By Eric Peterson | Mar 06, 2015
Pickles, Bloody Mary Mix
Founded: May 2012
Co-founders Justin Park and Tyler DuBois are focused on craft pickles, but an unexpected byproduct of their brining process is driving dynamic growth.
DuBois and Park's pickle-making hobby spiraled into a business in 2012 after the pair made pickles for the latter's wedding.
"The hobby went out of control," says Park. "We started small at the farmers markets and really have been taking it one step at a time since then."
The company now makes five kinds of pickles, including Caraway Garlic, Habanero Horseradish, and Jalapeno Honey dills, Spicy Caribbeans and Sweet Molasses Chips, as well as Bloody Mary Mix.
Sales doubled in 2013 and again in 2014, and this year is bringing even more growth. The company now ships more than 1,000 jars a week.
A big driver: The Real Dill Bloody Mary Mix. "It's definitely our hottest item," says Park, noting that the product's development was somewhat serendipitous. "We never had any plans of making Bloody Mary mix."
Initially, DuBois and Park dumped the leftover cucumber-infused water down the drain. "We used to throw it out, but it smelled so good and it tasted so good, we felt guilty about throwing it out."
In May 2013, the duo began adding tomato juice and spices to make the Bloody Mary mix and the market gulped it down. It's now The Real Dill's top seller and there's sometimes a need to juice cucumbers when there's not enough pickling byproduct.
Denver's Crooked Stave is distributing the mix to liquor stores and bars. "We're really psyched about working with them," says Park. "They're super-creative, like-minded individuals who are fun to work with. We were the first non-alcoholic item in their portfolio."
Not that Park and DuBois are moving away from their core product. It's just that margins are higher with Bloody Mary mix, says Park, and it's also easier to make. "Pickles are a much more laborious product to make and we're not making any compromises."
To this end, the unexpected success of the Bloody Mary mix allows The Real Dill to keep a small-batch, craft ethos front and center with its pickles, which are made, packaged, and aged for a minimum of two weeks at The Dillery.
But it's something of a juggling act, says Park. "Every jar of pickles we make is four more jars of Bloody Mary mix we could have made. It's definitely about finding a balance."
In October 2014, the company moved into a 4,600-square-foot facility (a.k.a. "The Dillery") in Denver's Baker neighborhood that it shares with Elevation Organic Ketchup, RedCamper and Backyard Soda Co. and consolidated operations. It's a major step up from their former kitchen -- it was 350 square feet in all.
"We were paying rent at four different places -- the commissary and three storage units," says Park. The new facility "allows us to be way more efficient."
The Real Dill now has 200 retail, restaurant, and bar accounts in 17 states. "We've really focused on specialty food stores, independently owned for the most part," says Park, noting that it will soon go into Whole Foods on a small scale. "That's by choice." The reason is the indie stores' target market -- "people who really care about food" -- perfectly overlaps with that of The Real Dill, he adds.
But Park and DuBois haven't turned their back on their roots. Farmers markets and other events remain a pillar of The Real Dill's marketing strategy. "We did 250 events last year," says Park. "We'll probably do that many again this year."
The events include markets, in-store samplings, and parties -- a spicy pickle eating competition is often a component at the latter. Bubba Beatle is three-time reigning champion. "This guy's a beast," jokes DuBois.
Coming soon is Beers & Spears at Denver Beer Co., where pickles are paired with craft beer. DuBois and Park have also partnered with Colorado brewers to produce small batches of hops-infused pickles. In 2013, they used Great Divide Titan IPA; coming soon is a Odell Myrcenary Double IPA pickle.
Small, seasonal batches of pickled vegetables beyond the cucumber are also in the works -- pumpkin and Brussels sprouts are possibilities, says Park. "It's about bringing something to the table that's new and different."
Challenges: "Sourcing is always a challenge," says DuBois. "It's hard to stay on top of and easy to never be happy with."
Adds Park: "We are seeing challenges in the not-too-distant future about production capacity."
Opportunities: There's plenty of runway of growth with the Bloody Mary mix, says Park. "It definitely presents the biggest opportunity for us right now" -- thanks to "more flexible margins."
Needs: For the time being, not too much. "Right now, we're in a pretty good place," says Park. "We're turning down opportunities -- our demand is definitely higher than our supply."