease and some cancers, reduce the risk of diabetes, and help treat and prevent memory loss. Entrepreneur magazine even added cherries to its 2008 Hot List as an up-and-coming superfruit.

"It's really one of the more underleveraged superfruits," Manning says. "Whereas blueberries have been used a lot, I don't think cherries have been."

Tart cherries have the added benefit of being easier to source than more exotic superfruits such as acai, mangosteen, and goji. Between 275 and 300 million pounds are harvested in the U.S. each year, with more than two-thirds grown in Michigan, according to the Cherry Marketing Institute. Though typically harvested in July, tart cherries are available year round, as most of the crop is processed into dried, frozen, canned, and juice forms.

"Because they're in consistent supply and produced in pretty good volume, they're good for [quick-service restaurants]," Manning says.

They can be cost effective, too. Though more expensive than strawberries, tart cherries generally cost a little less than blueberries. Even better, they can increase the perceived value of a menu item, Manning says.

"A salad suddenly becomes a much more valuable salad when you add tart cherries or any other dried fruit," he says.

Jamie Hartford is a frequent contributor to QSR.