Three years later, he was running a million dollar business, and just over a decade later, he sits at the helm of a multi-million dollar food empire, with a nice sideline in pickle-inspired merch, and is having the last laugh: “Now I own my own sneaker line… and it’s got pickles on it.”
At first glance, the pickle category might not seem like the sexiest part of the store for a budding food entrepreneur, concedes Grillo, whose entrepreneurial juices started flowing as he returned home and started munching on his father’s pickles, which were “made using a 100-year old Italian garden-made recipe” that had never been commercialized.
“That lightbulb went off in my head, and I said I’m going to use my design background [Grillo attended Central Connecticut State University where he studied footwear design and textiles] and bring this product to market.
“The next day I started selling them out of my car, and that summer I opened the first pickle cart in Boston Common,” said Grillo, who designed his own logo and packaging.
“We then started running a store as well, and once we grew the company to about a million dollars, I knew we had something. Whole Foods was my first major retail account, and that really launched the brand.”
‘To be stealing shelf space from a huge giant like Kraft Heinz is awesome’
Today, Grillo’s Pickles products are in around 7,000 doors nationwide from Whole Foods to Costco, Target and Stop & Shop, heading into 10,000 doors by the fourth quarter of this year, said Grillo, who said the brand is “growing about 70% year on year." He won’t share numbers, but confirmed that a reported revenue prediction for 2018 approaching $25m was in the right ballpark.
“We’re now #2 in the country [in the refrigerated pickle set] behind Claussen – which is owned by Kraft Heinz - according to Nielsen data. I got into this business because corporate America didn’t hire me, so to be stealing shelf space from a huge giant like Kraft Heinz is awesome.”
Point of difference
Surprisingly perhaps, given the industry-wide push towards cleaner labels and shorter ingredients lists, some leading brands in the pickle category still use added flavors, artificial colors such as yellow 5, polysorbate 80 to help disperse fat-soluble colors and flavors, preservatives such as sodium benzoate, and added calcium chloride for flavor, said Grillo, whose dill pickles contain only cucumbers, brine (water, distilled white vinegar, salt), garlic, fresh dill, and grape leaves.
“We’re taking the consumer that used to buy shelf stable pickles and they are now buying fresh. The cucumber inside that [shelf-stable] jar is probably four years old, I feel like they have preserved that cucumber to the point that it’s probably no longer a vegetable. We have a product that’s super fresh, super crunchy and we have a shelf life of 70 days.
“Even the refrigerated pickle players are still using added flavors, polysorbate 80 and dehydrated garlic and dill. Some other brands also use these big processing pickles - big cheap seedy cucumbers - whereas I will spend more money to have quality diamond grade cucumbers. I would always rather have one quality thing than 10 crappy things. We only use fresh dill, fresh garlic.”
Grillo acknowledges that anyone can copy anything in the food industry, but says he has “the infrastructure in place that could build Grillo’s into a $100m, a $300m business.”
He added: “I don’t think another company could just come in and duplicate what I am doing and succeed due to the authenticity of our brand and the position we have in the grocery channel now. We’ve turned the whole refrigerated pickle market upside down with our products.”
The focus now is on supporting the roll out of two new products – sandwich makers dill slices and a 'lay-down' fresh pickle pack ("the pickles are laying down rather then standing up, which means they are always summered in brine") said Grillo, who has set up successful cross-merchandising partnerships with high profile brands such as Beyond Meat that have driven incremental growth opportunities for Grillo's.
He’s also working on a grab-and-go single serve convenience pack, and says he’s constantly inspired by feedback from fans.
“We’ve done a pickle beer, we've done ice cream, we love exploring – although right now we’re concentrating on the lay down packaging and the sandwich stackers – we get a lot of inspiration from people telling us what they do with their brine,” added Grillo, who started his business with $5k in 2008 and raised $4m from Breakaway Ventures in early 2018.
‘I keep my head down and act like I’m still working the cart’
There have been many challenges along the way, says Grillo, from “managing teams” to “understanding other people’s work ethics” to “having a board for the first time” and dealing with the rigid timelines of many food retailers.
“If you’re not ready [when the category review comes up] you’ve got to wait sometimes a whole year [before you can pitch your wares to that retailer again].”
As a general rule, says Grillo, “I keep my head down and act like I’m still working the cart.”
Vlasic dill spears (shelf stable): Cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, polysorbate 80, natural flavors, yellow 5.
Claussen dill spears (refrigerated): Fresh cucumbers, water, salt, distilled vinegar, contains less than 2% of dried garlic, calcium chloride, sodium benzoate, spice, mustard seed, dried red peppers, natural flavor, polysorbate 80, oleoresin turmeric.
Grillo’s Italian dill spears (refrigerated): Cucumbers, brine (water, distilled white vinegar, salt), garlic, fresh dill, grape leaves.