By Mollie Rotmensch
Shortly after married duo Lindsay Malinowski and Bradley Treusdell bought their home in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, they gutted out the first floor and embarked on a two-year renovation. They remodeled the space into their first restaurant, The Little Pickle, which opened in 2017. The menu included soups, sandwiches, and cured and roasted meats. “A lot of those cycle in and out,” Treusdell said of the menu. But pickles, the item central to their business model, were continuous. “It was something that at the end of the day we love and want to put out there.”
COVID-19, however, forced Malinowski and Treusdell to temporarily shut down in November 2020. Treusdell said, to help keep the business going, the couple rented out The Little Pickle for private parties and the occasional catering opportunity. That carried The Little Pickle through 2021, a year filled with more COVID-19 variants plus an ongoing global supply chain crisis. Malinowski and Treusdell reopened The Little Pickle on June 9, but it was two years of ups and downs.
Similar to The Little Pickle, three other small and family owned pickle businesses – Ba-Tampte, Puckered Pickle and The People’s Pickles – each with either direct or indirect Midwest attachments, weathered COVID-19. They also continue to survive the compounding effects from the 2021 supply chain disruption. Pickles nationwide would then seem recession-proof.
But only somewhat.
For pickle businesses, a shortage in labor and certain packaging materials, such as truck drivers and glass jars, adversely impacted the timing and cost of pickles in 2020 and 2021. Supply chain issues also contributed to price inflation, which, for food, surged 10.9% from July of last year, and picklers now pay more for production and distribution. That translates into consumers literally – and figuratively – eating the cost. After crunching some pickles and numbers, can you say très cher?
But pickle loyalty isn’t wavering. Seventy-five percent of the U.S. population ate them in 2020, when the law of scarcity was real, according to Statista. The same report predicts pickle consumption will grow, if ever so slightly, within the first half of the decade. Pickles aren’t necessary to survival, but the majority of the U.S. can’t stop noshing, and probably won’t, even amid economic downturns.
The Little Pickle, Ba-Tampte, Puckered Pickle and The People’s Pickles are each The Little Engine that Could, except the protagonist in this case is edible.
Pickle history is long and cross-continental. The story starts in 2030 B.C., and lore says Cleopatra was a fan. Germany, India and the Netherlands are among the oldest pickle-eating countries and some of the world’s biggest appreciators. Eastern European Jews were at the helm of brining the kosher dill in New York City’s Lower East Side circa the late 1800s and early 1900s. The pickle expanded into pop culture too. After trending throughout 2018, it resurfaced as a cinematic love story during COVID-19 a la Seth Rogen in “An American Pickle.” Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta gave pickles a shoutout in his latest book. No matter their mainstream currency, pickles stay a standalone snack, condiment, garnish and, debatably, complete a sandwich.
They were born out of necessity, said John Cox, executive vice president of Pickle Packers International, a trade association in the pickle industry. The association was first established in St. Charles, Ill., in 1892, and was the reason for the town’s unofficial moniker, the “Pickle Capital of the World.” In 2004, Pickle Packers International relocated to Washington, D.C., where it boasts 125 member companies: 50 grow, 50 manufacture and 25 supply, according to Cox.
“People have enjoyed pickles for thousands of years (and) were originally created as a preservation method,” Cox said. He came to enjoy pickles in his adult life. “I didn’t grow up in a particularly pickle-positive household.” Cox browses the pickle supply whenever he shops for groceries and has noticed them in two areas as of late: the pickle aisle and near the deli. “You now have an increasing popularity of refrigerated pickles,” he said. The one part about pickles Cox hasn’t noticed, though, is the price increase.
But it’s there.
John Vetter, vice president of sales at family-owned Puckered Pickle Co. in Chicago, said between COVID-19 and supply chain problems, he’s raised product costs 6% to 7% this year, compared with prior standard year-over-year increases of 3% to 4%. He had to hike the price to offset the higher fees he incurred for transportation and logistics. In other words, the freights. To ship product, full truck loads that once cost Puckered Pickle $3,000 are now anywhere from $3,800 to $5,400, according to Vetter. “There’s no room to negotiate,” Vetter said during a phone call. While speculative, that’s probably related to truck driver shortages. “We don’t have the only $4.89 pickle out there.”
The trickle-down effects on pickle sales from surging costs of freights aren’t the only reason pickle prices went up. Glass jars is another culprit.
Marcus Weaver started The People’s Pickles in Colorado’s metro Denver area in November 2019 under his community organization, Lower The Barrier, LLC, which provides job training services for marginalized individuals, according to its Facebook page. The People’s Pickles became an LLC in 2021. Weaver uses a pickle recipe from his family in St. Louis that has passed through generations since slavery. He doesn’t just brine and sell. He prepares underserved people for employment by training them in his pickle business, which stalled when glass jars became scarce throughout COVID-19 and the supply chain crunch.
“(Glass jars) were probably one of the biggest hiccups during the pandemic or even to this day,” Weaver said on a call from Colorado. Pre-COVID-19, he would buy discounted Ball jars from Walmart but noticed a shortage of quart-sized containers in spring 2020. That delayed filling orders by about two weeks. “It was never the cucumbers we were waiting on, it was always the jars. We’d go to 10, 15 grocery stores, look online, couldn’t find them anywhere.” Weaver now uses a distributor to send him glass jars, but they ship from overseas. For Weaver, from overseas means paying more and longer wait times for glass jars.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., family-owned Ba-Tampte – officially, Ba-Tampte Pickle Products, Inc. – has been around since 1955, going from pickle stands and pushcarts to factory. Scott Silberstein, senior vice president of sales and a third-generation co-owner, sells pickles to wholesalers with locations in Chicago, such as Jewel and Mariano’s. When Ba-Tampte’s domestic supplier for glass jars stopped manufacturing them, Silberstein, similar to Weaver, resigned to getting quart-sized ones overseas.
Like many in the pickle business, Silberstein still deals with exorbitant costs for glass jars. He initially paid $2,500 for a shipment, but now it’s $12,500. “It takes longer to come by boat,” Silberstein said. On days when Ba-Tampte had more cucumbers than jars during COVID-19, the business had to close. “We were fortunate enough to get glass, but not in a timely manner.”
The pickle delays combined with supply chain’s trickle-down effects on retail prices didn’t seem to stop consumers from buying, especially in the thick of COVID-19.
When throngs of people flocked to grocery stores as though the apocalypse arrived, Ba-Tampte’s pickles did well. “Everybody was staying at home and eating because they weren’t going to work and school,” Silberstein figured. Grocery stores needed stocked shelves, and Silberstein could supply. He speculates other pickle companies may not have received glass jar shipments for months, whereas it was only weeks for Ba-Tampte. Hence, perhaps why his pickles were in higher demand. “Sales-wise, we didn’t make, but we didn’t lose. We just stayed afloat and survived,” he said.
Ba-Tampte thrived in turbulent times, as did The People’s Pickles.
Weaver was relatively new to the pickle industry amid COVID-19 and supply chain disruptions. With The People’s Pickles not yet in grocery stores, Weaver needed to quickly think of ways to keep business going. He ramped up promotion on social media to spread the word and participated in Denver’s Safe Zones, an initiative that aims to reduce violence through offering free programs for youth during high-crime hours. “Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kids would show up, and we’d give out samples and talk to the kids,” Weaver said. “That helped because it relayed to the parents, who then ordered pickles too.” Weaver also said he’s growing and working with two giant supermarket companies to sell The People’s Pickles in stores.
But why are pickles withstanding even current economic pitfalls? Pickle producers said it’s the comfort factor.
“Everybody has a story about pickles, love ’em (or) hate ’em,” Weaver said. “If they love them, they tell you all the stories about different pickles they’ve tried. It’s like a subculture of its own, and it’s readily available. It’s in relish. It’s on your burgers. You see what I mean? Everywhere.”
For Silberstein, too, pickles are nostalgic. “I remember going to my grandma’s house for Passover or Rosh Hashanah, and pickles were on the table,” Silberstein said. “(Pickles) aren’t a need, but fun to have. It’s a specialty.” Silberstein said Ba-Tampte was especially busy packaging orders around Passover, preparing pickle memories for the Jewish community.
Back in Chicago, The Little Pickle hasn’t experienced significant supply chain interferences. None regarding glass jars, at least, which Treusdell said he and Malinowski don’t use for pickles. Treusdell said that lemon and limes, ingredients he uses for pickling, however, increased in price. When Malinowski and Treusdell were unable to consistently sell sandwiches and, by association, pickles, for two years, they found new ways to keep The Little Pickle afloat and used the time to develop another idea. “A sausage cart (that) we can take to people wherever they’re at, either outside a bar or next door to the farmers market,” Treusdell said.
Sausage pushcarts? Sounds like a nod to pickles’ past and a glimpse into The Little Pickle’s future – because even in economic turbulence, the sentimental value of pickles outweighs the cost.
Mollie Rotmensch is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.