Aug 14, 2014
McClure’s builds pickle legacy from scratch

In 2006, using their great-grandmother Lala’s recipe, brothers Bob and Joe McClure started McClure’s Pickles after years of making pickles in their tiny Michigan kitchen.

The relatively small, family owned company has become a well-known producer of artisanal cukes. Its products are available at select stores throughout the United States, and can be found in specialty shops in Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and South Korea. McClure’s also has teamed up with Detroit snack food maker Better Made to produce a classic crinkle cut potato chip, available in Garlic Dill or Spicy Pickle.

“We learned how to make the pickles from our grandfather and parents, and now we continue the tradition with a bit more room,” co-owner Bob McClure said. “We make the pickles, relish, Bloody Mary mix and other McClure’s products in Detroit, Michigan. In Brooklyn, New York, we have a small marketing, sales and order management office.

“We use as much local produce as possible when it is in season, and when it’s not we call up the farms and speak directly with the growers to know where our produce is coming from and how it is being grown. Every jar is hand-packed by one of our talented team members. We work to provide the freshest tasting product we can and use as much local produce nearby our factory. Our products are all natural, gluten-free and kosher certified.

“First and foremost it’s the attention to quality of the raw materials, from what you use to make the brine, the cucumbers, the salt and the dill,” Bob said. “If you buy bad ingredients, you are going to get a bad product. So, we have to have good suppliers and great team members who understand what we are tying to do. It’s a competitive market space in the pickle industry and you have to set yourself apart. You have to let the consumer see that they are eating something different that’s worth paying more for.”

Prior to entering the pickle business full time, Bob McClure was an actor, comedy writer and pickle maker living in Brooklyn with his wife Natalie and their son. He has since moved back to the Detroit area, working at the McClure’s manufacturing plant. There, he oversees business administration, key account management and brand development.

Joe lives just outside Detroit, and has completed a doctoral degree in physiology from Wayne State University. His work has been published in The American Journal of Physiology. He is also a classical musician. For McClure’s Pickles, he oversees large-scale production, Midwest distribution and sales, as well as a number of other major tasks – including the management of a 20,000-square-foot factory.

Their parents, Jennifer and Mike McClure, are also part of the McClure’s Pickles operation.

“We were two guys with no food industry, manufacturing or business background,” Bob said of his partnership with his brother. “We started with our grandmother’s recipe and developed a product we are passionate about. We needed a product with which we could be significantly competitive. Pickles here in the state of Michigan is certainly a competitive business.”

He pointed to “a long history” of Michigan pickle operations including Vlasic and H.J. Heinz.

“Our products are measured against other products,” Bob said. “With our pickles, consumer perception determines what the value should be. Generally, because it takes us more money to make, our pickles end up on the shelf at a higher price. To some, our pickles may be very valuable. To others, maybe not.

“I would always encourage you to think about growth,” Bob told an audience gathered earlier this year at the Michigan Food Processing & Agribusiness Summit in Hudsonville, Michigan.

“It can happen in a number of ways, and is not solely representative of getting bigger in size.”

While Bob was in Brooklyn gathering pickle products from farmers’ markets and getting them into kitchens for preparation and packaging, his brother was simultaneously producing product in Detroit outlets that included church kitchens and senior citizens’ centers.

“We didn’t have the capital to invest in a large manufacturing facility, nor did we have the capital to invest in inventory through a contract manufacturer,” he said. “We took it step by step. The positives were we had significantly less upfront investment to test something in the marketplace. The negatives were it is a lot of work when you’re scaling up using your own industry knowledge.”

Among the challenges have been obtaining product year round in a Michigan environment that features frigid winters.

“Michigan cukes are available at the end of June, into July until around September, then we have to start getting our products from other suppliers including Florida and Mexico. We have to provide a quality product that is unlike anything else in the marketplace in order compete with where we’re at.

“We connect directly with our farmers, so we understand how they’re growing, where they’re growing and what they’re growing for us. We absolutely demand that they grow a good product for us, and we pay for that product.”

In its first facility, the company stored cucumbers in buckets before they were hand-sliced and hand-packed and hand-capped into jars.

Bob said the process has been streamlined considerably. Large 60-gallon kettles holding the brine solution have been replaced with even larger kettles. The slicing is no longer done by hand. A slicing machine has been more efficient – and safer for employees. It also gives the workers more time to hand-pack jars, enhancing quality control.

“As I look back to where we were, you see there’s no way to scale (some of the initial production practices) and continuously add value without changing your operations and your understanding and perception of how your business needs to grow in terms of adding value and streamlining the production process,” Bob said.

“We were taking guesses at what was adding value to our process,” he said. “In some respects, it aids you to achieve significant growth and enables you to take small steps along the way.”

– Gary Pullano

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