How Chris Forbes, an unemployed Brooklynite, turned his at-home operation for making Christmas gifts into a successful company
The Good Food Awards are back -- after an inaugural year that brought Alice Waters to the podium, Andrew Barnett to the judging panel, and arame and ginger sauerkraut salad to the table. The not-for-profit organization led by Sarah Weiner and Dominic Phillips has just announced the finalists for a 2012 contest that has set out, in the long-term, "to change the way America feeds itself." Selected out of 926 contestants, the 144 finalists range from an eight-person goat cheese dairy in Harrisburg, Missouri, to a 400-person brewery in Colorado. United by a taste for such delectables as Abominable Winter Ale, Duck Liver and Apple Mousse, and "Devil Sauce," the contestants also share a desire to cultivate and produce with sustainable practices.
Sour Puss Pickles, a two-time finalist and one-time winner, is a company with what is beginning to sound like a familiar story. Born out of a tenacious Brooklynite's stint with unemployment, Sour Puss went from a home operation of Christmas gifts for Chris Forbes' buddies to a company that puts out a mean pickle -- cucumber, ghost pepper, or Thai chile in brine, with classic, spicy, and kirby spears; roasted beets; wax beans; plus relish and chutney. And to the small operation, business means face time with farmers, friends in Brooklyn, and a secret recipe of ramps available in nine-ounce, shelf-stabilized jars.
The Atlantic caught up with Forbes to discuss everything from vinegar choice to the economic downturn to the Good Food Awards, themselves.
What is unique about the peppered okra that won the award last year?
Okra is a tough beast. A lot of people are put off by the texture alone. But, spending some formative years in Texas myself, I learned to embrace the versatility of the vegetable. It is a great vehicle for spice and smokey elements. In our case, we simply infused some basic elements: spice, a smokey pepper from Syria called Aleppo, earthy elements achieved through cumin and coriander, and apple cider vinegar. Sourcing of the okra was probably the most integral part. The skins have to be pretty thick, and the farm that grows the okra harvests at the right time, so the vegetable contains the key amount of crunch or snap.
Can you tell me the story of how Sour Puss Pickles started, and how you became involved? Specifically, how did you know you wanted to do this for a living?
We got started a little under two years ago, basically from scratch pickling whatever we could find at the farmer's market. There was something buzzing in Brooklyn, regarding food. It seemed like everyone was making something, reacting to what was going on around them (the economic downturn, the war in the Middle East, etc.). There was a real call to simplify life and create something with our collective hands. Personally, I had been pickling ramps for a while and giving them away as gifts to friends for birthdays, Christmas, etc. I was without a job and figured I could do this -- I could really make a living from making pickles. My business partner, Evelyn Evers, and I decided to create this venture. It evolved from there. In many ways, the whole thing was a knee-jerk reaction from something that had been brewing from deep inside. And the time was ripe to actualize this feeling.
Why do you believe in sourcing locally?
Sourcing local is the key to our business. The negative impact outsourcing labor has on the environment and on labor wages is enormous. We have all seen the impacts over the past century, from the striping of the fertile soil of the Midwest, to the deforesting of parts of the rain forest and the depletion of our natural resources. I could go on and on, as to why purchasing "organic" cane sugar from Brazil is negative from a humane standpoint as well as from an ecological standpoint. But, the true essence of sourcing local is all about flavor of the product and a greater sense of community. Vegetables grown down the street just taste better. I can say this because I'm in the middle of a couple of very fertile areas, where organic and sustainable practices are implemented (namely, Lancaster County and the Hudson Valley).
A sense of community can be created with local sourcing. I want to know the face behind the vegetable and the land behind the product just as much as the consumer wants to know who made the pickle in a jar. We can provide this service locally, and that is something that is missing intrinsically when you ship your product around the world or buy a product from Mexico to meet a demand. We have been following that model for too long and it is damaging to our environment and our collective consciousness.
What is the research process like for testing brine and spices?
This might be hard to explain. It starts with the freshest, tastiest vegetable -- something we would like to implement in our line. We have an idea of what direction we would like to take regarding the flavor profile. Certain flavors just typically go well with each other; for instance, carrot and ginger. We are limited to a few different vinegars: We use local apple cider from New Jersey, a white distilled from upstate New York, and imported white wine from France. A lot of our brines are made with the apple cider vinegar. After we decide on the basic foundation, spices or tertiary elements are discussed. For example, if we go with a spicy element then we like to balance that out with an earthy element like cumin, caraway, or celery seed. Some products are intricate, containing a large number of spices, and some remain simple with only a few spices or herbs to supplement the flavor of the vegetable.
How did you hear about the Good Food Awards, and how has the award affected your sales and general exposure?
We were contacted by Hannah Hausauer, who worked with the Seedling Project at the time and we were kind of under the gun to submit our products. I think I noticed the email about six hours before the deadline for submission, so Evelyn and I hastily decided on which product we wanted to submit, tasted some samples, and sent them off within the day.
The exposure has been great. Our vision as a business coincides perfectly with what the Good Food Awards represent. The Awards represent a call to where we need to go with food, philosophically. We put great thought into all of our practices and thankfully, the Good Food Awards recognize that.
Sales have increased, and we have garnered a handful of accounts from like-minded vendors throughout the country. We are very proud to be considered alongside such an esteemed group of talented food artisans.
Is there anything else you think people should know about your company, your personal history, or your interactions with farmers?
Well, we are just trying to produce the best possible product in the short span of time we have here in the Northeast. There is no real schtick behind what we are doing; natural ingredients, handmade and hand-packed products, sourced locally, and made with care using sustainable practices. We do work directly with farmers, meaning that we have a personal interaction with them; we shake hands, talk about the product, seasons, etc., rather than place an order over the phone or through a distributor.
We produce here in Brooklyn, but aren't necessarily defined by the locale. There is such a wonderful community here, and the amount of talent, thought, and care our community puts into our collective work is profound. However, Brooklyn isn't the center of the universe. There are other communities that give as much care and thought to the food being produced. And in many ways, they are more advanced and further down the sustainable road than we are here. But collectively, we find there is need for these sustainable practices and we are happy to be a small part of a larger community.
Image: Sour Puss Pickles.