In a now-classic Portlandia episode, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein take on the identities of the ultimate hipsters, who manage to remedy a diverse assortment of inventory surpluses with the same riposte: "We can pickle that!"
For some strange reason, pickles have become the emblem for the entire hipster movement, the oft-mocked band of brothers and sisters who cherish antiquated transportation, clothing, music and food.
It's tempting to poke fun at the bearded Andrew "Randy" Rainey for pursuing such a predictable path as pickles, but it's hard to argue with his success. Rainey and his partners sold their very first jar of Randy's Pickles last June at the Gordon Square farmers market. Less than one year later the cuke-filled containers are on the shelves at Heinen's Fine Foods, Giant Eagle Market Districts, Miles Market and numerous smaller retail shops.
"We are making 30 cases a day and we can't keep up with demand," says Rainey, elastic hairnet firmly in place.
After graduating from college Rainey briefly worked in real estate, but his heart wasn't in it. In fact, his heart was broken, he recalls, torn asunder by a relationship gone south. "After the breakup I went to the grocery store and was standing in the pickle aisle — pickles have always been a comfort food for me — and remember thinking to myself that it was all garbage."
Rainey knew as much about making pickles as he did real estate, so he enlisted the help of his grandmother who, as it turns out, knew as little about the old-timey process as he did. Together they experimented, enjoyed each other's company, and ended up making some pretty good dill pickles.
Along with his friends/business partners Ryan Snyder and Pat Routa, Rainey enrolled in the Food Business Incubator program at the Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen (CCLK). There he developed his recipes, formulated a business plan and learned the regulatory ropes. It wasn't long before his traditional dill pickles started popping up at markets and attracting a loyal following.
Hard at work in the commercial kitchen space at CCLK, Rainey describes the straightforward procedure that turns cucumbers into pickles. The fresh cukes are graded by size, with the irregularly shaped ones being reserved for sliced (or "chipped") varieties like the Bread 'n' Butter. The veggies are washed, cut into long spears and placed into clean jars along with the herbs and spices. The jars are filled with hot vinegar-based brine, sealed and heated just long enough to make them shelf-stable without resulting in a limp pickle.
Randy's Pickles will last about two years unopened and a couple months opened and refrigerated. "I hope it doesn't take people two months to finish a jar!" Rainey says.
His top-seller, he notes, is the Mustache on Fire variety, which is a hotter version of the already peppery Spicy Dill. Also on store shelves are jars of Black Pepper Chip Pickles and Grandma Knows Best Peppers, sweet-hot peppers inspired by his Hungarian grandmother. In addition to the regular flavors, special batches have included pickled asparagus, maple bourbon bread-and-butter, and a failed attempt at pickled cuc-a-melon.
"I don't consider those failures; I just discovered a few new ways it didn't work," he says.
At $7.99 per jar, Randy's Pickles cost more than many commercially available products. "Yeah, they cost a couple bucks more than most," admits Rainey. "That's my biggest challenge. But this is a hand-made product. And look at the jar! We've got nothing to hide. You can see the fresh garlic, you see the fresh dill, you see the cucumber."
Rainey, who relocated from Columbus to launch his business, says he couldn't have chosen a better spot at a better time. He joins a host of like-minded entrepreneurs who chose to ditch the cubicle and follow their passion. The revival of artisanal food production — small-batch provisions made locally for locals — is alive and well in Cleveland. And many of the most buzzworthy startups have made (or are making) their way through Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen.
"We never would have gotten where we are now without CCLK. It's that simple," Rainey says. "It's so helpful to be able to work with people who have worked in the industry forever who can tell you what you need to do instead of you having to research every single step."
The next logical step in Rainey's pickle progression is to get back into the real estate game, but this time his customer is himself.
"My next move is to find our own space," he says. "I don't really care where we end up as long as it's a brick building with no windows. Just a place where I can make my pickles."