Visitors to Lancaster Central Market chug gallons of free pickle juice samples at Grasshopper’s Wicked Pickles. People who order a panini at Columbia Kettle Works can choose among six pickle flavors they’d like on the side.
Mount Gretna Craft Brewery is selling plenty of pickle flights — flavored finger foods displayed vertically in little glasses on boards.
Pickles are popping — and not just on TikTok and Instagram, where teens and adults experiment by pouring packets of ranch seasoning into jars of pickles and Snickers bars are shoved into pickles to create #snickles.
With an expected global value of $11.6 billion by 2026, entrepreneurs are eager to break into the pickle business, says Kevin Baxter, managing partner of Newark, Delaware-based Viral Festivals. That’s the management and production company behind The Big Dill, a brand and festival-focused endeavor whose content has amassed over 8.3 million views on TikTok, according to Baxter.
“The pickle community is exploding. It’s almost like the new craft beer,” Baxter says. “Everybody is looking to try the next thing. Try the next flavor.”
The Big Dill festival has thus far been held only in Baltimore, Maryland, but Baxter envisions one day rolling it into other major markets. The pickle-themed party started in 2019, paused for a year due to the pandemic and rebounded in 2021, selling out tickets in four weeks. This year, the festival will be held Sept. 24-25 with tickets going on sale to the public May 9.
Among those that Baxter listed as Big Dill 2022 vendors is Epic Pickles, a York County pickling business. Epic Pickles’ products are sold in several Lancaster County markets and used in some local dishes and cocktails like the Railroad Bloody Mary at Bully’s Restaurant & Pub in Columbia.
A half-mile from there, the pickles paired with Columbia Kettle Works paninis are made by longtime pickle maker Anne Williams, founder of The Original Pennsylvania Pickle Co. in Lancaster.
Columbia Kettle Works — with its namesake brewery in Columbia, a taproom in Lancaster and a new one planned for Adamstown — also sells Williams’ pickles as a side dish plus some flavors in 16-ounce jars.
Williams says she understands pickle people.
“There are three kinds: the ones that will only eat dill; the ones that will only eat sweet — tons of sweet pickles. Sugar, sugar, sugar,” she says. “And there are the ones that will eat it all as long as they’re really good and crisp.”
Williams counts herself among the third and has no use for the “cheapy throwaway kind.”
She also bottles the essence of her pickles, which is called “Barrel 1,” and can be used in sauces and dressings. “It makes a fabulous dirty martini,” Williams says.
Each day, Kent Shaffer drinks a glass of pickle juice — the kind he keeps in a clear container next to disposable shot cups at the front of his Grasshopper’s Wicked Pickles booth. It helps with his leg pain, he says.
He and his wife, Arlene, used to work for Peter Peppers PA Pickles, which has booths in places like Green Dragon Farmers Market and Auction in Ephrata. The Shaffers struck out on their own and opened at Lancaster Central Market in 2020 with offerings like spicy horseradish, zesty lemon and margarita pickles.
Not every flavor they try is a hit. Shaffer says Jamaican jerk didn’t last long.
“I don’t know why. I liked it,” he says. “But you can’t always go on what you like.”
Tastes also vary with market. He’s learned not to take his Old Bay pickles when he sets up at fairs in Ohio. “Nobody there knows what that is,” he says.
Outside his Central Market stand, he sticks to festivals that sell a variety of foods, meaning he’s typically the only pickle guy in town. He’s curious though about how he would do at festivals like The Big Dill.
Staff members from a more veteran downtown pickle purveyor — Lancaster Pickle Co. — have in the past set up at pickle-themed festivals in Dillsburg and Philadelphia. There they show off flavors like Horseradish and Honey, Garlic and Onion and Taco.
Lancaster Pickle Co.’s marketing tagline — “Our Pickles. Your Way. Our Promise.” — hints at the weight some customers give this particular food.
“People will come in and say all kind of things. But I’m like, ‘It’s just a pickle,’” owner Jason Ziegler says. “People take pickles very seriously. It’s wild. But they do.”
Ziegler has been tempted to try Picklesburgh — an annual event that in recent years had been held on Pittsburgh’s iconic Roberto Clemente Bridge with a giant Heinz pickle balloon flying overhead.
The bridge is closed for construction this year, impacting the event’s schedule. As of press time, a date and location for Picklesburgh 2022 hadn’t been announced; though Richard Hooper, vice president of marketing and communications for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, expects a date to be announced soon with “all signs” pointing to mid-July.
Look on the internet for pictures of past Picklesburghs and Big Dills and you’ll see pickle pizza, pickle doughnuts, pickle ice cream sundaes and pickle beer. Look around the internet and you’ll find people looking to sell you pickle just-about-anything. Pickle hard seltzer. Pickle candy canes. Pickle potato chips. Pickle-scented candles. The list goes on.
Pickle flights are even making the rounds on various wedding-focused blogs the way doughnut walls once did.
Guido Michael, general manager of Mount Gretna Brewery in Lebanon County, says those flights of pickles that are made in-house are plenty popular. He ponders how long pickles will be trending but plans to keep flights on the menu as long as they are.
“You don’t ever know how long something will last,” he says. “It’s kind of like bacon. Everybody was on that for a while. That’s died down some.”
Flavors that come in the Mount Gretna pickle flight change with each menu. A recent one included a $7.50 flight of four pickles — salt and vinegar, HGH BBQ, Citrus IPA and Maple Fireball.
Michael has made pickles before by soaking them in alcohol, but the ones on the menu are nonalcoholic. “We want everybody to be able to enjoy them,” he says. The IPA pickle, for example, is flavored with hops.
Trend or not?
Not everyone is on board with the idea that all this pickle hype is notably moving the pickle needle.
“We did not see a national trend toward pickles,” says William Roche, CEO of S. Clyde Weaver. “We have always had strong sales in our pickles, and we have not seen any major growth recently.”
Translating pickle buzz into pickle business is not as easy as it may look, says Lancaster Pickle Co.’s Ziegler.
“We’ve been open since 2013, and since we’ve been open, there have been five people to open up and close down like a year later,” he says. “You really need other products besides pickles. You need something to go with them. That’s the catch.”
Lancaster Pickle Co. sells pickles to restaurants and health care facilities, and stocks Hammond’s pretzels, succulents and pickle swag like keychains and mugs at its Queen Street storefront.
“People love dogs and people love pickles,” Ziegler says. “We probably sell 40 pickle leashes every month.”
Seeing what pickles can do on social media, he recently hired someone to handle TikTok for Lancaster Pickle Co.
Lisa Horn handles social media for Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse. With the official title of director of fun, she handles things like the website and event planning.
She’s keenly aware of the power of the pickle. From time to time, Kitchen Kettle Village runs out of Perfect Pickle Chips and Horn will post on Facebook when they’re back in stock. The ensuing response is off the charts, she says.
Perfect Pickle Chips are the No. 1 selling pickle at Kitchen Kettle Village. The pickle line started in full effect only in the last ten years when the company — which started with jam in the 1950s — aimed to give its pickles some crunch. Getting the signature crunch was a challenge as Kitchen Kettle Village goes the more traditional canning route rather than cold packing.
How they got the crunch is a trade secret, Horn says, but added that cutting the cucumbers into thin chips definitely helped. Pickles are now Kitchen Kettle Village’s top-selling line, with salsa a close second.
“We’re a haven for foodies,” Horn says. “If it’s pickles that get them through the door, we’ll take it.”