In just four years, these artisanal pickled-fruit products have gone from a restaurant recipe to selling at Zingerman’s and Murray’s Cheese to becoming a sofi Silver Finalist in 2012. It’s been anything but an overnight success, though. Here’s how a snack served at a Seattle restaurant became an award-winning national product line.

by Deborah Moss

In 1999, when Renee Erickson first tasted pickled preserves while traveling in France in her mid-20s, it was a revelation. “It wasn’t a traditional American pickle. It was a conserve that was served with pâté in a jar in the south of France—something I’d never had. More savory than sweet,” explains the chef, restaurateur and owner of Boat Street Pickles in Seattle. “There was a pickled plum that I loved.”

That discovery inspired the pickled condiments that became a regular accompaniment to the dishes Erickson made at Boat Street Cafe, the restaurant where she worked her way through college and which she purchased in 1998.

“The drive was to make condiments to accent savory things: charcuterie, roast meats,” she says. “I loved the ways tart, sour things went with rich dishes. The flavors complemented savory foods and made them bright.” Over the past 16 years, Erickson has pickled countless ingredients, from walnuts to beef tongue, to pair with her creations at Boat Street Cafe.

In 2008, what started as an experiment in her 100-square-foot restaurant kitchen turned into a new business when she jarred her delicious compotes and founded Boat Street Pickles. Here, Erickson shares how the business got off the ground to become a specialty success story.

Finding Shoppers in Restaurant Patrons

“My education is in art—zero culinary school training. But I traveled a lot, and in my travels I discovered amazing foods,” says the chef who, on top of the pickle business, now owns three restaurants.

When Boat Street Cafe’s owner wanted to sell, Erickson jumped at the opportunity. Having worked at the restaurant in roles from server to lead line cook, the young chef had just begun experimenting with pickling, and found it a great way to preserve foods that couldn’t be kept year-round, a tactic she still employs today. “All our restaurant produce is local,” she says. “We just did 40 pounds of chanterelles that are in season [in the fall]. By preserving them, we can have them through February.”

Though she can’t specifically recall the first thing she pickled, Erickson does remember the trial and error. “We’ve had tons of duds. Apples blow up. All sorts of curious things happen,” she explains. “The process is kind of aggressive, so some fruits don’t work.” But those that did worked so well that customers wanted to buy them to take home. “We realized there wasn’t much like that in the market, so it was an opportunity to make something unique in the specialty food world.”

Business Stats

Current number of products: 4

Distribution: Sold in roughly 20 states and more than 100 stores.

Advertising: All word of mouth with some in-store demos.

Biggest challenge: Finding a like-minded co-packer.

Biggest mistake: Printing too many labels without understanding all the information that had to be included.

Biggest break: Getting in Zingerman’s the first year. That led to being in Murray’s Cheese Shop, which led to many other retail accounts.

Making Key Choices

By the time Erickson was ready to move forward with the business, she had experimented enough to know which varieties she wanted to sell, how she wanted to package them and which ingredients would provide the quality she demanded.

Ingredients. Erickson started with pickled plums, figs, raisins and red onions. As a chef, she already had strong connections in the food world. “We had all our food connections in place from the restaurant, so that made it much easier,” she says. All dried fruits came from a California farm. “We tried to get plums from eastern Washington [to source locally], but they didn’t have the bulk we needed.”

That’s still the case for Boat Street Pickles today. “Our volume has increased dramatically, so we buy more bulk and now work directly with the farmers,” Erickson says. “It’s great to have a relationship with the person who grows the food.”

Packaging. Influenced by French aesthetic, Erickson envisioned an old French country look: a slightly Provencal, almost handmade label. “I have a friend who designed the labels for us. I wanted them to be unique and beautiful,” she says. “I didn’t want them to look like other things in the market—not so shiny and bright.”

The label has changed many times in the past four years to include different information in various markets, such as adding a bar code to get into bigger stores on the East Coast, as well as adding a nutrition label. One of the company’s early missteps was printing a large volume of labels without completely understanding what needed to be on them, and being stuck with extra labels when they discontinued a product. Conveying the vision for the packaging while accommodating practicalities proved challenging. “How can we hold to our aesthetic and remain true to our original ideas but make necessary changes as we expand?” she recalls wondering.

Pricing. Erickson had some help from a friend she hired as a consultant who had experience in the specialty food business. “The grocery business was so different than anything I knew,” she says. The consultant helped Erickson price her pickles by factoring in the costs, from labor to storage. The average suggested retail price is around $9, though it can run higher on the East Coast. Erickson notes that because they are so different from other pickles she doesn’t compare their prices to other pickled products. “On other special condiment items, we are right in line,” she says.

Going National from the Get-Go

Boat Street Pickles effectively hit the ground running when it was ready for store shelves, as distribution offers came naturally—and quickly.

“We started nationally,” remembers Erickson, whose very first retail client was DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine in Seattle. “The consultant I hired knew Zingerman’s. He took the pickles with him and Ari Weinzweig picked them up for his catalog (raisin and plums). That was the best thing that could have happened.”

In 2008 the products arrived at Zingerman’s Delicatessen, and in 2009 they were picked up by Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York. “They are a benchmark for specialty food,” Erickson says of the decades-old institution. “Since Murray’s picked us up, every cheese shop opening or looking for European-type products calls us.”

While demand was high, Erickson was cautious about where she could sell her product while being realistic about how much her team—which at any given time might include her mom, dad, herself and one other staff member—could produce. “We didn’t seek customers,” she says, explaining that word of mouth was their only marketing. “We wanted to support the customers we had before seeking new ones.”

Erickson’s foodservice background continued to help. Boat Street quickly found a distributor in Oregon (then called Provista, which recently sold). “As a restaurateur and chef, I had a lot of experience buying for the restaurant and experience with the type of distributor I wanted,” she explains. “I wanted to work with people who cared about food. People who loved something and get behind it to sell it.”

Brand Time Line

2008: Launches business from Boat Street Cafe’s 100-square-foot kitchen; launches website same year; Zingerman’s Delicatessen begins selling

2009: Joins NASFT; Murray’s Cheese Shop begins selling; exhibits at the Winter Fancy Food Show

2012: Becomes sofi Silver Finalist for Outstanding Condiment with Pickled Figs; finds co-packer

Growing Pains

For the first two years after starting the business, Erickson’s team pickled in the restaurant kitchen after the consultant helped them get USDA organic certification. “We took a class to have the restaurant kitchen certified. Without having a kitchen, I don’t know if any of this would have been possible,” Erickson admits.

She could be found pickling on Sundays and Mondays and in the early mornings before the restaurant opened. “It was nice to be able to make small batches, but exhausting. We were heaving hot, boiling things and hand-filling the jars,” she says. “We were able to be careful about the quality.”

As the business grew, Erickson’s time was limited because she was still running the restaurant. Her parents became more involved in the pickle business so she could balance her work. Her mother, Shirlee, a retired bookkeeper, came out of retirement to handle the business and accounting sides of Boat Street Pickles, while her father began (and continues) to help with management, demos and shipping.

Even with her parents’ help, Erickson knew she needed to find a separate facility to make her pickles. “To make them in the restaurant was great, but labeling by hand, cleaning by hand, storing by hand and shipping from there was not going to be possible,” she says. “But we kept coming up with road blocks when we tried to find a facility to make the pickles to our specifications.”

This would be a challenge for years. “It’s difficult to find someone who will make your product the way you want rather than the way they want it made—the easiest way,” she says. “Our biggest hurdle has been with the available machinery. It only allows certain things to go through it; hydraulic pumps pump liquids and measure into jars on a conveyor belt. We don’t do onions any more because the co-packer we worked with wouldn’t hand-fill the jars and we couldn’t keep up with packaging by hand.”

A Serendipitous Meeting

After issues with control over ingredients and production quality with yet another co-packer, Erickson made a connection last year at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Across from her booth was a co-packer, Dundee Fruit Company from McMinnville, Ore. “They were fantastic. He’s a retired attorney who makes interesting preserved fruit in the Willamette Valley. They use an older set of machines, which is great for us,” she says of the 2,000-square-foot McMinnville facility where her line is now produced.

“Our pickles have a lot of sugar and vinegar. There’s a specific time we need to cook them or they will burn,” Erickson explains. “In his facility we can stop the machines at the right texture and consistency. We’re super happy with the new co-packer. That’s finally allowed us to increase our production without sacrificing quality. We’re now ready to reach out to get more customers.”

Professional Assessment: What You Can Learn from boat street pickles

Food and beverage marketing expert Tammy Katz of Katz Marketing Solutions in Columbus, Ohio, evaluates some of Boat Street Pickles’ strategies and discusses ways other companies can strengthen their own brands.

Build and Maintain Superiority: Boat Street Pickles was inspired by and translated an exceptional French product to a superior, unique line of artisanal pickled products. The business was tireless in developing the optimal formulations, product specifications, quality and consistency to ensure that consumers have a great brand experience, every time.

What You Should Do: Ensure that you have a truly superior product experience for the consumer. Make sure your products’ taste, flavor, mouthfeel, aroma and visual appeal are consistently better than your competitors’. Confirm this with actual consumers on an ongoing basis. Do not rely entirely on biased internal evaluation.

Maintain a Focused Line: Boat Street Pickles specializes in a very narrow assortment of exceptional, profitable products, rather than an overly broad, complex line of products. Building strong demand on a narrower line yields higher volume per SKU, per facing and per store—a more profitable business model.

What You Should Do: Keep building demand and consumer preference for your core business with continued product improvements and marketing support. Monitor velocity (sales per point of distribution) on each core item to measure consumer pull—not just total sales, which may be increasing solely due to distribution gains. Ensure new products are sufficiently different and more profitable than your base business, so you are not merely cannibalizing current sales or reducing the profitability of your line.

Get Packaging Right the First Time: After a few common startup misses, Boat Street Pickles now has a packaging graphics system that reinforces the brand’s intended French-country and artisanal personality.

What You Should Do: Always work with an experienced food and beverage packaging design firm, not a graphic design generalist, to ensure that you get it right the first time and avoid unnecessary redesigns, reprints or recalls. Food packaging is not merely a design; it is often your primary communication to the consumer and has many retail and regulatory requirements. Work with your design team to clarify your communication priorities, considering the relative importance of key elements such as the brand name, product description, flavor, product features, romance copy and regulatory requirements.

Food and beverage brand marketing expert, Tammy Katz, CEO of Katz Marketing Solutions, has led numerous Fortune 500 and specialty food brands from concept through global expansion. She has launched more than 100 new products with cumulative sales of $2 billion. Katz serves on the board of directors of several food companies and is adjunct instructor of brand management at the Fisher College of Business MBA Program at The Ohio State University.

Future Plans

Today, Boat Street Pickles still offers only four types of pickles, including the original Plums, Raisins and Figs. Because Erickson could not find a way to make pickled red onions without hand-packing them, she added a chutney-inspired Apricot with Toasted Curry to the lineup.

“Now we have a better idea of what will be possible to process. We’ve been making apricots for 10 years in the restaurant. I knew they would move easily through the machinery into the jar,” she explains of the decision. Pickled Figs is Boat Street’s best seller and earned sofi Silver Finalist status for Outstanding Condiment last year. “It’s a curious product for a lot of people, but they will try the figs. Perhaps they think of them as sweet and decadent so they’re more likely to try.”

Boat Street now sells to more than 100 retailers in roughly 20 states and has distributors in Chicago, California, Georgia, Oregon and Washington. Soon, Murray’s Cheese will become the company’s East Coast distributor. In her first year as a supplier, Erickson sold 350 jars of Boat Street Pickles products; in 2012, sales reached 25,000. The staff though, remains small; in addition to her father and mother, Erickson hires only occasionally for odd jobs.

With growth comes new challenges. “The faster you grow, the more you have to spend on making products,” says the restaurateur, who now co-owns a new Seattle restaurant, The Whale Wins, which opened in 2012, and is in the process of opening a food truck catering company called Narwhal this year. “I find myself asking, Are we really going to spend $25,000 on pickled figs?”

There is the added challenge of ingredient availability. “If you start a business like this, you don’t expect it to be easy or a straight line. You’re going to bump into hurdles that will make you change your mind. When you have people praise your product, you think, I’ll make this product and sell it,” she explains. “You don’t think about weather and all the issues farmers have. In restaurants if you can’t get carrots, you buy turnips. You can’t do that if you’re making pickled plums and there’s a bad plum season.”

But even with the challenges, Erickson remains as enamored of pickling as she was nearly 20 years ago when she tasted that first pickled plum in France. Her passion for a high-quality product is what drives her future business strategy.

“Part of what I love about pickling is how it changes the texture of things. One of my favorite things is pickled watermelon flesh. It almost turns into jelly—it’s so unlike a regular watermelon,” she says. While she is hoping to find a way to add pickled watermelon to her line, and she would love to bring back pickled onions, beyond experimenting with a few new options, Erickson is content growing slowly. “We’re not going to try to have 20 items,” she concedes. “We want to stay small and grown sustainably.”