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Life's sweet and sour at pickle biz: Plain Dealer Reporter: Debbi Snook

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

 

Garrettsville- Dill's grassy tang perfumes the factory air where Larry and Karl Hermann make pickles five days a week. This is where the brothers still speak the language of kosher, half- sour and sweet horseradish styles. Their lives - and more - have been steeped in vinegar, spices and brine.

"The pickle smell is still in your shoes when you put them on in the morning," says Karl.

It's been 38 years since the Hermann family, descendants of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, started making dill pickles on Ohio 88 in Garrettsville, a northern Portage County community. Their dad, Don, was in the live chicken business until 1967, when a contagious disease swept in, infected his coops and killed off his broods.

 

Listening, finally, to encouraging friends and family, Don took his personal recipe for less-sour homemade refrigerator pickles and started selling it to the public.

It was a crunchingly good decision.

Today, the Hermann's have strong sales in Ohio and contiguous states, including high-profile, deli-related restaurants such as Yours Truly, Winking Lizard and Corky & Lenny's.

They also make custom-label pickles for accounts they aren't allowed to name but are widely distributed in supermarkets, alongside their own brand.

Six years ago, they extended their reach across the country under an agreement with Nathan's Famous, a New York hot dog restaurant chain known as a surviving food icon of a Coney Island amusement park.

The hot dog company is on a roll, buying fast-food chains, opening more than 150 of its own restaurants and selling Nathan's products to more than 2,000 existing restaurants. It is contracting with companies such as Hermann's to make Nathan's Famous products - from pickles to hot dogs to mustard to "krinkle-cut" fries.

Consequently, the Hermann's version of Nathan's pickles is being sold in more than 6,000 supermarkets in the country.

 

Life's sweet and sour at pickle biz

Page 2 of 3

Jerry Krevans, head of Nathan's branded products, said that adds up to $5 million in his company's pickle sales each year. Nathan's represents about one-third of Hermann's pickle production, says Karl Hermann, but he declined to say whether that figure represents one third of all of their sales.

"Hermann's handles the selling, distributing and marketing," Krevans said. "All we do is collect some money from them, and sample and inspect the product on a regular basis."

He said the Hermann pickles quickly developed a following, especially among folks who like garlicky pickles.

 

Larry and Karl Hermann won't divulge that recipe, although garlic, dill oil and coriander seeds are part of it. But they gladly show off their pickle-making machinery.

At first, the family grew its own cucumbers, picking them daily when they reached jar height. The Hermann's mother, Ruth, washed them by hand in a basement sink until somebody came up with the idea of using a wringer washing machine. They bought five and got them running.

Today, the pickles are made in a combination of quaint and complex ways. No longer cuke farmers, the Hermann's buy through brokers who follow the harvest north from Texas and Florida to South Carolina, Ohio and Michigan, and back down to Mexico.

Around 200,000 pounds of cukes arrive each week. They are poured into a cleansing bath, run twirling through a brushing machine and, if sliced, are shot through a bladed tube onto a conveyor.

If Hermann's made the kind of pickles that sat on a shelf like Vlasic and Claussen, they'd have to hot-pack them and add preservatives. Instead, they make refrigerated pickles packed in cold liquid that must be stored cold. The products contain few, if any, preservatives beyond vinegar and brine, so the flavor of the pickles deepens over time.

They make "kosher" dills or "full sour," "half sour," "sweet horseradish" pickles and pickled tomatoes and sell another company's sauerkraut under their own brand. (See related explanation of pickle types.)

Not all their pickle-making is automated. Workers remove damaged and broken cukes, drop seasonings into jars, pack the jars and trim cukes that are too long.

 

Life's sweet and sour at pickle biz

Page 3 of 3

It's a diverse setting: a 45-member work force that is male and female, white and black, Amish and non-Amish, all packing kosher pickles to the loud, hard beat of country rock music.

Larry Hermann will only say his employees make above minimum wage. To help retain Amish workers, he provides them van rides to work.

Karl runs the company's sales and marketing out of Phoenix while Larry handles sales and production here. They plan to add a third pickle production line this year.

 

Don, their father, died a few years ago, but they say he approved of the link with Nathan's. The pickle field is competitive, with thousands of brands vying for supermarket space. Flavor can be a top priority, but so is a hook for people to try it.

Larry said they have no regret that the Hermann name is in small letters on the Nathan's labels.

"We'd go to a distributor with our own label and people would say, 'Who are you?' With the Nathan's label, they say, 'Where have you been?'

"It just helps us grow."

 

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: dsnook@plaind.com, 216-999-4357

 

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