It started with the pears. We were first introduced to Wheelhouse Pickles at a food blogger gathering a few weeks back, and one of the first things we tried were the award-winning Irma's Pears -- they took the prize for "Best Fruit" at the 2005 Rosendale International Pickle Festival. We were smitten from the start by the complex balance of flavors -- part Asian influence, part spice, with a tangy citrus bite. We had to learn more, so we went straight to the source: Jon Orren, the man behind the pickles.
Before making artisanal pickles as a full-time endeavor, Jon often made pickles as gifts for friends. About a year and a half ago, after he left his job at a non-profit organization, these same friends encouraged him to pickle full time, and thus Wheelhouse was born. Jon's culinary background working in several Boston and New York restaurants shines through in the creativity of his recipes. The concept of pickling is fairly straighforward, but a little bit of experimentation goes a long way to create a unique product. Jon strives to use high quality, seasonal ingredients, and makes his pickles in small batches in a cooperative kitchen space in Long Island City. We decided to join him one night to see the operation up close.
We showed up one Monday night in our pickling best, ready to pitch in on a batch of Top Shelf Beets. Jon and his team were already at work, peeling trays full of roasted beets (roasting, rather than boiling, as some other picklers do, adds an element of depth to the flavor), and juicing watercress and beet greens to add to the brine, which was simmering away on the stove. The current process, he explained, was the result of a great deal of experimentation. Beets are somewhat good for trying out different brines, as the beets turn everything a rich, ruby color. After peeling the beets, we sliced them, taking time here and there to snack on potato chips and cookies, washing them down with some English Bitter homebrew that another guest pickler had brought.
The shared kitchen space was lively that night, with a mix of rock and holiday music, and various scents wafting through the air. Two other businesses were there, each in a different corner, so every now and again you'd get a whiff of cinnamon coming from the ovens across the room or see a huge batch of carob in a makeshift double-boiler on the stove next to our brine.
Once all the beets were peeled, sliced and ready to go, we packed them tightly into jars containing fennel and tarragon. It was then time for the brine -- a mix of sherry vinegar, the juices of the beet greens and watercress, fennel fronds, garlic, peppercorns, and orange juice. The brine was almost the color of split pea soup, but upon contact with the beets, it became tinged deep purple. Jon carefully wiped the edges of each jar and passed them off to be capped, tightened, and placed into plastic trays. Two full trays went into a hot water bath to vacuum seal the jars. Once they were done, they were taken out and placed on metal racks to cool.
Jon, like many small business owners, is in somewhat of a pickle himself. His business is doing well; sales are high through the company's website and at the retailers who sell his product, Blue Apron and Stinky cheese shop, both in Brooklyn. He carefully selected retailers who could give his pickles the attention he felt they deserved -- stores where the sales help could answer questions about the product and where consumers would appreciate that the $8.50 pricetag paid for top-notch incredients and small-batch processing. He has his eye on a few Manhattan-based retailers, but increased sales mean increased production, which might mean a different production model. Currently, a night at the kitchen generally produces about 10-15 cases of pickles. If the business continues to expand, the demand will be higher, and the production level would need to increase. This type of change would be fairly radical for Wheelhouse, not to mention costly. Jon has explored some options for expansion, including a model where a staff would make the pickles in a more industrial setting based on his recipes, but the costs go up based on the complexity of the recipe, and many of his recipes would be too expensive to farm out without a huge increase to the consumer. Even some of the best sellers are too expensive to add to the regular rotation, currently known as "The Wheelhouse 8." For example, the spicy Champagne Vinegar Dill Spears, a limited edition "whim" variety, sold out quickly, but the prohibitive cost of champagne vinegar makes them a challenge to produce on a level that kees up with the demand.
Despite growing pains, Jon has big plans for Wheelhouse, including the launch of a hot sauce in the not-too-distant future. He also is considering creating a non-proft arm of Wheelhouse, where teens can come and learn about starting and operating a small business. We learned that "wheelhouse" is a baseball term -- Jon is an avid Red Sox fan -- describing the sweet spot for a batter, as in, "he threw right in the hitter's wheelhouse." It's that place where everything aligns so you can knock it clear out of the park. Jon seems to be doing just that. His customer base continues to grow, largely based on word of mouth, creative marketing (he's considering a super bowl event -- Full Contact Sport Peppers, anyone?), and recent press, including the New York Times, the Village Voice, and an inclusion in Cravings' holiday guide.
Thanks again to Jon and his team for letting us crash his operation, and we highly recommend that you add Wheelhouse Pickles to your holiday shopping list. They're available online at WheelhousePickles.com, at Stinky Bklyn, and Blue Apron, and at Real Food Market (when operational -- they're currently closed for the winter).