Selling Pickles Online? Actually, It's A Great Business
On the surface, Rick Field, a Yale graduate and former TV producer for Bill Moyers, would not seem the most likely candidate to become a pickle peddler, much less spearhead a new pickling movement. But he has done just that. The entrepreneur behind Brooklyn (N.Y.)-based Rick's Picks is offering New-World twists on an Old-World condiment, inventing a whole new pickle palate in an industry whose heyday was a century ago -- and creating a market in the process.
It started as a hobby. Field learned the art of pickling when he was growing up in Vermont. About eight years ago, gripped by a sense of nostalgia, he took up pickling again. In his tiny kitchen, Field made family recipes and then quickly began experimenting.
Inspired by the trend in ethnic food fusion, he infused his brine with new flavors and essences such as coconut and dried cherries, dreaming up innovative varieties of pickled cucumbers, cauliflower, and string beans. "In food, people were interested in new flavors and creating new ideas," he says. "I put that into my pickles."
Field gave his offbeat hybrids to friends and family. Their wildly enthusiastic response to his Windy City Wasabeans (soybeans in wasabi brine) and Slices of Life (sliced pickles in aromatic garlic brine) told him he was onto something. So four years ago, Field entered the annual Rosendale International Pickle Festival in upstate New York and won six ribbons, including Best in Show.
After defending his title for two successive years, Field decided to go pro. "It galvanized me to take my hobby more seriously," he says. At the end of 2003 his job with Moyers ended, and Field says he decided "to go for it."
Initially, Field gained a local following selling his wares at the Union Square Green Market in Manhattan and on his Web site. Culinary nods from New York magazine and Food & Wine soon followed, and Field found himself in the brine full-time.
The challenge, he says, came in converting a personal passion into a viable business without losing the artisanal spirit in translation. "It was really an issue of scalability," he says. "From home canning to making 80 cases in multiples of 40 was not straightforward. I made this first massive batch of brine that was incredibly vinegary. I had to throw it out."
That was a relatively inexpensive mistake. Field says he blew $1,000 on labels that were not refrigerator-grade. Furthermore, he chose square jars that he says looked great, but the labeling machine couldn't roll properly. Field ended up hand-rolling 3,000 jars.
In one year, Field says, his sales have increased 200%. He sells 10 different varieties (nine more are in the works) online and in specialty stores in nine states including Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca. Now, he says, "My issues are not of pickling but of taking a small business and nurturing it into an intelligent business."
He's not the only one facing that challenge. Until recently, pickling was a dying art. The number of pickle merchants in New York City, once the cuke capital, had by the late 1990s dwindled to less than a handful. By 2000, only Guss's, established in 1910 on Essex Street, had survived.
Across the country there were a few outfits, such as Minneapolis' fifth-generation family-owned Gedney's, which celebrated its 125th anniversary this summer. But for the most part, the descendant of the Eastern European culinary tradition could be found only on supermarket shelves in mass-produced jars.
However, in the past five years, the pickle has made something of a comeback. Fueled in part by the artisanal movement, an interest in unprocessed foods, and the trend in ethnic flavors, a new crop of pickle merchants have revitalized the iconic cuke. Borrowing from Eastern European customs and marrying them to those of Indian, Chinese, Korean, and other pickling traditions, the new picklers offer both an urban sophistication and a folksy, homespun allure.
Sold at farmer's markets across the country and in gourmet specialty stores, these new pickle crossbreeds are finding their way onto the menus of trendy, upscale restaurants and pickle bars. They've also given rise to a number of shops devoted to the making and selling of homemade pickles.
"After 100 years, pickles were on their way out," says Lucy Norris, the author of Pickled: Preserving a World of Tastes & Traditions and the commercial kitchen manager at the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University in Portland. "Now you see people in their 20s and 30s reclaiming their food heritage, making pickles accessible and combining Old-World flavors with ethnic ingredients and a making a completely new pickle."