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Start Your Business Success Stories

Building a Family Business Gets Brothers into a Fine Pickle

Building a Family Business Gets Brothers into a Fine Pickle Bob (left) and Joe McClure. / Credit: Photo Courtesy of McClure's

Joe McClure had just been admitted to the graduate program in physiology at Wayne State University when he and his older brother, Bob, an aspiring actor living in Brooklyn, N.Y., decided to revive a summertime tradition from their Detroit childhood and make a batch of pickles.

“We’d been making them since we were little kids,” Joe McClure said.

The brothers resurrected a recipe from their great-grandmother Lala and whipped up a batch of garlic-dill pickles at their family’s home in Detroit. Joe began distributing the handmade pickles at farmers markets and bars in southern Michigan and Bob took some jars back to Brooklyn where he distributed them in local bars.

The pickles were an immediate hit. The demand was so strong that the family used a condo they owned as collateral to finance commercial kitchen space in Detroit. And Bob opened a satellite production facility in Brooklyn. A family tradition became a family business: McClure’s Pickles.

“We kind of stumbled into it,” Joe said.

Ingredients for success

Taste was the key selling point. But the all-natural pedigree of McClure’s pickles also resonated with consumers, particularly people who were patronizing farmers markets and gourmet stores, their primary sales outlets.  Seeing that their use of all natural ingredients with no artificial preservatives was a marketplace winner, Joe and Bob extended the McClure line of products to include other all-natural pickle varieties, relish and a Bloody Mary mix.

“Our ingredient lists are pretty short,” Joe said. The Bloody Mary mix introduced in March, for example, has only five ingredients.

Retail stores sales, which include national distribution in Whole Foods markets and Williams-Sonoma, represent 70 percent of McClure’s revenues, which Joe believes will top $800,000 this year. The rest come from online sales and farmers markets.

Current production is between 800 and 900 jars a day. The company is now focused on controlled growth.

“We’re focusing on larger distribution and increased production,” said Joe. They’re also looking to buy new equipment and add to their seven-person staff . “People are calling us,” he said, attracted by McClure’s image as a grass-roots company with all-natural products.

McClure’s prides itself on using local produce as much as possible, but even when the cucumber growing season in Michigan and New York has passed and they must source produce from the South and California, the company insists on dealing directly with the individual growers to maintain quality standards. McClure’s is also sensitive to the environment.

“We try to be as environmentally friendly as possible,” Joe said. That includes using package labels printed with vegetable inks and having specially designed shipping cartons to eliminate the use of Styrofoam packing peanuts to prevent breakage of the glass jars.

Family affair

The company is a family affair in more than name. Their parents, Mike and Jenny, help out. “My mom’s in here every day cranking out pickles with us,” Joe said. Joe handles production in Detroit while Bob handles Brooklyn production and marketing and graphics for the company, splitting his time between Brooklyn and Detroit.

“We both do sales,” Joe said. “We are the sales force. We don’t do much advertising.”  McClure’s relies mostly on word-of-mouth advertising, particularly from their participation in local farmers markets.

For the past three years, Joe has sandwiched pickle making at the crack of dawn with class work toward his doctorate in physiology later in the day. He’s scheduled to receive his Ph.D. in August. For the time being, he says, physiology is going to play second-fiddle to pickles.

“I’m going to take some time off from academia,” he said.  “I’m really having fun making pickles.”

Ned Smith
Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.