In Brooklyn, artisanal pickles are a little like mixologist cocktail bars and beards — which is to say, hip and trendy in a purposely not-too-mainstream way.
But co-founder Bob McClure insists he and his brother, Joe, were not thinking about the “foodie movement” or trying to tap into trends when they decided to launch a small-batch pickle company.
“I have a cultural attachment and a familial attachment to something I’ve been doing for a long time,” he told me by phone recently. “It started when we were kids making the product with our parents and grandparents back in Michigan.”
Besides harkening back to their roots, making pickles from their grandmother’s traditional recipe, the McClure brothers started their pickle business for supremely practical reasons.
Bob McClure is a Brooklyn-based actor who had long supported himself with a series of temp jobs. Joe McClure is a classical musician who got his doctorate in physiology, but still knew something about the instability of the creative lifestyle.
“We started a business as part of making a lifestyle for ourselves,” Bob McClure said. “I wanted to have something more in my control … and to have that be something I love.”
McClure recalled that he made a few batches of pickles in 2006, and people suggested they were good enough to sell. At first he said no way, but thought about it a bit more before calling his brother, living in their native Detroit, to feel him out about going into business together.
They got a big assist when Bob McClure happened to meet the founders of the Brooklyn Kitchen just before they opened their now wildly popular store, and they offered to carry McClure’s Pickles. The New York Times wrote about the opening of Brooklyn Kitchen, and subsequently wrote about McClure’s, and “that launched the company,” McClure recalled.
Now they’ve grown to 15 employees, a mix of full and part timers.
One of the first things that prompted me to taste McClure’s pickles was their labels, which declare them as based in Detroit and Brooklyn. How could a native Michigander living in Brooklyn resist?
Bob manages accounts and research and development from Brooklyn, while Joe runs the factory in Detroit. The split keeps Bob close to acting work, which he continues, and puts McClure’s largest real estate demands in the obviously cheaper location.
Besides creating jobs for themselves, Bob McClure said he enjoys getting to work with his brother. It keeps them close across the distance.
McClure’s recently began running an ad created by Team Detroit with the headline, “When is a jar of pickles like a mansion on the hill?” It speaks to the McClure’s business philosophy, which includes hand packing its pickles rather than using a machine, which is cheaper.
“… a pickle is still just a pickle, right? Yes, and a house is just a house. Though you would never pay the same price for a stinky tar-paper swamp shack as you would for a gabbled and Jacuzzied Georgian palace, would you?” the ad says in part.
“It’s not just another pickle,” McClure said. “We believe in the integrity of the product.”
He said as a small producer, they can’t compete with the lower prices of the corporate food producers that can use their massive scale to outbid little guys.
Instead, McClure’s looks to cut costs where possible without losing quality.
For example, when they began buying vinegar in industrial quantities, that reduced their vinegar pricing by about 30 percent — which helped them get their overall costs low enough to enlist distributors, which look for prices about 30 percent below wholesale.
Keeping an eye on costs is important because the final price consumers see after distributor and retail mark up can’t be so high they simply choose another pickle, McClure noted. So if they can maintain quality while offering lower prices to retailers, they hope that will mean increased sales.
Because of his time as a temp, McClure said he went into entrepreneurship pretty confident in his office skills. But McClure’s got a boost from Columbia Business School students who helped them with free consulting, including analyzing their cost structure and determining what price they had to charge to make money.
As McClure’s has grown, the brothers have looked for new products to add to their line up.
They started with pickles, then relish. As a way to help customers get the most value from their purchase, they told people to save the brine and add it to bloody marys. Eventually they created their own bloody mary mix incorporating pickle juice.
The most recent addition is pickle-flavored potato chips, inspired by a tweet that said something like, “I’d like a Better Made potato chip and McClure’s pickle merged into one.” Someone at Detroit-based Better Made saw the comment on Twitter and called McClure’s to pursue the idea.
McClure said he’d love to add curried sauerkraut to the product lineup but hasn’t had time to make that a reality yet.
But even as the pickle company grows, Bob McClure remains committed to acting. He’s shooting a film called The Brass Teapot, and calls acting “an important part of my life.”
He likes the balance — he says the time between acting gigs is unpredictable and he enjoys having the consistency of the pickle business in between.
And his castmates benefit, too. McClure recently took pickles to the set of Brass Teapot to share.
Another example of how Bob McClure blends acting and pickles is this sassy McClure’s ad on YouTube:
Blogging disclosure: I am rarely unbiased about anything I write about. Think of Newvine Growing as my version of Oprah’s favorite things. In the case of McClure’s, I did not receive any freebies prior to writing this piece, but Bob did send a lovely thank you gift of pickles and chips after publication. I heartily endorse McClure’s pickles for snacking and as a never-fail hangover cure.