The brothers wanted to make a pickle that evoked the character of Pittsburgh, with a brine equally salty and sweet.
“Pittsburghers are the same way,” said John Patterson, co-founder of Pittsburgh Pickle Co. “We’re really nice people, but we can be bastards if we want to be.”
Patterson, 35, and his brother, Joe Robl, 26, and third sibling Will Patterson, 33, believe they have perfected just such a recipe, one that they think is as unique as the city that is its namesake. In September, they started their company with the bold intention of becoming the standard pickle in the city.
Working out of the commercial-sized kitchen in Verona United Methodist Church, the brothers produce about 900 24-ounce jars of pickles per month. The nascent venture is off to a good start, selling more than 3,000 jars retailing at $6 each in its first four months in business.
The company has a long way to go before it conquers a $783 million market for non-refrigerated pickles. Even Pittsburgh-based condiment giant H.J. Heinz Co. is a relatively small player in the pickle market, with $2.8 million in sales in 2014, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
There is room for the upstart company’s artisanal pickles, said Norris Bernstein, a retail grocery consultant based in California.
“Artisanal foods are definitely a trend,” Bernstein said.
The idea to start a small-batch pickling business grew out of the brothers’ involvement in another artisanal category — craft beer. They own The BeerHive, a bar featuring high-end drafts in the Strip District, and wanted to have deep fried pickles as a salty accompaniment to their beverages. But they weren’t interested in selling a mass-market brand.
“Early on, we said if we’re going to do this, we need to hatch out a plan,” John Patterson said. “A pickle, as basic as it is, let’s try to make it unique.”
Making pickles might seem easy — mix a brine, throw in a vegetable of choice, let sit for a couple of days and enjoy — but the brothers discovered early on that finding the right recipe would take time. Early versions were edible but had “texture problems,” Will Patterson said. They experimented with different versions of the sweet and sour mixture, spending two years developing the right one.
Ultimately, they settled on a savory spice mixture that John Patterson said was “a kind of happy medium of everything,” with garlic, dill, mustard seed, celery seed, black pepper and sugar.
The flavor and crisp “snap” have impressed self-proclaimed pickle snob Dora Walmsley.
“It was that interesting flavor of those two worlds combining,” said Walmsley, co-owner of 52nd Street Market in Lawrenceville. “I thought it was different, and I thought it was unique. It’s not just your kind of average standard pickle.”
Walmsley has been selling jars of Pittsburgh Pickle Co.’s pickles since early December and said she is “happy to say they are going off the shelf.” It was a good fit for her store, which sells a lot of pantry staples and tries to feature locally made products when possible.
The Lawrenceville market is the first retail account for Pittsburgh Pickle Co. and the only place outside of BeerHive where the pickles are sold. The pickles share shelf space at 52nd Street Market with a national brand, Vlasic, but Walmsley said Pittsburgh Pickle has a more fervid customer following. When the market posted a message on Twitter about carrying the pickles, it became a draw for new business, she said.
“They have actually brought new people (to the store) who have been looking for them,” she said.
Heinz brand manager Molly White wrote in an email that Pittsburgh Pickle Co. was continuing the “proud pickle heritage/tradition in Pittsburgh.”
“It is a great city for pickles and a food business,” she said.
The brothers are not content to remain just a niche pickle maker. They have larger ambitions to become something of a lunchtime standard, like another Heinz product.
“If you walk into a restaurant and see anything besides Heinz ketchup on the table, it’s weird,” John Patterson said. “We want our pickles to be that, the Heinz ketchup of pickles. If you walk into a restaurant and there’s anything other than a Pittsburgh Pickle Co. pickle on your plate, it’s weird.”
Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.