Saturday, April 20, 2024

Catching more flies with vinegar

Catching more flies with vinegar

When their stockbroker jobs soured, partners turned to the art of the dill.
By Katherine Archer

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Yucca — a whole lot of vodka mixed with fresh-sliced lemons and a dash of sugar — is not named for its taste. It’s named for the way it makes you feel the next morning. But in June 2009, as she sipped some from a gallon pickle jar while sitting on the beach at Sea Island, Ga., Jenny Fulton felt good. The sun was bright, the waves aquamarine, her skin brown, and her children were at home in Winston-Salem. She was starting to feel warm, and not because of the sun, when her phone rang. It was Ashlee Furr, her sales assistant in the Greensboro office of Morgan Keegan & Co.

“I’m packing up my desk,” Furr said.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Laid off.”

Fulton looked at the friends with her on the beach. “I’m going to throw up.” She ran to her room, vomited and cried. She wallowed in her bed for two days. Fulton saw the writing on Wall Street. She had been a stockbroker for 16 years, the last four with the Memphis, Tenn.-based firm, but the industry was in turmoil. She knew it wouldn’t be long before she, too, was let go. On the third morning, Fulton got up, showered and asked her husband: “What am I going to do?” Bo Fulton replied, “You make really good pickles. You have land at MawMaw’s. You could grow cucumbers there.” It was true. She made good pickles using recipes her grandmother taught her as a child. And she preached their power, drinking the brine to cure hangovers and menstrual cramps. Still, the idea of turning pickles into a viable business — especially with no experience — sounded laughable.

Little more than three years later, Fulton walks into the bathroom of a warehouse in Kernersville. A month earlier, she had received another fateful call, this one from a producer at 60 Minutes. Taking her husband’s advice, she and Furr had started Miss Jenny’s Pickles in late 2009. Jars are now sold in more than 500 stores, including Matthews-based Harris Teeter Supermarkets Inc. and some 40 others in China. By year-end, sales will have increased nearly tenfold since 2010. Putting together a segment called “The Life and Death of Asheboro, N.C.,” the producer wanted to spotlight Miss Jenny’s as evidence of the Triad’s resurgence.

Applying blush, mascara and lipstick before the taping, she tells her image in the mirror, “Breathe, Jenny. You’ve got this. Pickle up, baby. This is your one shot.” Wearing a pickle-green shirt, she takes her place across from CBS Evening News anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley inside her company’s 5,000-square-foot warehouse.

“What’s made us successful is the same thing that’s made every American successful, and that’s hard work,” she says. “And not taking no for an answer. If somebody tells me no, Scott, I say, ‘OK, timing’s not right. But you’ll want my pickles.’”
“No means go,” Pelley says, laughing.
“That’s right. What I do is drop on you, and I don’t let you forget me.”

Though it is true that she and Furr have worked hard to grow their company — rising with the sun to stock shelves or pick, slice and brine cucumbers — Miss Jenny’s owes much of its success to its namesake’s ability to push pickles. Fulton usually wears a large, round belt buckle adorned with the words “Miss Jenny’s Pickles” in red cursive and signs her emails, “Pickle Love, Jenny.” Good Morning America, Huffington Post, The Washington Post and Forbes also profiled the company last year. It seems the sizzle is as important as the pickle. Still, with all its growth and national acclaim, the company has yet to make a profit. “We just have the belief that this is going to work,” Furr says. “We have to make it work. You can crawl or you can run, and we chose to run.”

The old tobacco warehouses on the outskirts of Kernersville are stuffy and humid in the summer. In No. 308, the air smells of cardboard and vinegar. A map of the world hangs on an office wall, with colored thumbtacks dotting North Carolina, Florida, New England and the Midwest. A few white ones puncture China, Canada and Mongolia. Surveying the map, Fulton, 42, stands with her hands on her hips. “Damn, we work hard,” she says, popping the top off a sweaty Michelob Ultra. “And we’re good businesswomen.” She looks at Furr, who is 41. “We’ll be in Brazil and Argentina next.”

It wasn’t until December 2009 that Fulton lost her job with the brokerage, but by then she and Furr were already in a pickle. That summer, they had spent eight weeks perfecting recipes, with Fulton’s daughter, Kennedy, as taste tester. If she liked one, they tried it out on folks at the picnic tables outside Smitty’s Bar and Grill in Kernersville. When someone offered $5 for a jar of the salt-and-pepper ones, Fulton figured she had a winner. That fall, she and Furr attended pickle school — N.C. Cooperative Extension Service’s Acidified Foods Processing and Packaging Better Control School — at N.C. State University. The three-day course covered microbiology, sanitation, handling, record keeping and container closures and earned them the certification the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires of commercial processors.

The company — Old Orchard Foods LLC, which does business as Miss Jenny’s Pickles — needed startup capital, but banks, due to their lack of ownership experience, refused to provide it. So they cashed in IRAs, used severance money and maxed out credit cards. They kept overhead low by making pickles in the kitchen at Fulton’s church before moving to Winston Lake Family YMCA in Winston-Salem. They would arrive at 8 a.m., make pickles till 6 p.m. and then head to Belews Creek to pick cucumbers for two more hours. The Y’s kitchen is not air-conditioned. Furr lost 10 pounds that summer.

Fulton became the face of the company, spending much of her time traveling, delivering pickles to magazines for publicity and organizing tastings at restaurants. Furr did most of the office work, answering phones and taking orders, plus printing labels, labeling jars and loading pallets. They’re something of an odd couple. Born in Winston-Salem, Fulton moved in with her grandmother after her father died to ease the burden on her mother, who had two other daughters to care for. She grew up poor, getting free lunches at school and sleeping in the same bed with MawMaw until she was 18. She dropped out of Winston-Salem State University in 1988 to take a job as a debt collector before earning her stockbroker’s license. Furr never worried about money growing up in Atlanta, where she attended private schools. After she graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor’s in education, her brother, who worked in finance, helped land her a job as a sales assistant with a local investment firm. She had moved to Winston-Salem and already was at Morgan Keegan when Fulton arrived in July 2005. Furr says she knew she wanted to work for her the moment she saw her: Fulton, she knew, would make them money.

That doesn’t mean she’s easy to work with. By March 2010, Miss Jenny’s was in some stores, such as Shelton Vineyards in Dobson and Reynolda Farm Market and Sociale in Winston-Salem. That same month, Fred Morganthall called. The president of the Harris Teeter division of what was then Ruddick Corp. wanted to talk about carrying their pickles in some of its stores. (Bo Fulton had mentioned them to one of the company’s directors.) The pickle ladies were ecstatic but terrified. Fulton told Furr: “We have to change everything.” For one thing, the label wasn’t in compliance. The ingredients panel was too small, and the net weight wasn’t correct. The FDA-required company phone number and website were missing. Having a drink at Smitty’s, Fulton met a graphic designer, and without discussing it with Furr or the other two owners — their husbands — she wrote him a check for more than the company had in its bank account to design a new label. “I went with my gut. Our pickles are going to be in every refrigerator in the United States, and I knew it had to be good. We’re going to be a household name.” Furr wouldn’t speak to her for a week. But she’s learning to trust Fulton’s instincts. That June, Fulton dragged her to New York City to the Fancy Food Show, billed as the largest specialty-food showcase in North America; Furr didn’t think the company was ready. They ended up making connections with Austin, Texas-based Whole Food Markets Inc. and Wichita, Kan.-based Dean & DeLuca Inc., chains that would eventually carry their pickles. Furr had to fly home early to meet orders stemming from the show. “We are all big believers in my gut,” Fulton says.

By the end of 2010, sales reached $36,000, and Miss Jenny’s pickles were in 55 grocery stores and farmers markets. In 2011, the company outgrew the YMCA’s kitchen. It outsourced production of its wholesale business, which accounts for roughly 90% of sales, to food-processing plants in North Carolina and Indiana and leased a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Kernersville. At a conference on exporting for small businesses in Charlotte, Fulton sat behind Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. When it ended, she found his driver and shoved a jar into his hands. “Get him to eat these pickles before he gets on the plane,” she ordered. But it was the N.C. Department of Agriculture — through an event it sponsored in April 2011 — that connected Fulton with a Chinese businessman interested in importing Miss Jenny’s. After months of working out pricing and other details, pickles shipped to China in October. For the year, total sales hit $139,000. Still, Furr says, 2010 and 2011 were the most difficult years of her life. “Physically, emotionally, financially.”

Revenue topped $300,000 in 2012, but Furr and Fulton faced more challenges. Both of their husbands — Furr’s, a mortgage-loan officer, and Fulton’s, a stockbroker — lost their jobs. When the Furrs’ air conditioner broke, she and her husband slept under fans on first-floor couches. Her kids’ grandparents paid for them to attend summer camp so she could work more hours. “We still haven’t made a paycheck, even now,” Furr says. “We’re taking money out of our IRAs. We were stockbrokers — that’s the No. 1 thing you don’t do. But we see the future in terms of making a profit and growth.”

The rhythmic sound of a knife slicing on and scraping against a cutting board fills the room. Furr holds a pitcher filled with brown brine. A kitchen assistant — one of 10 part-timers on the payroll — slices cucumbers into spears and loads them into a bin. Amie Walls, the warehouse manager and only full-time employee, stuffs the spears into gallon glass jars whose bottoms are covered with dill and rings of white onion. About once a month, Furr buys 150 pounds of cucumbers and brings them to the YMCA, where she and a few workers make pickles for restaurants such as Smitty’s and J. Peppers in Kernersville and Muddy Creek Café in Winston-Salem. They don’t earn much from these sales, but Furr and Fulton don’t want to abandon those who helped them get started.

They begin the same way they always have, soaking cucumbers in an ice bath to soften them. Then they slice them, pour spices and place onions in the bottom of each jar, stuff in about 80 spears each, mix, boil and pour in the brine, screw on the lids, flip and refrigerate. After that, Furr tests the pH. If it is more than 4.0 — meaning the pickles are conducive to growing bacteria — she has to throw out the entire batch and start over. That has never happened. They can make about 30 jars in four hours. “You see why nobody pickles anymore,” she says. “It’s a time-consuming process.” But not thankless.

A few months later, Fulton and Furr sit at a bar in Greensboro. In quick succession, they are approached by a deejay from a local rock radio station and a flack for a TV station. A friend shouts: “Jenny Fulton! The pickle lady!” After Miss Jenny’s appearance on 60 Minutes, the company was bombarded with emails — more than 300 in 36 hours. They received 100 orders in two days compared with the typical 10 per day. She let friends in on her latest triumph: “We got ourselves on a reality show.” In December, Fulton and Furr signed an option with a production company. It’s far from a sure thing, but the Lifetime cable network has shown interest.

Later, while refilling drink orders, the bartender spots the logo on Fulton’s shirt. “Miss Jenny’s Pickles! I love those pickles. My boyfriend brought me some from Whole Foods, and I swore I’d never eat a different pickle again.” She points at Fulton’s empty beer bottle. “Another drink?” Fulton demurs. “Nah, baby, we have an interview.” A few minutes later, she gathers her purse and jacket and, with Furr at her side, walks out the door toward a local TV station. She has pickles to pitch.

Katherine Archer is a Greensboro-based freelance writer.

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