The town of Mount Olive has been in a pickle for 91 years.
Its eponymous pickle plant is privately owned, but out of 464 shareholders, more than half are employees or descendants of the townsfolk who rescued it in 1926. In a town of 4,500, Mount Olive is Mt. Olive Pickle Co.
The original 37 shareholders chipped in $19,000 to reinvigorate the company Lebanese immigrant Shickrey Baddour began when he saw opportunity in a bumper crop of cucumbers rotting in the nearby fields of eastern North Carolina. But Baddour’s plan to sell to other pickle plants fell flat — Mt. Olive would pack and sell its own pickles, a strategy that propelled it two years ago into the best-selling brand of pickles, peppers and relishes. Mt. Olive picked up new products and outlasted competitors. Remember crunching a Cates pickle? Dean Foods Co. gobbled up the Faison-based pickle processor in 1989. Other pickle powerhouses have been absorbed, including giant Kraft Heinz Co., whose merger two years ago married Heinz pickles and relishes with Kraft’s Claussen.
Mt. Olive, which declines to share financial information, finds itself as a market leader in a growing industry. Pickle sales climbed 1.3% in 2015 to $1.1 billion, part of an overall trend toward fermented foods, which are believed to offer health benefits. Yes, the ancient pickle is the subject of hundreds of websites devoted to its probiotic pluses.
Fad food or not, pickling a peck of peppers is little changed from its start, as early as 2030 B.C. when cucumbers were pickled in the Tigris Valley. The kosher dills on grocery shelves today — Mt. Olive’s most popular variety — are simply sliced cucumbers handpacked in glass jars with an added brine. It’s the brine that makes a bread-and-butter pickle different from the dill slice on a burger.
Mt. Olive procures about 185 million pounds of peppers and pickling cucumbers annually from 10 states and four countries: Mexico, Canada, Greece and India, the plant’s native land. Many U.S. cucumbers come from the Southeast, including fields right around the corner, but Mt. Olive does not own any farmland or the delivery trucks arriving, one after another each summer, the plant’s busiest season when the company’s year-round workforce of about 600 swells to about 900.
On a steamy summer morning, forklifts zip between tractor-trailers full of cucumbers, headed to refrigerated trucks for holding or to huge, open-air tanks for fermenting. Each of the 1,100 vats in Mt. Olive’s tank yard can hold 800 bushels of cucumbers, 40 million pounds of pickles in all. Cucumbers not headed for a good soaking are washed and sorted by size. Mt. Olive buys pickling cucumbers in six different sizes, enabling farmers to pick them at various stages of growth. Machines slice the cucumbers, but pickle spears and the long, flat sandwich stuffers are still packed by hand, a ballet of motion as runners keep packers supplied with cucumbers they quickly flip, peelside facing in for the best presentation, and slide into glass jars. Packers are rewarded for speed — the fastest can earn up to $20 an hour — though Mt. Olive says its average hourly wage for all workers is $16.12.
The company was the target of a five-and-a-half-year boycott in the late 1990s and early 2000s, led by a farmworkers’ group that accused Mt. Olive of using cucumber growers who mistreated their workers. It was settled with a contract covering more than 8,000 migrant farmworkers. Today, the company is one of the biggest employers in Wayne County. Bill Bryan, Mt. Olive’s executive chairman, joined the pickle company in 1985, becoming president in 1990. When Mt. Olive restructured in 2015, Bryan stepped into the chairman role, with Bobby Frye becoming president and CEO. Frye is the third generation in his family to work at Mt. Olive, incuding his grandmother, one of the first women to sell in the grocery industry, his father — still working at age 90 — and his son, who is in sales.
Other pickle companies are divisions of much larger corporations, including Vlasic Foods, which is owned by New Jersey-based Pinnacle Foods, perhaps best-known for its Birds Eye frozen vegetable line. In an April earnings call, Pinnacle CEO Mark Clouse said Vlasic is feeling the pinch of a price war in pickles. It’s a competitive marketplace, but Bryan says Mt. Olive has little interest in selling to a larger company that may not appreciate its heritage. Instead, Mt. Olive has branched out with new lines including the Simply brand, which substitutes turmeric for the yellow dye found in other products.
Bigger companies “have more financial resources available to them,” Bryan says. “We offset that by having customers who are very passionate about our category.”
So passionate that townspeople gather every New Year’s Eve for the annual pickle drop and every spring for the N.C. Pickle Festival. Outside Mount Olive, big-city hipsters embrace the pickle as a mix of health food and nostalgia item. For Bryan, this leaves plenty of people yet to reach — Mt. Olive has only been in all 50 states since 2012. “We still have some opportunities to grow within the United States,” he says. “Longer term, we may very well look into countries outside of the United States.”
For now, Mt. Olive’s only overseas venture is between the buns of a Five Guys sandwich — Mt. Olive is the official pickle for the Virginia-based burger joint, which opened its first location outside North America in 2013. The U.S. has some catching up to do when it comes to global pickle production, ranking No. 5 behind China, Iran, Turkey and Russia, according to the Pickle Packers International trade association. Still, 2.1 billion pounds of pickles are produced in the U.S. every year — more and more of them in Mount Olive — 7 pounds consumed per man, woman and child.
And that’s kind of a big dill.
Photos by Cindy Burnham
Some cucumbers head straight from the field to the jar. Operations have expanded from one acre in 1926 to 150 acres, including 1.1 million square feet of production, office and warehouse space, far beyond the original campus at the corner of Cucumber and Vine streets. (No, that’s not just an advertising slogan.) Photo by Cindy Burnham
Cucumbers head straight from the field to the fermenting vats. Each of the 1,100 vats in Mt. Olive’s tank yard can hold 800 bushels of cucumbers, 40 million pounds of pickles in all. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Cucumbers ferment in giant vats, outside the Mt. Olive plant. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Asuncion Reyes inspects glass jars before they are filled with cucumbers and brine. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Mt. Olive sells more than 90 varieties of pickles, peppers and relishes, a few of which are still packed by hand. Workers like Maria Gomez are paid by how fast they fill the jars. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Jars are filled with cucumbers and the brine that sets a gherkin apart from a kosher dill. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Peppers, pickles and relishes roll off the line two shifts a day, six days a week in Mount Olive, though the sales staff is in Gastonia in order to be closer to a large airport and major buyers. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Mt. Olive built a distribution center about a mile from its main campus and added a production line there last year. It is the town’s largest employer with an annual payroll of $36.5 million. Photo by Cindy Burnham
Executive chairman Bill Bryan, left, joined Mt. Olive in 1985. Four generations of President and CEO Bobby Frye’s family have worked at the pickle plant. Photo by Cindy Burnham