Curing California olives was Bradley Bennett’s original specialty food idea—until he learned the process takes months. He didn’t have the patience. Quick pickles looked less labor intensive, something he could make in a day. Plus, the Santa Barbara native saw a void in the marketplace.
“At the time, there weren’t really any other notable West Coast-based pickle companies,” says Bennett, 49, who founded Pacific Pickle Works in 2010.
The flavor profile he envisioned would have more heat and aromatics than East Coast deli-style pickles, which are more garlic and dill-forward, he says. He would use peak season, California-grown cucumbers, asparagus, green beans, beets, jalapeño, and arbol chile peppers.
Tinkering in his home kitchen, he started making bold and spicy pickle blends for his family and friends at Christmas. His process started in 2001, using organic produce from the local farmers market. When he incorporated the company nine years later, Principal Pickle was the official title he gave himself.
“I’m a Virgo and a bit of a perfectionist,” Bennett says of how long it took to refine the brining recipes. “I’ll keep at something until I figure it out.”
Bennet had not previously worked in the food industry and studied architecture at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. After graduating in 1992, he mostly worked as a software developer and engineering executive. One of those jobs introduced him to the world of hospitality, working behind the scenes on touch screen systems for high-profile restaurants, cruise ships, and Las Vegas casinos. Another startup involved adding nutrition and calorie information to guest receipts.
“I’m still wondering why I did it,” he says of starting a pickle company. “I certainly could have been more successful by staying in software earning money instead of spending money. Maybe I did it out of curiosity. How do you make things? I’ve always had the mindset to create some sort of project or entity from the ground up. It’s probably why I wanted to be an architect initially.”
Launching Pacific Pickle Works cost Bennett about $30,000 of his own money, along with some loans from family and friends. At first, he kept his day job and spent his spare time working out of a catering kitchen. He also developed a relationship with the city’s schools, trading pickles for free use of a kitchen. A co-packer didn’t work out so he took a course from the University of California, Davis, and became licensed as a cannery.
A branding exercise furthered along the visuals and a website. In 2011, four Santa Barbara stores agreed to stock four kinds of his hand-packed pickles. The names were crowd-sourced on Facebook, the winners proving to be Jalabeaños (green beans pickled with jalapeños), Asparagusto (asparagus spears with jalapeños and other robust spices), Unbeetables (beets), and Cukarambas (spicy cucumbers, now called ¡Ay Cukarambas!). The playful names got a dialogue going and soon more stores put them on the shelves. In 2012, Fenn Shui pickled fennel was released, joined the following year by Bloody Mary Elixir, a spicy, customizable cocktail base.
Pacific Pickle Works’ growth, however, presented a problem. Bennett sometimes had to wait for two hours to use the kitchen facilities he was borrowing. He needed space for storage. In 2013, a Kickstarter campaign raised almost $33,000 to help him build a 2,000-square-foot kitchen and warehouse in an industrial part of Santa Barbara. Union Street Makerspace, as it’s called, opened in 2015 and today turns out 250 cases of pickles a day. It also serves as an incubator for several other small food brands, helping them get off the ground.
Bennett has 12 employees and close to 1,000 stores carry Pacific Pickle Works, primarily west of the Rocky Mountains. The brand has grown to a dozen products, including Carriots of Fire (zingy carrots), Pickles under the Ginfluence (cucumbers brined with gin, rosemary and jalapeños) and Brussizzle Sprouts, which won a sofi Award for ‘Best Appetizer’ in 2016.
Pacific Pickle Works’ Michelada Shrub triumphed at the 2019 Winter Fancy Food Show’s Front Burner Foodservice Pitch Competition. The tart, complex blend of fresh lime juice, organic apple cider vinegar, house-made Worcestershire sauce, chiles, tamarind, and molasses is designed for mixing with beer and pouring over ice. Victoria Ho, a brand consultant for the company since 2015, made the winning pitch presentation. She pointed out the product’s versatility as a marinade for chicken, brisket, and baby back ribs, a base for ceviche and a finishing sauce on fish tacos.
Hundreds of applications were considered for the foodservice competition, a channel for entrepreneurs to gain recognition for innovation, quality, and chef-appeal. Three finalists (the other two represented Mama La’s Kitchen Beef Pho Concentrate and Napa Hills Cherry Rosé Vineyard Enriched Water) gave live, five-minute pitches to a panel of judges headed up by Robert Irvine, an English celebrity chef, talk show host, and fitness guru. The prize package included a free ad in Specialty Food Magazine and extensive social media coverage.
“The Michelada Shrub is hitting all the emerging trends in a nutshell,” Ho says, recounting what she thinks made it stand out. “The drink, basically a beer cocktail, has a cult following in Southern California and goes great with spicy food. It’s not just for millennials, but it is millennial-driven, people who are looking for a drink that fits into a health and wellness lifestyle, lower in alcohol and acidic like kombucha, with zero artificial colorings, flavorings, or sugar. Millennials are very budget-savvy and it’s going to cost less than a cocktail made with spirits. You can deck it out with garnishes so it has a high visual impact, put it on your Instagram feed and get a million ‘likes.’”
More foodservice offerings are in the works for this year, Bennett says. A wide variety of pickles in five-gallon tubs will enter the distribution chain for delis, bars, and restaurants. More hotels and resorts are stocking Bloody Mary Elixir, providing bartenders with a consistent tool to blend Bloody Marys and creatively dress them up with Pacific Pickle Works green beans and asparagus. During the summer months, the pickled produce continues to be California-grown, but in winter Bennett sources some vegetables from Mexico out of necessity. No matter where it comes from, most of it is kosher-certified.
Bennett, a newlywed, is pretty much out of the kitchen these days, selling his line, going to trade shows, dealing with websites, employees, costs, and profit-margins. Building a business based on quick pickles did not turn out to happen so quickly or easily.
“What talked me into continuing was the natural growth of the business,” he says. “I was wading in, taking one more step. I told myself I wasn’t going to do any artificial marketing. I was going to put the pickles on the shelf and see if they sold because they looked good and tasted good. It had to fundamentally work to make a brand and a company out of it. That’s what ended up happening and it took on a life of its own.”
— 2010 Pacific Pickle Works is incorporated in Santa Barbara, Calif.
— 2011 First four products (Jalabeaños, Asparagusto Pickled Asparagus, Unbeetables Pickled Beets, and Cukarambas, now called ¡Ay Cukarambas!) are placed in four Santa Barbara stores
— 2012 Fenn Shui pickled fennel launches
— 2013 Bloody Mary Elixir is released; Kickstarter campaign raises $32,866 to help fund a new production facility
— 2015 Wins first Good Food Award for Jalabeaños; Brussizzle Sprouts launches; Union Street Makerspace opens its new, 2,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and incubator for startups
— 2016 Wins sofi Award for ‘Best Appetizer’-Brussizzle Sprouts; wins top honors at three major international spirits competitions for Bloody Mary Elixir; releases Michelada Shrub & Pickle Brine
— 2017 Pickle production reaches 1,000 jars per day; becomes Non-GMO Project Verified
— 2019 Wins judges’ choice and fan favorite at SFA Front Burner Foodservice Pitch Competition for Michelada Shrub; Bloody Mary Elixir named Super Bowl pick by Parade magazine
Years in specialty food: 8
Favorite food: Fried chicken sandwich—with pickles!
Least favorite food: Friseé. It’s decoration, not food.
Last thing I ate and loved: A gold shot-an uni shooter with a quail egg yolk my wife and I made at home. Delicious!
If I weren’t in the food business I’d be: An architect or builder-back to my roots before food.
One piece of advice I’d give to a new food business: Make sure you love building companies more than you love making food-because that’s what you will be doing. If you love making food, become a chef.
Julie Besonen writes for The New York Times and is a restaurant columnist for nycgo.com.