Travis Grillo didn't get the job he wanted, so he turned to his family's 100-year-old pickle recipe for comfort.
Sitting in his father's backyard eating a pickle after he had been rejected from a position designing shoes with Nike, he had his "lightbulb moment."
"I was like ‘You know what? I'm going to just sell these pickles and kind of give it to corporate America and make my own way,'" he told Food Dive.
In the summer of 2008, he started selling the family pickles out of a car with just seven natural ingredients: cucumbers, salt, dill garlic, water, grape leaves and vinegar. Then he opened a pushcart with a big sign for Grillo's Pickles and sold them for $1 in Boston Common and by 2013, the company was making a million dollars in sales annually.
More than a decade since it started, Grillo's has cultivated a cult following with consumers who not only buy their packaged pickles in spear and chip form, as well as its Sandwich Maker product, but also wear the company's branded apparel. The company sold more than 5 million pounds of pickles in 2019 from more than 10,000 retail locations, including Whole Foods and Walmart, and anticipates sales to grow 50% in 2020.
Grillo said the reason why his pickles stand out on shelves is because of the old Italian family recipe and the freshness of their ingredients. He said other big pickle brands serve dehydrated products with preservatives, but Grillo's grows dill and sources fresh cucumbers.
Large brands like Vlasic, Mt. Olive and Claussen do use preservatives in many of their products, but more are launching alternatives that compete with Grillo's Pickles. Vlasic, which is owned by Conagra, introduced its Farmer's Garden pickle line that contains no preservatives, artificial colors or artificial flavoring.
"Grillo's is light years beyond pickles because of the way we've managed to give customers a fresh product and not be fooled by thinking pickles needs to be two years old before you even eat them, which most pickles can be," he said. "With Grillo's, you could have a cucumber grown, cut and in your jar within a month."
As Americans begin to prefer snacking over meals, that trend has helped brands like Grillo's. According to Mondelez International's "State of Snacking" report, the top three qualities that consumers look for in snacks are freshness (43%), low in sugar (36%) and low in fat (31%).
"We're penetrating the market, we're beating out bigger companies by giving people fresher ingredients, so it's awesome to see the response we've gotten on a national level," he said. "It's no longer just, 'Hey, that's the guy that used to sell pickles out in the Common with his friends,' … it's more like a brand now that is just running on its own because of the product."
Pickles and pickle-flavored products have been in the spotlight in recent years, showing up in food and beverages from pork rinds to beer. In 2019, Vlasic developed an all pickle chip and flavored Slim Jim meat sticks. According to Mordor Intelligence, the pickle and pickle products market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.41% from 2019 to 2024. And innovation isn't likely to slow down any time soon. Company research firm Inc Fact revealed that in June last year, Mt. Olive, the largest independent pickle company in the U.S., applied for trademarks on numerous potential products, including Pickle Fuel, a pickle juice energy drink.
"We're penetrating the market, we're beating out bigger companies by giving people fresher ingredients."
CEO of Grillo's Pickles
Although the trend's popularity does create more competition for Grillo's, the company’s CEO said his product's growth shows that the pickle is "here to stay."
"It gives me some assurance that it's something that's trending; it's a good business to be in right now," Grillo said. "I think you're going to see more pickled fruits in the future mainstream. You're going to see more pickled beets and just different applications to preserve the food better for longer."
Grillo's plans to capture more consumer interest in 2020 with new product launches, including a pickle beverage and "Pickle De Gallo."
It was a strategy that seemed to work over the last year. Grillo's launched Fresh Packs, a line of more convenient and affordable packs for consumers, and Sandwich Makers, the first all-natural pickle brand to come out with a sandwich-cut pickle. It is not, however, the first company to create a larger pickle cut. Vlasic and Claussen, for example, have their own versions of a product sized for burgers.
In addition to product innovation, design for the brand has been important to Grillo since the beginning. The clear packaging is a signature look, Grillo said, to showcase how the pickles are handmade and garden fresh.
When Grillo was still hawking pickles from a cart in Boston, he also sold shirts on the street featuring the company's logo. He said the merchandise made them memorable when they were starting out. Now the company offers a variety of merchandise on its website showcasing their personified pickle on products like beanies, scarves and fanny packs.
"The only way to kind of stick out and look above the rest was to merchandise ourselves. And with my background, it was a no brainer to be like well, I'll use my talents I would have given Nike to just put it into my own company," he said.
"So for Grillo's clothes, we kind of originated the clothing to get our brand out so you could come buy my pickles. Where now I think brands are like, 'Hey, are we getting stale? We need to put clothes out.'"
CEO, Grillo's Pickles
Grillo's Pickles is just one of many food and beverage companies, including PepsiCo's Frito-Lay snack brand Cheetos and chains like Taco Bell, to sell clothing as a marketing avenue. Grillo said there is this big influx of fashion and food right now because fashion designers are seeing the upside of the food business and literally showing "how health is wealth."
But for Grillo, designing clothes was originally done out of necessity because they didn't have marketing dollars, but now billion-dollar brands are putting out shirts.
"So for Grillo's clothes, we kind of originated the clothing to get our brand out so you could come buy my pickles. Where now I think brands are like, 'Hey, are we getting stale? We need to put clothes out,'" he said.
Today Grillo's has a deal with Urban Outfitters, which sells its graphic tee. The company has also teamed up with retired Hall of Fame basketball player Patrick Ewing to create "The Pickle," a limited-edition sneaker for $140.
"It's kind of a big deal to me. I wanted to be in design, I wanted to do this, and we have a sneaker, we have a clothing line that's dropping at Urban so we have like all of these things that came full circle for the brand. And it’s just cool to see that unfold right now," he said.