Pickle juice has long been a summer thirst quencher in parts of the South, especially Texas. It's low calorie and may be better than plain water at relieving cramping from dehydration. Some people even freeze it.
But no one had ever turned pickle juice into a business until John Howard fell on hard times. He co-founded Bob's Pickle Pops with his in-law, David Millar, and they now sell up to 7 million units a year.
It all started when Howard found himself in a bit of a pickle...
His San Antonio contracting business collapsed in the financial crisis, so he and his wife decided to borrow some money and buy a roller skating rink for about $200,000. They sold pickles at the snack bar, which were very popular with kids, and when the pickles ran out, "we started giving them juice."
Soon the kids wanted the juice rather than the pickles, and Howard bought a machine to juice the pickles and create as much liquid as possible. He'd freeze the juice in two-ounce salsa containers. It was a hit.
"Before long, we were doing 300 or 400 a night," he says. "We would sell more pickle juice than we would rent skates."
Howard and his wife couldn't make a go of the skating rink, so they shut it down after a year and a half. The pickle juice idea, however, stuck.
"It's very Texas," he says. "It's very, very humid here, and so athletes, baseball players, little league, football teams, they all started drinking pickle juice." Even NFL teams like the Philadelphia Eagles have embraced it.
In 2008, Howard decided to start selling pickle juice to local stores and online. Millar, his in-law, created a website for their new product, which they named Pickle-sicle. They bought a machine to put juice in small plastic sleeves, and eventually they were shipping thousands of them.
"It was very, very difficult, a lot of hard work, and we were doing it all by hand," Howard says. He and his father would spend up to 14 hours a day filling packages.
They also had to change the name of the product. Howard says Popsicle owns the trademark to any variation of "sicle," and even though there is no pickle Popsicle, "when we went to try to trademark our little pickle-sicle, we got shut down."
They renamed the company Bob's Pickle Pops, after a cartoon pickle created for the website. The frozen pops ended up on a segment of the Food Network's "Unwrapped," which sent so much traffic to their website that it crashed.
"By the end of the day, we were over 10,000 orders," Howard says. "We didn't sleep for about a week and a half."
But they were losing money. "We had a lot of problems with shipping and cost overrides. Packaging was way too expensive."
A manufacturer near Dallas who read about the company reached out to help, and they came to an agreement. The manufacturer eventually took over the company, paying Howard and Millar royalties and keeping them involved in marketing and product development.
Revenues have grown more than 1,000 percent, from $20,000 in 2008 to $230,000 in 2016. Howard's sales goal for 2017 is $500,000.
Bob's Pickle Pops are now on Amazon and in Walmart. In fact, Walmart approached the company about buying the product, something that almost never happens.
"We had tried to get in with Walmart a year before that, and we just weren't on anybody's radar at the time," Howard says with a smile, adding that they'd originally bought jars of pickles for juicing at Sam's Club.
Now Bob's Pickle Pops hopes to go national by targeting athletes, especially cyclists. It's expanded by adding flavors like lemon and lime to the juice ("grape and pickle juice don't go very well together"). It's also selling premium juice called Bob's Picklebacks for cocktails, capitalizing on a new trend of chasing a shot of Jameson with a shot of pickle juice.
Howard says drinking pickle juice is more popular than a lot of people realize. "Probably 50, 60 percent of every person I've talked to about pickle juice will admit they drank it out of the jar as a kid."
The company is popping out millions of pickle packets a year, and Howard's stress level is now cool as a cucumber, but he does miss the old days.
"Probably the funniest story was the very first time we ran product in a machine to put (juice) in a package. We had to supply juice for 150,000 units," he says.
"We worked days and days and days to get enough pickle juice to drive all the way up from San Antonio to Dallas in the back of a trailer for the packaging process."
It was the trip from hell. "The lids were falling off the containers, the tires went flat on the way up, there were just so many problems," he says, "but it was fun, because it was just us and all the family."
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