October 7, 2013
Everything is going horribly wrong.
The shifting eyes and exasperated tones, among other omens, are giving me the sense that our hard-won peace is about to evaporate.
Sitting with me at a makeshift interview table in Detroit’s Eastern Market are Joe McClure, one of the founders of McClure’s Pickles, and David Klingenberger, founder and owner of The Brinery. We are discussing one of the main theaters of the Pickle Wars: brine.
“Our brine is different from David’s - its a vinegar based brine,” says McClure, “We use a white distilled vinegar, commercially made vinegars, and we dilute them down. Basically we make our brines out of salt, water, and vinegar in different ratios.”
There is a pause of forced politeness before Klingenberger responds.
“I almost consider vinegar a more dignified pickling process and [The Brinery] is more like, caveman pickling,” says Klingenberger. McClure’s nostrils flare and the vein in his forehead throbs. His eyes seem to be fixed on something distant. Klingenberger doesn’t notice and continues,
“Vinegar itself is a product of fermentation. With saltwater brine, we’re actually taking it back a step and letting that souring process happen naturally through bacterial fermentation, which is producing a lactic acid - that sourness - which also preserves the vegetables. It takes a little longer and there is a little less control over it but, again, its like the caveman of pickling. It’s a challenge that I’m excited to explore.”
At this point, several things happen in rapid succession. A gasp from our photographer behind me draws my attention to McClure, who grabs our bottle of Vlasic pickles and smashes it on the ground. The report of the shattering jar ricochets through the empty market, but there is no time to listen. In one swift action, McClure pushes back from the table, knocking his chair to the ground as his rage lifts him to his feet. He raises his palm and backhands Klingenberger across the face. A mixture of blood, saliva, and pickle juice splatters across the pavement as Klingenberger recoils.
October 7, 2013
32 Minutes Earlier
A cold October breeze sneaks through the empty sheds of Detroit’s Eastern Market, betraying summer in its final weeks of life. Every Saturday you will find roughly 45,000 Detroiters buzzing here as the weekly plot of Detroit’s largest farmer’s market unfolds.
A woman plays an accordion on a nearby street corner.
A young girl laughs from inside her red wagon, buried under carrots and kale, as her parents manoeuvre her around the legs of passing strangers.
The smell of fresh soil and coffee nudges its way through the crowd.
On the eastern edge of Shed 2, one of the cavernous open air shelters covering Eastern Market vendors, is the McClure’s Pickle booth. Giving out free pickle pieces has a pigeon effect; passersby anxiously gather to nab a sample. On the opposite side of Shed 2 sits the booth for The Brinery. Though it is less well-known and less Detroit (they are based in nearby Ann Arbor, MI), it is no less visited than its rival.
Eastern Market is vintage Detroit and draws many visitors from the suburbs as well as the city. People laugh as they stroll by the various booths - this local experience is gratifying, even relaxing. But they are all gravely mistaken. The tranquility is a visage, a mask covering something much darker. There is a war being fought here.
Today, though, there is nothing.
If there were a tumbleweed in Detroit, it would have just rolled across the pavement. It is Monday and the stalls are gone, but Jaunt has assembled a table in the middle of Shed 2. Neutral territory, we figured. The founders of these two pickle ventures have agreed to a temporary armistice to discuss tactics. The mood is tense; memories of war take no reprieve during a standstill.
The generals approach.
From the west walks Klingenberger and from the north comes McClure. They take their seats at the table and our photographer nervously snaps a few photos.
To establish common ground we first remind the two belligerents that it was neither of them who fired the first shot. That burden belongs to Frank Vlasic and his son Joe. Frank came to Detroit from Croatia in 1912 and opened a creamery. The creamery grew and other products, like pickles, were added to the mix. When his son Joe took over the business, he began packing his Polish pickles in glass jars, the first to do so in 1942, according to Vlasic Pickles. Joe opened his first plant in Imlay City, MI in 1959.
That plant is still the only Vlasic plant servicing the entire United States. According to the plant’s manager, Gary Lauber, in the peak of summer they receive 25 semi loads of cucumbers per day and can churn out 2 million cases per month. All of this to feed America’s craving for pickles, which is greater than 2.5 billion pounds per year. It is a figure that has grown from 2 pounds per person in 1933 to 8 pounds in 1974 to over 9 pounds today, according to Vlasic Pickles. We are all guilty.
Across Lake Michigan, 50 miles northwest of Chicago in Woodstock, IL, Claussen Pickles, founded in 1870, picks up most of the slack. Together these two firms dominate such a large share of the pickle market that in 2002 the Federal Trade Commission blocked an acquisition offer by Vlasic, stating that the transaction “would result in a dominant firm merging with its most significant competitor by far” and would have “anticompetitive consequences.”
Despite the Vlasic-Claussen empires, with America's growing appetite for pickles and it's equally growing appetite for "buy local," there is plenty of room for homegrown picklers like Klingenberger and McClure. So the war continues and spreads, spilling into local farmer’s markets, sandwich shops, and backyard barbecues.
Back at the negotiating table, we reveal two jars of Vlasic and Claussen pickles and invite Klingenberger and McClure to sample their mutual corporate opposition.
As they reach towards the pickle jars, I realize that even a shared enemy cannot bring such estranged foes any closer. As it turns out, Jaunt’s attempted olive branch was this encounter’s downfall.
October 7, 2013
2:33 PM [Present]
Our photographer’s wife, a now regrettable tag-along to the armistice meeting, screams when the pickle jar explodes on the cement. Our photographer rushes to her. I spring from my chair to hold back McClure, who is shouting obscenities like “soured turnip murderer” and “disgrace to the likes of cucumbers” while Klingenberger attempts to stand. In a misguided gesture to support himself, Klingenberger mistakenly plants his hand in the glass shards of the broken jar.
...I blink and snap back to reality.
McClure is still seated and smiling. Laughing, actually. McClure and Klingenberger are both laughing about one of the weird names Klingenberger has for his products.
“This is the worst named product we have,” explains Klingenberger while pointing to his pickled carrots, which are named Jape Kin Cod.
“I thought it referred to some sort of ancient Asian recipe or something?” says McClure, puzzled.
“No, no, this was my brother’s nickname as a kid. I was never a musician in a band, but I like naming things and I look at The Brinery as our band and each product is a different album. That’s the most random, horrible, and gibberish name hands down. [Joe laughs] The best name we have is Storm Cloud Zapper for our beet kraut and that’s the realm I like to be in because it sounds kind of weird but it rolls well. To me that’s the best name.”
Their banter is complimentary, their demeanors casual and jovial. Multiple pickle booths vying for sales in Eastern Market should be a war, but it is not.
When Jaunt first stumbled upon these entrepreneurs selling the same product in such close proximity, the obvious bend of the story was the “capitalist war” that raged between grinding competitors, each paddling for sales at the expense of the other. While the notion of a peace conference made for a great interview setting, it belies what actually took place at our Yalta in Eastern Market. Yes, McClure and Klingenberger do compete, but they are really just two enthusiastic pickle lovers of comic-book-fan-level ferocity and Jaunt had inadvertently created the first mini PICKLECON.
Despite a business relationship that seems more collaborative than competitive, this carnival has seen one casualty: Perkin’s Pickles, the so far unnamed third pickle stall at Eastern Market.
When Jaunt first began researching this story in August, 2013, Perkin’s Pickles had a booth right across from McClure’s. Less than 15 ft. away from one another, this was true trench warfare. Their booth has been absent from Eastern Market since mid-October and despite repeated attempts to contact them, they declined to participate in this story. However, the man who worked their now vacant stall at Eastern Market, Julius Aziz, agreed to tell us about his first time there.
By Julius Aziz
It’s just after seven in the morning on a Saturday and I’m standing behind a folding table at Eastern Market in Detroit, Michigan. It’s my first time here as a vendor and I’m watching all of the other vendors put the final touches on their booths.
My boss suggested that I set the jars of products in kind of a mini trough. I diverge from this plan and instead decide to make myself a pickle fortress. I take a case of each of our products and arrange them around the edge of the table starting from the cutting board my samples are on and out around the edge of the table. I prefer this pattern as it makes our product look immense and shiny and most people seem to enjoy immense and shiny. It’s also a pretty good look considering that the McClure’s pickle company is set up right across the walkway from me and they have stacks on stacks on stacks of stackers, spears, and pickle chips. By comparison the troughs are just plain wimpy.
To my right are two different jam companies, a goat cheese maker, and a couple of jerky folks. On my left there’s a pie company that makes both sweet and savory pies, a gluten free pastry company, a couple of salsa/dip/hummus people, and a lady who looks to be making chutney. That’s just on my side of the big open shed.
I’ve walked around the other side a bit and it’s a lot of the same stuff. Sure, there are farmers selling fruits and vegetables but most of the people on this side of the market are selling specialty goods.
Most of the vendors are pretty nice people, you’ll very rarely run into a vendor who is a jerk and I like that. Some of these people are folks I’ve known for years through previous jobs at other farmer’s markets and they laid out in advance what I should expect at this place. Eastern Market stands out from other open air markets because it’s a lot bigger than any other market in the area.
I stand and watch customers go table to table with their dogs, kids, friends, and spouses. When they get close, I call out “Would you like to try a pickle today?” I find that a lot of the people who move the most product move their bodies as well. Whether it’s moving your face into a smile or moving around as you dance while you speak, people seem to feel more comfortable when someone exudes kinetic energy.
So I stand with intent. Some people come and try and some just walk by, but none of them want to buy. I am starting to feel more and more morose as the potential customers escape. An hour goes by and no one’s purchased anything yet. It was then that I saw her. Neither of us knew it yet, but she would be my first customer. There are a lot of different ways to spend money at the market, so each sale is a success.
After she leaves, my day gets better and better. I remember that I’m good at this, and that I love talking to strangers. I forget how to be nervous and get to being productive. After a few hours, I notice that I’ve sold almost half of my stock while talking to a bevy of interesting people. One lady even took a video of me for a cooking show she says she does on local access television.
I still see that woman from time to time at the market. I don’t know her name. I have never told her that buying that jar from me was my inspiration. She will probably never know, I mean, I can’t imagine ever telling her now.
In the McClure household, pickling has always been a tradition. The family gathered around pickling, using a recipe handed down from McClure's grandmother. “Everyone liked ‘em, we handed them out as Christmas gifts growing up as kids,” he says. Then, 6-7 years ago, McClure and his brother, Bob, decided that this family heirloom might be a recipe for business success too,
“Whole Foods was coming on strong. Farmer’s markets were coming on strong. People started caring about food, which kind of resonated with us,” recalls McClure. He and his brother both had other careers and it took them four years before they added their names to the payroll, but it's a gamble that paid off.
For Klingenberger, pickling grew naturally out of his upbringing and passion for food. “I was a farmer by trade. I just started farming right out of High School; never went to college. I’m not an academic type.” Klingenberger hitchhiked around the United States on freight trains “getting into everything that I felt was hand to mouth” before returning to Ann Arbor to found The Brinery in 2010.
Sauerkraut was what drew Klingenberger into the pickling trade, another reason for the lack of competitive fervor between him and McClure. “I saw sauerkraut specifically as an amazing niche that wasn’t really being explored. I just get so excited by the cultural aspect of real food and real ways of preserving food.” This led to beets, then carrots, kimchi, and turnips. McClure, on the other hand, has stuck to pickling cucumbers in various brines (Spicy, Garlic Dill, and a new Sweet & Spicy variety being shipped by Jaunt) and expanded in a different direction: potato chips and bloody mary mix.
“Bloody mary mix got us into a different category on the shelf in the market and all of a sudden we’re selling in liquor stores and pairing up with different vodkas and tequilas and gins,” says McClure, “It’s been working so far, we’ll see what we come out with next and if it continues.”
Throughout the interview, the prepared questions take a backseat as Klingenberger and McClure trail off. They become the interviewers as they ask one another questions about their respective products and histories. McClure lauds Klingenberger for his original fermentation process and Klingenberger responds by saying that, as far as a good cucumber pickle goes “there’s nothing like McClure’s... oh wait we’re supposed to be at war!”
Perhaps one day they will be. Their empires will continue to grow and, like Vlasic and Claussen, they may find themselves facing a Federal Trade Commission decision that they are, in fact, adversaries and must remain as such. Should that day come, what might their battle standards look like as they summon their respective armies?
“I’m thinking of a flag that these guys are marching forward with and it would be a wizard,” Klingenberger imagines, “like an ancient primordial wizard, with a wooden staff and a glowing cabbage and there’s all this bacterial energy surrounding him.”
For McClure, the imagery is a little less conjured, “I’d probably just have people on mine. People we’re selling to, people who help make the product… I guess it ultimately comes down to people enjoying the damn pickles.”
Despite the more mainstream banner, they are both pickle nerds and it has paid off in their present success. We break down the table and as I leave Shed 2, they are both still glued in conversation.
Another breeze moves through the shed and the blood-red leaves strewn across the pavement rearrange themselves without regard for the senseless death that was averted here-
See what the war is all about by tasting the newest addition to the McClure's Pickles inventory: Sweet & Spicy. This flavor was just released in the Fall of 2013 and is just making its way to the market.
Shipment of McClure's is not an indication of preference by Jaunt as to who should win the Pickle Wars, simply a result of circumstance. Both Perkins Pickles and The Brinery require their products to be refrigerated, which made our decision process very easy. We encourage you to visit Eastern Market and try the others, then let us know who you think the victor is @jauntco.