Pickles & Things: Passion ‘can’ lead to success

PICKLES & THINGS of Fryeburg offers a variety of jams, jellies, salsa and barbecue sauces that are made with all natural ingredients, no preservatives and are gluten free. Chris Baker (right), known as the Pickle Lady, and longtime chef Richard Cox are gearing up for another busy season. (Rivet Photo)

PICKLES & THINGS of Fryeburg offers a variety of jams, jellies, salsa and barbecue sauces that are made with all natural ingredients, no preservatives and are gluten free. Chris Baker (right), known as the Pickle Lady, and longtime chef Richard Cox are gearing up for another busy season. (Rivet Photo)

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

FRYEBURG — Chris Baker is extremely enthusiastic and skillful when it comes to cooking and selling.

She loves dabbling with new ideas inside her Fryeburg kitchen. Some pairings — like Pumpkin Butter and Wild Blueberry Salsa — might leave one initially skeptical as to how good the creation may taste, but one bite usually erases any doubts.

Other concoctions fail to hit the mark and land in the scrap heap.

But, the self-proclaimed “Pickle Lady” never backs away from experimentation, or a challenge, for that matter.

Chris has mixed her two passions to create a highly-successful home-canning operation in Fryeburg known as “Pickles & Things.” With over 30 products and new ideas always in the pipeline, Baker turned a “let’s see how it goes” attempt at selling jams, jellies, salsa and barbecue sauces at Maine country fairs into an online and retail business with outlets across the state and country.

Her cooking passion started at a young age, both out of curiosity and necessity.

“To be quite honest, even though they didn’t use the term back then, I have ADHD. I was a latchkey kid. Other than doing chores, I liked to stay busy when I got home from school. Because my mom was taught how to cook by my father, who owned a restaurant in Rangeley, she did a lot of cooking. She taught me how to read a recipe in a cookbook,” Chris remembered. “So, I could take any recipe and make it. We didn’t have a lot of money, so I did a lot of improvising. I learned how to substitute. If I was going to make Rice Krispies squares and didn’t have Rice Krispies, I might use Kix. That’s where it came to be what I am doing now. I throw ingredients together, and try something new.”

Chris also has a knack for sales. It starts with her upbeat personality, a true enjoyment of talking with people, and a drive to exceed constantly changing goals.

“I’ve always been in sales. That came easy,” said Chris, who peddled Tupperware products and sold country crafts in the 90s at fairs across Maine. “I was doing a few products, like barbecue sauce, that I gave to family and friends. I gave my mom a jar of barbecue sauce and she liked it so much that she refused to buy store brands. To this day, she still refuses to buy store brands. She’s my regular customer.”

Living in Auburn in 2004, Chris lost a part-time job and was encouraged by family to take the plunge and pursue her “gift” — cooking and selling. Pickles & Things was born.

Using quart jars, Chris developed an early line of eight products.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she said.

When she sold her country crafts, Chris would be “lucky” to make $1,000 over a three-day fair. She was somewhat flabbergasted by the immediate success of her Pickles & Things food line.

“I was at a fair at Brunswick High School and sold $700 in product in six hours. I felt I was on to something. I sold out,” she said.

Success validated what Chris knew all along — if you produce a quality product using all natural ingredients, be willing to keep an open mind to new ideas and develop an eye-catching label, one can turn a passion into a money-making venture. Chris was on her way.

The next year, production increased and Chris “hit the shows hard” from October to December, landing some top-line fairs.

“It still amazes me how much we sell at shows. Another show in Brunswick before Thanksgiving, we couldn’t keep up with the orders. We couldn’t put samples out fast enough. It was an awesome feeling,” she said. “To have people say the only reason they come to the show is because of you, makes you feel incredible. People tell us they buy cases of product to load up their pantries. Barbecue sauce really sells. We can’t bring enough. People give it out as gifts. Many customers will say they don’t know when they will see us in that area again and they don’t want to pay for shipping, so they load up.”

Pickles & Things products have a three-year shelf life, but if sale figures are any indication, the jars rarely sit that long to collect dust.

“Doing it the right way”

PICKLES & THINGS fact sheet Pickles & Things Contact: Website www.picklesandthings.com includes product pricing information, as well as recipe ideas and “pairing” suggestions. Phone (207) 713-3996 Retail locations: Zeb’s General Store, North Conway Everything for Less, Conway Spice & Grain, Fryeburg Weston’s Farm, Fryeburg Products: • 13 varieties of jams and jellies from Apple Horseradish Pepper Jelly, Blueberry Heat and Raspberry Jalepeno to Blueberry Pie, Chocolate Raspberry Spread and Pumpkin Butter. • 7 brands of pickles including Zesty Dill, Really Dilly Bean and Wicked Good Beets. • Barbecue sauces, relish and salsa including Summer Strawberry Salsa, Wild Blueberry and Mango-Tango.

PICKLES & THINGS fact sheetContact:
Website www.picklesandthings.com includes product pricing information, as well as recipe ideas and “pairing” suggestions.
Phone (207) 713-3996
Retail locations:
Zeb’s General Store, North Conway
Everything for Less, Conway
Spice & Grain, Fryeburg
Weston’s Farm, Fryeburg
Products:
• 13 varieties of jams and jellies from Apple Horseradish Pepper Jelly, Blueberry Heat and Raspberry Jalepeno to Blueberry Pie, Chocolate Raspberry Spread and Pumpkin Butter.
• 7 brands of pickles including Zesty Dill, Really Dilly Bean and Wicked Good Beets.
• Barbecue sauces, relish and salsa including Summer Strawberry Salsa, Wild Blueberry and Mango-Tango.

When Chris Baker does anything, she strives to “do it the right way.”

First order of business was to acquire a food license.

Then, products had to be shipped to the University of Maine at Orono, where the Food Science Department tested each item.

Finally, the home operation was inspected.

“What I have found, I see people pop up at shows and they have no clue what they’re doing. They decide to sell homemade pickles. If you don’t make it correctly, you can get food poisoning. I try to tell craft show organizers that they should ask for a copy of a person’s food license. It surprises me how lackadaisical some of the promoters are,” she said.

Chris and her fiancé, long-time chef Richard Cox, test the pH level of their products, and fill out production sheets, which can be reviewed by inspectors.

“Every single batch, no matter how big or small, we fill out a sheet. Plus, since we sell over state lines, we deal with the FDA. They come in once a year. Whatever we may be making on that day, we will be asked to pull all our records for the year to be looked at,” Chris said. “We go through all the proper licensing. We use good ingredients, no preservatives, low sugar and fresh tomatoes in our salsa. To make a good product without fillers and additives, it does cost you more, but we want to do it right.”

Chris tried to outsource some of her production, but found that she lost some of her quality control. Plus, it cut into her bottom line, so she returned to her own kitchen.

She also learned that Maine is more business friendly when it comes to home canning operations than neighboring New Hampshire — part of the reason she and Richard decided to locate in Fryeburg and not across the border. Here, a mobile vendor’s license costs $40 per year, and it enables Pickles & Things to sell anywhere.

If the operation was located in New Hampshire, licensing fees skyrocket to nearly $500 while the operation would be required to have a three-bay sink.

“How many homes do you know have a three-bay sink?” Chris  asked.

Costs to attend fairs is also higher in other states, one reason Chris and Richard stick with the Maine circuit and online sales.

While under some scenarios, two chefs in one kitchen may be one too many, Chris and Richard are quite compatible. Richard, who has been a chef for 30 years, has brought his expertise both into the kitchen, as well as onto the website by including suggestions on how to pair various products with other food items.

“We’re a lot alike. We are both clean freaks. We are both attentive to details. We both have great palates,” Richard said.

“He’s quick. Little things I don’t like to do, like slice tomatoes (in our salsa we use fresh tomatoes, not canned like other store-bought salsa), Richard takes it on. He does 25 pounds in 5 minutes,” Chris said. “I’ll cook up the ingredients on the stove, he’ll pour and cap it. We make a good team.

Because he is a chef, I have no worries leaving him a recipe and instructions, and it will get done, and done right. I don’t have to worry. He’s just like I am. He cleans up as he works. There’s never a mess.”

He has also learned a few tricks from Chris.

“I didn’t know a thing about canning, just opening up a can. It’s been very educational,” Richard said. “Making sure pH levels are right is interesting.”

“It’s kind of cool to teach a chef a few new things,” Chris added.

The FDA requires food processors to go to a two-day session at UMO. Chris found herself sitting with people anywhere from B&M Baked Beans to someone who is making dog and cat food.

“It’s all about processing. Terms I didn’t understand. At the end, you take a test, and if you pass it, you get a processing certificate. I am glad I did it. I learned a lot about bacteria and the proper way to process products. It puts me ahead of the game. Education, to me, is power. We’ve never had any complaints in eight years, what does that tell you? We must be doing something right.”

Always creating

Creating and improving always remain in the back of Chris’ mind. She dabbles with new ideas, finding out some combinations work and others don’t.

Wild Blueberry Salsa is a big hit. “Once people try it, they get hooked on it,” Chris said.

Apple Horseradish Pepper Jelly sounds risqué, but given the chance and used with the right partner, it surprises.

Ditto for Pumpkin Butter.

Pickles & Things products are gluten-free, something Chris can appreciate.

“I have eczema. I was diagnosed as a kid as allergic to oats, wheat and barley. If I don’t eat gluten, I find my eczema clears up. Our products don’t lend itself to gluten, so it’s something everyone can enjoy. People really study labels these days, so we put that — gluten-free — on the label,” Chris said.

Also on the colorful label, which Chris spends hours searching for the right graphics to use, is the “Maine in Maine” logo. Chris had to apply to the “Made in Maine” program, which she had to prove that products were indeed made in the Pine Tree state. Once approved, Chris purchased rolls of “Made in Maine” labels, which are placed on each products’ jar lid.

“Made in Maine” is huge, Chris said.

Product is sold at several local locations — Zeb’s General Store in North Conway was the first Pickles & Things wholesale customer — and online. Chris likes to take a new product, deliver it personally to a store and encourage the storeowner to put it out as a sampler.

“I want people to try it and honestly tell me what they think,” she said. “Everybody loved the strawberry salsa. At the fall shows, it sold out.”

Some products sell well for a period of time, but eventually peter out and end up on the “retired list.”

Just as the Pickles & Things product list evolves, so will the business. The ultimate goal? “We hope to be the next Stonewall Kitchen. No preservatives. Great product line,” Chris said.

Despite a depressed economy, Pickles & Things enjoyed an “unbelievable” 2012 season with sales up 25% to 30%.

Admittedly, the winter months are slow, since numerous outlets are seasonal. So, Chris has spent some free time revamping the website, working on a few new product ideas and contacting fans, who offered to hold home parties, much like Pampered Chef gatherings, where attendees can sample various products and place orders.

“Let’s do a show now because once summer comes along, there is no time,” Chris told her supporters.

Soon, it will be time to mass produce salsa, jams, jellies and pickles, send product off to outlets and hit the pavement leading to craft fairs across the state.

“I just love what I do,” Chris said.

And, while it took a while for Chris to do what she loves — cook and sell — she has found success as The Pickle Lady.

 

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