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Pittsburgh’s Pickle Craze: How the city’s relishing the past and future of pickles

By Lauren Clouser

The owner of Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for pickle cotton candy. Wigle Whiskey created over 30 tests before finally getting the right combination for their pickle-flavored spirit. And, most famously, Pittsburgh is home to a three-day festival dedicated entirely to pickles.

Since the time of H.J. Heinz, Pittsburgh has seen a creative burst of pickle products, which include a pickle sorbet and a brand of pickles that bares the city’s name.

“I think people in Pittsburgh have this thing with pickles; I don’t know what it is,” Chris Beers, founder of Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop, said.

A HISTORPICKLE LOOK AT PITTSBURGH’S PICKLE CRAZE:

Over the years, Heinz has integrated itself into Pittsburgh’s culture; the city holds Heinz Hall and Heinz Stadium, and Pittsburghers today still sport Heinz pickle stickers and pins.

Emily Ruby, a curator at the Heinz History Center, believes that the Heinz company is part of the reason for Pittsburgh’s love of all things pickle.

“Probably a combination of a large German background, but I think the pickle pin, it being so tied to Pittsburgh because of the Heinz Company and all that stuff obviously is probably the biggest reason behind all that,” Ruby said.

H.J. Heinz started his company from the ground up. As a young boy he began selling vegetables from his mother’s garden and eventually began to make his own products in 1869, starting with horseradish. Within the first few years of production, Heinz started making pickles as well.

One of the exhibits in the museum is a pickle sizer that Heinz salesman would use to display the different sizes of Heinz pickles. Heinz controlled the sizes of the pickles in the barrels in order to make sure that each jar was equally filled.

“When you read about him he’s a little bit of a control freak, it seems,” Ruby said.  “He definitely had a hand in every part of the business, he designed the bottles, he designed the labels, he knew exactly how he wanted the salesman to market the product, he wrote the recipes, he helped design the building and the factory.”

H.J. Heinz was also famous for his marketing campaigns. One of his most successful was the Heinz pickle pin, which originated at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair when Heinz noticed that no one was coming to the second floor of their building to look at his products.

He began advertising that each visitor would receive a free gift: a pickle charm.

“So at first it’s a charm not a pin, it turns into a pin later down the road but in the 1890s it’s a charm that you would put on a watch or a bracelet,” Ruby said.

Shortly thereafter, the floor was flooded with visitors and Heinz was given an award for drawing in so many people.

Since then, pickle pins have become synonymous with Pittsburgh and are still being given out today; the Heinz History Center gives away free pickle pins to visitors who take the stairs.

PITTSBURGH’S PECULIAR PICKLE PRODUCTS:

Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop offers a wide array of pickle candies and gifts. Photo by Lauren Clouser


With the Picklesburgh festival comes a plethora of pickle-flavored oddities like pickle cotton candy, a pickle spirit and pickle sorbet.

Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop is a whimsical mix of unique candies and nostalgia. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays on a loop in the back of the shop, and the shelves are stocked with unique candies and gifts like “unbearably hot cinnamon bears” or iron-on patches of cats. Chris Beers opened Grandpa Joe’s in 2012 and has since opened six different locations, soon to be seven.

It’s the perfect sort of place to have all kinds of pickle flavored items; the shop sells pickle mints, pickle candy canes, pickle air fresheners and even pickle soda.

“I think that the pickle craze has been going for some time and you’ve always got to add a new and interesting twist to it,” Beers said.

Grandpa Joe’s received national attention from several major news networks in 2017 for selling pickle flavored soda.

“We didn’t invent the pickle flavored soda but we found that product from a manufacturer and brought it in because Pittsburgh has this weird obsession with pickles,” Beers said.

Pickle flavored soda is one of Grandpa Joe’s many unique soda flavors. Photo by Lauren Clouser.

The product was a huge seller. Beers brought the pickle soda to Picklesburgh in 2017 and said he sold about 2,500 bottles in only two days. The success inspired Beers to create his own pickle flavored sweet for Picklesburgh 2018.

“That encouraged us, seeing the results of that, I wanted to come up with something new for this year’s pickle festival, so I invented pickle-flavored cotton candy,” Beers said.

Beers said the idea came to him in the middle of the night.

“In the middle of the night it just came to me and I said ‘that’s it.’ And then I couldn’t sleep for three days until I could figure out a way to make it work,” Beers said.

Beers went on to say he chose cotton candy because he was inspired by the festival atmosphere and because cotton candy typically did well in his stores.

The end result is a cotton candy that starts out sweet and turns into a dill pickle flavor as it dissolves.

“Some people really love cotton candy, some people don’t, and when you throw the pickle mix into it but they’re really not quite sure what to expect,” Beers said. “But it’s good it’s sweet, it’s dill it’s kind of this weird thing going on in your mouth.”

Beers brought the light green cotton candy to Picklesburgh this year and was again met with success.

“At that event we sold over 2,500 tubs of pickle flavored cotton candy and people were really, really excited,” Beers said.

Beers also sold his pickle cotton candy to other businesses. He continues to sell both pickle soda and pickle cotton candy year round in his stores and is planning on a new pickle flavored item for next year’s Picklesburgh.

“I haven’t told anyone, I haven’t told my wife, I haven’t told my kids, I haven’t told anybody, but next year we’re going to have something that’s even more mind blowing than the pickle soda and the pickle cotton candy,” Beers said.

Grandpa Joe’s pickle-flavored cotton candy.  Photo by Lauren Clouser

Beer’s unorthodox pickle soda and cotton candy are just a part of the pickle flavored oddities in Pittsburgh. Wigle Whiskey’s Eau de Pickle, a pickle-flavored spirit, is another result of the Picklesburgh festival.

As the distillery began to develop the spirit Michael Foglia, the head of product development and innovation, said there was constant doubt if the product would succeed.

“The whole time you’re developing it you’re like well we’re getting closer, it’s more balanced, but this overarching questions of ‘do people want a pickle spirit?’ Nobody really makes these, they’re not really popular, there might be a reason for that,” Foglia said.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership approached Wigle Whiskey in the winter of 2018 to see if they would make a pickle flavored spirit for Picklesburgh, and Wigle Whiskey accepted the challenge. Foglia said they started with a pickle vodka before deciding on a pickle spirit instead.

Foglia said they went through 30-40 test versions. Developers polled customers and local bartenders and finally found a mixture that worked.

“Basically we took the idea for gin and subbed out juniper and orange peel and those really nice gin flavors and we put in pickle flavors, so dill, mustard, coriander,” Foglia said.

Wigle Whiskey debuted ‘Eau de Pickle’ at the 2018 Picklesburgh, and it became their fastest selling product. Wigle Whiskey made 800 bottles and sold 611 bottles within four weeks.

“If you were to look there’s never been a product that we sold in four weeks more than 500 bottles, so it sticks out like a sore thumb in our data because it’s an anomaly,” Foglia said.

Foglia said the development team was surprised by the results.

“I don’t think anybody, I might have been the only person that felt like this is going to work out really well, most people were cautiously optimistic,” Foglia said, “I don’t think anybody was going to say out loud this is a 100% slam dunk, the world is waiting for Eau de Pickle.”

Foglia said there are still a few bottles left, and they can still be purchased outside of Picklesburgh.

For those who were looking to cool down during the festival, Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream developed three different flavors specifically for Picklesburgh. Millie’s offered pickled ginger ice cream and vanilla ice cream with pickled cherries, and for the more adventurous they offered a bread and butter pickle sorbet.

“The bread and butter pickle sorbet, that was kind of our nod to the pickle extremists out there because it was basically comparable to just eating frozen pickle juice,” said Melissa Horst, Millie’s retail operations manager.

To make the sorbet, Horst said they bought cucumbers and made bread and butter pickles, and then used the pickling juice to turn into the sorbet.

“The flavor development came together fairly quickly. They had to tweak things a bit with the sorbet, just to kind of get the balance of flavor that they wanted,” Horst said.

Horst said in the future, they would most likely change the bread and butter flavor to a dill flavor.

“Bread and butter was kind of a shocking flavor and I think if we were to do anything differently we would do it as a dill next year simply because there’s apparently a lot of people out there who don’t like sweet pickles as much as they love the sour ones,” Horst said.

A PITTSBURGH-BRANDED PICKLE:

Pittsburgh even has a brand of pickles that bears the city’s name. The Pittsburgh Pickle Company started in 2014 when Joe Patterson and his two brothers couldn’t find suitable pickles to deep fry for their bar, they decided to make some of their own.

“We tried cutting up other people’s pickles and deep frying them and they were gross, so not knowing what we were getting ourselves into we decided to start making our own pickles,” Patterson said.

Patterson and his brothers Will Patterson and Joe Robl own the BeerHive in the Strip District. Its patrons liked the pickles so much the owners began to start jarring their pickles to sell, and the Pittsburgh Pickle Company was born.

All three were fairly new to the restaurant industry; Joe Patterson had previously owned a video production company, his brother Will was a CPA and Joe was an accountant. Patterson said the three became tired of their jobs and decided to open a bar about seven and a half years ago during the rising popularity of craft beer.

Because none of the brothers had a restaurant background, the trio used trial and error to create the recipe for their pickles.

“People always ask is it an old family recipe and I always say we got it from Grandma Google,” Patterson said.

Patterson began looking for a space for pickle production and settled on a church in Verona.

“The church I belong to had a pretty large kitchen space that was underutilized, so I talked to them about us starting production there,” Patterson said. “And they were all for it they loved the idea…My wife and I were married there, so it was really nice to be able to get the company started in that way and really special.”

As production expanded, the Pittsburgh Pickle Company took a short move into what used to be the production center for Victor Ravioli, a pasta company. The Pittsburgh Pickle Company started with their Pittsburgh Style pickle, which is salty and sweet.

“Since we didn’t know what we were doing and assumed there’s no rules we made a salty and sweet pickle and kind of turned it into something that wasn’t like anything else, we wanted to make it be unique and just different than anything else on the market,” Patterson said.

From there they made a classic garlic and dill pickle, and a hot and smokey pickle called Fire and Smoke. They also recently released a bread and butter pickle.

The crew consists of the three brothers and an assistant who work to make a batch of about 720 jars a week, depending on the demand.

“We’re always extremely busy to say the least,” Patterson said.

The company worked to get their products on the shelves of Giant Eagle.

“The only way it’s going to ever generate any kind of money is if we’re in the grocery stores so before we even got into any mom and pop shops we just went right to Giant Eagle first and said ‘hey, do you want them?’ And they said yes,” Patterson said.

The Pittsburgh Pickle Company’s current products. Photo by Lauren Clouser.

Patterson said the decision to include the name Pittsburgh in the company was for the alliteration, and as a reference to Heinz.

“Heinz was here at one point, they’re no longer here and they were kind of famous for pickles, so to fill that void it’s kind of hard not to name the company after the city,” Patterson said.

A ‘PICKLED’ PICKLE

The Pittsburgh Pickle Company isn’t the only pickling business in town. The Pickled Chef, a Latrobe-based business, started when Greg Andrews began pickling the surplus vegetables that people brought him.

“I had people bringing me products at the end of the year from their gardens asking me if I could help them figure out what to do with them, and I started pickling some of their stuff,” Andrews said. “Basically it was in return for keeping a couple of jars I would do it for them.”

Andrews, his wife and mother-in-law own The Pickled Chef, a restaurant that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches. Andrews began keeping some of the jars behind the bar for decoration and soon restaurant patrons began asking to purchase the jars and Andrews decided to capitalize on it.

Andrews brought seven or eight different pickle products to the Ligonier Country Market and sold nearly all of the jars they had made.

“I had spent weeks trying to develop recipes and trying to produce products, and all of a sudden I’m done. So I had to scramble for next week to sort of replicate and produce more products just to be able to continue this during the summer and really build on it,” Andrews said.

Andrews began making different products and eventually attended the first year of Picklesburgh and sold about 1,200 jars.

Now Pickled Chef products are sold at limited markets like Shenot Farms, farmer’s markets and Heirloom Superfood Market in the Strip District in addition to the restaurant in Latrobe.

Currently, the Pickled Chef sells six different varieties of pickles. The flavors include sour dill, bread and butter, bloody mary, IPA, mustard and whiskey.

“We’re trying to do the pickled ‘pickle chef’ lens,” Andrews said. “We’re trying to have some have some items that actually have brine and alcohol in them.”

Andrews said the latest flavors, the IPA and bloody mary pickles, were very well received.

“I think what we’re doing now either the IPA or the bloody mary pickles, they’re different,” Andrews said. “The hoppy flavor from the IPA really adds interesting flavor to the cucumber and to the bloody mary, it’s sort of marinating it. It’s made of sauce instead of a straight vinegar.”

The Pickled Chef also holds workshops to show people how to pickle their own produce, which is something Andrews believes is a lasting trend.

“I think it’s going to stay, I think there’s people that are rediscovering pickling their own products and doing their own fermented items,” Andrews said.

PICKLING IS PICKING UP:

A project that is trying to continue the momentum of the pickling trend is the Pittsburgh Urban gardening project.

Brett Wilbs started the project in 2013 out of concern for the nation’s health. Inspired by the victory gardens of WWII, the project is an educational nonprofit that helps Pittsburghers to lead healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.

The project has three different gardens in which it grows produce, some of which they sell at a weekly farmers market from June to October. The project partners with local high schools to educate students about sustainability and to allow them to volunteer in the gardens. Wilbs also holds preserving lessons to those interested.

“We just try to teach people how to be more sustainable in their day to day lives,” Wilbs said. “So growing backyard vegetables and every step of that process from seeding them to planting them from fertilizing them to harvesting them and then preserving them.”

Wilbs said part of the project is also beneficial to those with a lower income.

“If you plant a tomato plant, a seed packet of tomatoes costs you two dollars and you get fifty pounds of tomatoes off of a tomato plant if you do it well, whereas if you bought those tomatoes fresh at a grocery store you’d spend well over $100 to buy all those tomatoes,” Wilbs said.

Wilbs said that preservation, which includes pickling, can help extend the lifespan of produce and can also help economically.

“The preservation process of that kind of takes it a step further where your fifty pounds of tomatoes comes in a two month span,” Wilbs said. “If you actually want to stretch the consumption of those tomatoes out over the course of the rest of the year the only way you can really do that is to preserve them in some way, and that’s either freezing them or canning them.”

Wilbs said there are two types of pickling: cold pickling and shelf stable pickling. Shelf stable pickling preserves produce for a longer period of time, so that’s largely what Wilbs teaches. Wilbs said the process is time consuming, and that discourages many people.

Regardless, Wilbs said the high school students he works with seem to have an interest in preserving, sustainability and urban gardening.

“So that’s what’s interesting to me about it, the kids that are looking to go to college and actually study sustainability, I think young people are starting to realize that there is a true, there’s an issue with the number of aging farmers and young people are coming in to take their place,” Wilbs said.

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

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