The founder of pickle maker Rick's Picks describes what it takes to transform a hobby into a thriving business with national distribution
The Entrepreneur: Rick Field, 44
Background: In 2003, Field, a director and producer for veteran journalist Bill Moyers, left TV to turn his pickle-making hobby into a full-time business he named Rick's Picks (BusinessWeek.com, 11/21/05).
The Company: Inspired by the ethnic food fusion trend, Field began concocting nontraditional pickles using such flavors as coconut and dried cherries in his brine as well as devising innovative varieties of pickled cauliflower and string beans. Initially, Field gained a local following selling his wares at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan and on his Web site. Culinary nods from New York magazine and Food & Wine soon followed. Now Rick's Picks sells a line of 11 different varieties of pickled foods to a number of stores across the country including Whole Foods (WFMI) and Dean & DeLuca.
Sales: In 2004, Rick's Picks earned $39,000, and the company estimates it will bring in $500,000 in 2007.
His Story: As a kid, some of the happiest times I had were during summers in Vermont, when my family spent evenings in the kitchen making pickles together and listening to the Red Sox on the radio. We have deep roots in the crafts culture of New England, and we made regional staples such as dilly beans, sliced dill pickles, and pickled green tomatoes. Those time in the kitchen left a real mark.
Cut to the late '90s. I was living in New York City and working in TV as a producer/director. Even though I had access to foods from all around the world, I missed those delicious pickles of my youth. An e-mail to the folks produced the secret master recipes for the family classics. I picked up produce at the local market, followed the recipes, and waited a couple of months for the pickling process to do its thing, then cracked open my first jar. Eureka! They tasted just like the old days. Over a four-year period I spent nearly every summer weekend making and refining pickle recipes until I had 18 in all.
I shared my experiments with friends and co-workers. They liked them, so I began to bring the pickles to birthday parties—an etched-glass Mason jar filled with pickled veggies got a much more positive reaction than a CD. But pickle-making probably would have remained a blissful hobby had I not, on a whim, entered the Rosendale (N.Y.) International Pickle Festival Contest in 2001. To my complete surprise, my Windy City Wasabeans (beans in a soy-wasabi brine) took home the big blue ribbon for Best in Show. The Wasabeans won again in 2002. I was onto something. I discovered pickles were more than a hobby: They were my vocation. I had never said to myself explicitly that I wanted to be a pickle entrepreneur, but this is where I found myself.
From Hobby to Business
A hobby is one thing, but a business, especially a first business, is something else entirely. And since my experience with the business of food was slight to say the least, I joined forces with Lauren McGrath, a friend with 20 years of professional culinary experience, and set out to commercialize my hobby. My kitchen's stovetop stockpot soon gave way to a 60-gallon steam kettle, and we experienced a number of enlightenments as we learned how to use a pH meter and became certified in acidified food preparation.
Some of the things that were fun about pickling as a hobby proved to be inefficient and costly in the business world. We discovered that those quaint etched-glass squared-off Mason jars didn't roll right in a labeling machine and had to be labeled by hand. No problem, we said, for the first 3,000 jars. But by jar 3,001, we were ready to switch to a less-detailed round jar that could be labeled by a machine. The business imperative led us to make a choice to use packaging that lacked the artisanal aesthetics of the original but was tremendously more efficient. As I had found in my earlier life in TV, there are dozens of choices you make every day between what will be better for the production and what will be better for the budget. It's a constant balancing act.
As my business developed, I continued to find areas that overlapped with my previous career. When you're a director, there's always a certain amount of cajoling and persuasion that goes into making the day's work a success: getting an actress to feel comfortable in a tiny red dress while she says silly promotional copy or rallying the crew to work an extra 30 minutes before lunch because the sunlight is perfect now for the shoot. You learn to pick your battles because those triumphs have to show up on the screen.
In the pickle business, the cajoling has to influence the quality of the product or translate into sales. In the business's early days, I was able to convince friends to show up at the market at 5:30 a.m. in a torrential rainstorm to help set up a tent, to drive 150 miles to get premium okra to the facility in time for production—and more important, to give up their weekends to be my demo people and hand out samples for customers in stores across the country. My friends were tremendously helpful and I made sure that their contributions really counted.
Branding was another area where I was able to draw on my experience in TV to good effect. Our small startup could not afford fancy ad campaigns, so we had to make sure the label would communicate the Rick's Picks brand identity with crystal clarity. I talked with various food packagers and other designers who'd worked with quality brands in different industries.
What I was after was a look that brought together a sense of the time-honored pleasures of home-canning and the contemporary flavor profiles of the pickles. And I wanted something unique and memorable. I ended up hiring Stiletto, a video and print design firm I had worked with at VH1 (VIA). They intuitively got what I was after and rendered it beautifully. Their background made them an unconventional choice, but I just trusted my instinct and acted on it. In a larger sense, it's what guided me to pickles in the first place.
In turning my hobby into a thriving business I was certainly able to draw on existing skills. But I've developed new ones, too. Film and TV projects have a definite rhythm of beginning, middle, and end: writing, shooting, editing. You can dole out your energy against that timeline. Small business, be it selling pickles, sunglasses, or widgets, rolls on continuously. It's never over. There's never a moment that mirrors the closure you get when editing is complete. This sense of open-endedness is fresh and exciting when the business is new, but when things are no longer fresh, that's when you really need to be tough-minded.
The good news is if you make it that far, you've built a sample set of experience and data you can use to make good business decisions. I never thought my life's calling would be about cucumbers, label machines, and 10-kilo boxes of all-natural wasabi powder, but I know I'm right where I'm supposed to be.
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