Some entrepreneurs think outside the box, but Nicholas T. Horman Jr. thinks outside the barrel — the pickle barrel, that is.
Horman is a third-generation pickle maker and founder of Horman’s Best Pickles, the specialty arm of Glen Cove-based Allen Pickle Works. Horman’s products — which include jalapeño pickles and a pickle-juice Bloody Mary mix — are sold at farmer’s markets and street stands as well as online.
He started the endeavor in 2003 to earn extra money for college, selling at a handful of farmer’s markets. Today Horman’s sells about 250,000 pounds of specialty pickles a year at more than 30 farmer’s markets and street stands on Long Island and in New York City.
While that’s a hefty amount, it’s small in comparison to parent company Allen Pickle Works, which sells close to 50 million pounds of pickles a year through wholesale distribution under its own name and under private label for clients.
“Brine is in our blood,” says Horman, 33, whose late grandfather Joe started the family business in 1953.
Over the next couple of years, Nick Jr. and his cousin Ron Horman Jr. are in line to take over operations of Allen Pickle Works, which has been headed by Nick’s father, Nicholas R. Horman Sr., still a principal at the firm, and Nick’s late uncle, Ronald F. Horman, Ron Jr.’s father.
“They’re basically running it,” says Nick Sr., 71.
Back to the future
The two younger Hormans plan to open a storefront at Allen Pickle Works’ Glen Cove factory this spring or summer and sell pickles out of barrels just as their grandfather did and as Nick Jr. now does at farmer’s markets.
“More people are searching for pickles out of the barrel,” says Ron Jr., 32, who handles operations and sales at Allen Pickle Works.
But keeping pickles fresh in consumers’ minds is always a challenge, particularly in such a saturated market.
Pickles are a $1.1 billion retail industry in the United States, up 1.3 percent over last year, according to Washington, D.C.-based Pickle Packers International Inc.
Eye on innovation
When you’re selling such a common item, it takes some creativity to stand out.
With a commodity like pickles, “you need a lot of innovation and branding” to be competitive, says Phil Lempert, the Santa Monica, California-based founder of SupermarketGuru.com and editor of the Lempert Report, a daily food trend video report.
“I think you’ve got to have an eye on what trends are versus fads, and talk to consumers,” says Lempert.
Nick Jr. gets instant feedback on his varieties from farmer’s markets.
“The best kind of R & D is right in the field,” says Ron Jr.
Among the largest farmer’s markets Nick Jr. sells at are the McGolrick Park Farmers Market in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the Montauk Farmers Market, but both are seasonal. He has some year-round stands, including one at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Carmine Street in Manhattan’s West Village.
He now sells more than 15 varieties, including sweet Cajun and horseradish pickles, which are sold out of the barrel for $2 a pickle or $8 for a quart. He makes the specialty pickles at Allen in Glen Cove, getting cucumbers brought in year-round from different parts of the country and Mexico in the winter.
“I enjoy experimenting and trying different recipes,” says Nick Jr.
He also makes and sells specialty items like the Bloody Mary mix, a pickle salsa and pickled vegetables such as okra, string beans and peppers, in season.
That’s a good move, says Melissa Martin, president of Creative Island, wine and food marketing consultants in Baiting Hollow.
“The more they can expand their product line to reach different parts of the market, I think is great,” she says, adding they should also play up their local and historic roots.
“It really appeals to people,” she says.
Lempert cautions that they’ve got to make sure whatever flavors or varieties they sell are not too outrageous, otherwise they become “novelties.”
But more traditional pickles are still the heart and soul of their business and will remain so.
Nick Jr. and Ron Jr. introduced a jar line of pickles under the Horman’s Original brand into retail stores in 2011; they are now in more than 100 stores in the tristate area, says Ron Jr. They sell four varieties under the brand: kosher dill, half sour, garlic spears, and a sauerkraut, he says.
“We’re still picking up new distribution for conventional and specialty supermarkets,” he says.
And the storefront at their facility will serve as another distribution arm, where they are talking about doing pickle and beer pairings with a local brewery.
“We’re tossing around the idea of a hop pickle or beer-flavored pickle,” adds Nick Jr.
Nick Sr. has high hopes for the next generation to carry on the family legacy, but he has a piece of advice: “They have to be vigilant and out there. You can’t stand still in this business.”