By Hanna Neier, Senior Content Editor
Shamus Jones is a man of strong convictions. He believes in workers’ rights and artistry in everything he does. His ethos is on display in Brooklyn Brine, a six-year-old company that takes pickling and condiments to a new level. Through unique formulas like Whiskey Sour Pickles, a $16-an-hour wage, and partnerships with Finger Lakes Distilling and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Shamus is building a just pickle kingdom that extends as far as Australia and Japan. Recently, Hungry Marketing had the pleasure of chatting with Jones about his vision and success.
So how did you arrive in the world of pickles?
I was raised by a single mother, so I had a pretty strong work ethic. I started out at 15 as a dishwasher and I scaled the ranks working in restaurants, all the way to executive chef.
I’ve been a vegetarian, bordering on vegan really, since I was 10. One fall day, I oil poached my favorite mushrooms and was able to use them through January. Being vegetarian is so seasonal—those mushrooms are only around for a short time—the ability to stretch them beyond their season, it was a real aha moment for me. I took my passion for weirdness, preserved the seasonal, added umami, and ran with it.
Where did the idea for starting a pickle retail business come from?
The restaurant work environment is tough. My coworkers were abused with below-living wages. I burned out. I circled back to being a consultant. I ended up in this Brooklyn establishment that had both food and retail in-house. I was able to jar up and pickle items, and had this direct conversation with patrons about the products. I sold this one guest her first pickled garlic scape, and she became an evangelist. The restaurant’s budget ran out so my contract ended early, and this hamster wheel in my head was saying, “You’re going nuts, you have all this fun with pickles—let’s do this!” I decided to open up my own business.
No fundraising? No planning?
On my way home from the restaurant, I ran into this guy whose restaurant I once work in and I just said right out, “Can I use your kitchen tonight?” He said yes and I started Brooklyn Brine that night. It was kismet. The intention was there, but I needed a commercial kitchen, so it was all expedited by the fact that he was walking down the street just as I was walking home.
How did you build the business?
The first 10 months of Brooklyn Brine, it was me and my weird friends, in the kitchen from 10 pm to 8 am, drinking coffee and listening to ridiculous music. Two months after starting the company, we caught the attention of Whole Foods and we had our first foray into distribution. We also got our first accounts, like Murray’s Cheese. I would work all night and then couldn’t sleep because I had to buy jars. Once, I swung by the Bedford Cheese Shop, said, “Hey, want to taste this?” They put in an order! That first year, we had just under $100,000 in sales, enough to know we were going in the right direction.
You have some really creative pickle varieties—how did you settle into this niche?
We were working three to four nights a week, making forty jars a night, building our inventory. We were the cliché before it became a Portlandia skit—we were throwing everything against the wall to see what stuck. Seven years later, I know that was foolish, that you have to streamline and focus. Back then, I couldn’t let go of my chef’s ego. I was making these crazy spice blends, pickling eggplant… you know, it tastes great but it’s incredibly difficult to market. It requires consumer education, which really doesn’t let you scale your business. I learned to listen to the market. Cucumber pickles are out there but just so horribly commodified. So we make quality, innovative and clean pickles.
You now make 15,000 jars a week and ship internationally—how were you able to scale without changing the product?
We focused all of our attention on the process very early on. We established formulaic scalable processes that created efficiencies. We have more staff than when I began, but it's not much more relatively speaking. Economies of scale have been a major factor. Vinegar, cucumbers, and most items are purchased by the ton. The more we scale that process, the more power we can hone in on that mission of cleanliness of the product and responsible sourcing.
And everything’s still by hand?
We are at our fourth location for production, and now have much more space, forklifts, and steam kettles that allow for bigger batches while still producing every jar virtually the same way as when I started. We now own a cucumber slicing machine and filling and capping line. This takes the strain off of coworkers’ limbs, and allows for us to create more on any given day. We still do everything by hand, but have eliminated the really body-damaging steps of our process.
Can you discuss your collaborations with Finger Lakes Distilling and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery?
The collaboration grew organically. As a chef, you’re always building sauces in the pan, and you distill them with spirits or wine. Well, asparagus was in season, I put on my pickle hat, and came up with a whisky asparagus pickle. One night, I took my Brooklyn Brine crew to Black Rabbit, a local bar in Greenpoint, for a post-shift beer. They invited us to a whisky tasting they had planned with Finger Lakes Distilling. It was phenomenal. We arranged for Finger Lakes to sell us their whisky directly at cost, and we sell them our pickles the same way. We support each other. And we’re monogamous. We recently got approached by Jim Beam, but we’re not going to collaborate.
That partnership was our first foray into making innovations in the market. We’re really carving out a niche now with the innovations we’re doing. When we moved to our President Street location, there was a beer bar across the street we’d get after work drinks. The bar approached us to see if they could buy pickles from us, and I’m a beer dude so I said, “Hey, how about give us beer and we’ll make a weird fantastic pickle out of it!” That became our smoked carrot stout-infused pickled carrot. Brooklyn Brewery shouted us out on social media, and the owner of Dogfish responded with an idea to put hops into pickles. That was another natural process, a collaboration that came from both sides wanting to innovate.
Not all of your efforts have been runaway successes. You closed your restaurant Pickle Shack. What happened?
It was wildly successful, but a huge bandwidth-suck. About four years ago, I was really serious about frying pickles. It was early on in the company, and we were looking for ways to monetize. I don’t have a trust fund, you know, so we chose this location near our factory. It was really no frills, and we created everything from scratch in this tiny kitchen. There was so much staff. It worked in concept but not in terms of bandwidth—I couldn’t get the management right. I had partnered with someone with the cash to open it up, but I struggled with running both companies as they grew so rapidly. The restaurant made one million in sales the first year but it was so difficult. I lost that laser focus on my original intention. We couldn’t maintain the authenticity if buyers took it over, so we closed and I focused on running Brooklyn Brine. Running a brick and mortar sucks! I’m not interested in a full service restaurant again. I love the idea of just a counter—no general managers, no waiters.
Do you have an exit strategy?
I’ve always believed, as a craftsman, that I wanted to further strengthen the community. My coworkers make 15,000 jars a week all by hand, and they’re just as proud and impassioned as I am. Authenticity really resonates with me. I have no interest in being a salesman. Our company culture, who we’re doing business with, that’s what matters. Our coworker retention at Brooklyn Brine is insane, no one leaves. I’m not interested in partnering with Walmart, with an exit plan in two years. We started out righteously as artisans and we’re still on that path.