Real Pickles: Company Profile

By Molly Sauvain, CISA Intern

2011

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“I wanted to get people thinking,” says Dan Rosenberg, when asked why he founded Real Pickles in 2001.  “What would a more localized food system really look like?  People have to have options beyond just shopping at a local farmers’ market.”  Ten years later, over 350 stores from Maine to New Jersey stock the Real Pickles line of raw, fermented products, made from vegetables all grown within 50 miles of the Real Pickles processing plant in Greenfield, Massachusetts.  Despite a growing national reputation (including receiving a “2010 Good Food Award” presented by Alice Waters in California), Dan has also committed to not shipping Real Pickles anywhere outside of the Northeast.

That type of commitment to values has had an enormous impact on key business decisions, ranging from labor to facilities design to financing.  The Real Pickles story demonstrates both the rewards of being a “Local Hero,” and the challenges of shifting away from global sourcing and seasonless production.

Sourcing Local

Real Pickles has six farm partners who provide the raw materials—cucumbers, beets, carrots, cabbage, garlic, and herbs—that will eventually be sold in Real Pickles jars.  The crew must receive and process these crops during the short harvest season; 150,000 pounds of vegetables are harvested and brought to their door over a period of just a few months during the summer and fall.  “Cucumber pickles are especially tough.  We got 50,000 pounds of cucumbers this past year, and we had to get them fermenting within a week of harvest,” explains Dan.  Adaptation to seasonal fluctuations in labor needs and workflow has been a key to survival.  “It’s all about creative problem solving to minimize the impact of these challenges.  We’ve adjusted recipes, stretched out the fermentation schedule, and designed the warehouse with a lot of cold storage— all because we source regionally.  Other fermentation businesses our size purchase vegetables year-round from Mexico, Florida, California, which makes it a lot easier.  But I know the vegetables we get from our farms are way better, they’re grown on diverse farms with healthy soil, and they aren’t bred to withstand long shipments and storage periods like most vegetables in the industrial food system.”

The short harvest season has financial repercussions, as well.  Concentrated summer costs mean that expenses often peak beyond what the company has saved from sales. “In any given year, we have to borrow about a dollar for every two dollars we make back in sales. And that’s not counting real estate costs,” explains Dan.

A New Processing Facility

Real Pickles began operations in the Franklin County Community Development Corporation’s incubator kitchen, the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center (FPC), in Greenfield.  After seven happy years there, Dan and his partner Addie Rose Holland had to face the truth: Real Pickles had outgrown the space.  Real Pickles faced a three-year-long struggle to find and finance a suitable new space.  They ended up buying a building right across the street from the FPC.

Financing

Loans from the Greenfield Savings Bank, Equity Trust, the Franklin County CDC, and the Four Town Loan Fund helped the couple finance the purchase of the building and the extensive renovations required to turn the space into a state-of-the-art fermentation factory.  The commitment to sourcing locally significantly increased the cost of the renovations.  “Everything had to be bigger,” says Dan.  “Since we are processing in such large batches during the summer rather than in smaller batches throughout the year like other companies, we have to have more cold storage, more vegetable processing capacity, more barrels.”  Energy-efficient coolers and lights represent a savings both in the financial and environmental sense, and Dan hopes to install roof-top solar roof panels in the near future.

Rather than bemoan the financial challenges, Dan is hopeful.  “After ten years in business we’re starting to get to the point where we can envision a day when we are able to begin paying for materials and labor out of savings rather than having to take out more loans.  Although this is a difficult financial model, it is the only way we can create a quality product in a socially and ecologically responsible manner, and keep the price customers pay at a reasonable level.”

What makes it worth the extra time, money, and effort?  For Dan, it was never just about pickles.  It’s about running a business that holds itself accountable to the community and the land.  Satisfaction comes with the knowledge that what Real Pickles has become fits into a larger vision: a food system built on relationships and the well-being of people. “One of my very favorite parts of my job is talking to farmers, building those relationships,” says Dan.  “I feel like I’m part of a community of people who share similar values, who want to change our food system, who do good work to bring good food to good people.”

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