Walking into The Pickle Guys store on the Lower East Side is like stepping back in time. The smell of the small store loaded with barrels of pickles, tomatoes, olives (and lots of other tasty pickled treats) will have you salivating, but it’s nothing that owner Alan Kaufman hasn’t seen before. We spoke exclusively with Alan about the history of pickles and the Lower East Side, some of the strangest things he’s pickled, and why his slogan “Smells Great Tastes Better” is right on the money.
Alan, how did The Pickle Guys come to be?
Pickles have been here since 1910. In the old days, when you came to this country, you had to come through Ellis Island. The Irish came first, then the Italians; that’s why you have Little Italy. Since you didn’t live in the country, you lived right where you came in. When the Jews came in from Poland, Russia and Germany to escape persecution, they brought their trades. Whether it was a locksmith or shoe repair or locksmith. A lot of people went into the pickle biz. It was not an expensive item; it is a comfort food and reminds them of home.
I know that the Lower East Side used to have lots of pickle stores years back.
This area at one time had 40 stores. We are the last store in the area. There’s no machinery; everything is done by hand and it’s done on premises. I used to do commercial photography. As time went on, I had too much free time on my hands. I came down here and my friend got me a job with the old guys, Sully Kaplan, Benny Guss, all the old timers. I worked for them and as time went on, they taught me everything. As they got older, these guys found that their kids didn’t want to go into the family business. When the last store closed, I wanted to keep the tradition alive. I wanted to see a pickle store stay on Essex Street, at least through my lifetime and through hopefully the guys who work for me their lifetimes, too. So I closed up my photography studio, (which was okay because everything went digital and I’m used to film). When they closed the last store, I opened up, because it’s nice to have a business where people appreciate what you do. I give someone a pickle, and the first words out of their mouths are, “Wow, this is the best pickle I’ve ever had!” I mean, that’s worth more to me than anything! They appreciate it. I’m seeing generations of families come in here, and it’s the best feeling.
You’re a part of their family’s history.
Absolutely. People will always remember The Pickle Guys, and it’s good memories for them. We’re always friendly; it’s a nice atmosphere.
Did you love pickles growing up?
Oh yes! This is comfort food for me.
What was your favorite?
When I was growing up, we never came down here that much. My mom would buy pickled tomatoes in the jar and bring them home on a Saturday. I would be eating one…15 minutes later I’d be eating another one. Before the night was over, I ate pretty much the whole jar.
When I came in, I saw that you have pickled pineapple, and I told you that I had never seen pickled pineapple before. You told me that you pretty much pickle anything.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve pickled?
Well, we’ve pickled watermelon, which is still an old-fashioned thing. That came from 1910 when they came over. That’s one of the original recipes. We’ve done mangoes, peppers, tomatoes, string beans. When we started, we only did sour pickles, half sour pickles (new pickles), sauerkraut, hot peppers, tomatoes and sweet peppers. We still make that, the same recipe since 1910, and the other things we added on. When we started, we only had 5 barrels, and now we have 34-36 different barrels and trays. In the summers, it can get a little slow so we start playing around. Our newest thing is the marinated sliced tomatoes; those are excellent! Wanna try one?
Sure! (taking a bite) Oh my God, this is ah-mazing.
You put that on a sandwich, or put it in a salad. It’s delicious. And pickles can really complement any dish that you have. When we work with hotels and major restaurants, their philosophy is the same as ours. If you give a great sandwich with a stinky pickle, they’re going to remember the stinky pickle. But if you give them a good sandwich and a good pickle, they’ll say, “What a great meal we just had!”
I have to say, it is super clean in here.
Yes, everything you see here, every night, everything goes back in the refrigerator. What you see here is about 1/3 of the store; we put it away and then it’s mopped and cleaned, and then the next day, we start all over again. Every Tuesday is the day that we make pickles here. We get about 2200-2500 pounds of cucumbers every Tuesday. I’ll sell one of these 40-gallon barrels every single day, and on Sundays, I’ll sell two barrels.
Friday is our Shabbos day; we close early and don’t make anything on Friday. We’re closed on Saturdays and Sundays we don’t make anything. On Monday we start again; we’ll make the pineapple or the string beans or peppers. And Tuesday is our pickle day, and while we’re doing all this ,we’re still shipping out all across the nation from Alaska to Hawaii.
I would think that not only are you popular among the locals but that you would be a tourist attraction, too. You’re living history for a lot of people.
Absolutely. We’ve had people come from all over the world. Tourists will visit and we’ll be on their list along with the Statue of Liberty! It’s that authenticity factor. You feel like you step back in time when you come here.
So when someone comes here, what would you say are the must-haves?
The most popular item here, that we sell more of than anything else, is the sour pickle. I would suggest sour pickles, the marinated sliced tomatoes, and any of the olives. But every year we make new things, so you might come in and find new items. Just come in, you don’t have to buy anything. Just come for the smell. You smell that right? I can sell that! [laughs] That’s how we got our slogan: “Smells great, tastes better!”