Kelly McVicker says she has always been one of those people who had an entrepreneurial spirit, the type who was constantly making and selling her wares. Ever since she created an imaginary donut shop to sell fake donuts to her grandfather as a child, she said, she’s been a serial entrepreneur, from selling painted pumpkins to her neighbors growing up in rural Kansas to a small screen printing business she started when she moved to San Francisco, and now McVicker Pickles, her latest venture.
Unlike people who have recently jumped on the canning bandwagon, Kelly’s been canning and making pickles and preserves her entire life, learning from her grandmother on the family farm and as a participant in 4H, an agriculture and leadership-focused youth organization, when she was in high school. Because her family lived 20 miles from the closest town, going to the store wasn’t always an option, she said, so like many farm families, they depended on their garden and had a need to preserve food as a result.
“I was always in the kitchen with my grandma and my mom, so it’s kind of in my background and in my upbringing, but I didn’t ever think of it as something serious that I would do professionally,” she said.
After getting a degree in international studies in college, Kelly did work for a number of non-profits centered on women’s issues, in both Los Angeles and later in the Bay Area. It was when she was living in L.A. in the early 2000s that she rekindled her penchant for canning, going to the farmer’s markets in Hollywood. She would pick up food for the week at the farmer’s market on Sundays, she said, and then she began experimenting with the produce she was buying. With everything there was to choose from in California, she said, she started looking for ways to preserve the produce, getting back to her canning roots.
After moving to San Francisco to work for the Global Fund for Women, Kelly found that being at a desk all day was beginning to wear on her and make her feel detached despite the fact that she felt she was doing good work and helping and making a difference for people.
“It’s a pretty classic story. I think people who have been in these fixed office, sedentary lifestyles feel this kind of urge to make something with their hands and see a product at the end of the day that they can look at and be like, ‘Yes, I made that,’” she said. “I just felt like I needed to get back to that and that led me back to the whole preservation world.”
The serial entrepreneur in her kicked back in. She jumped in and started popping up with her pickles at community fairs and events with the idea that “if I can make a batch of something and sell it, then I’ll make another batch,” she said.
At the same time, she began teaching pickling and preserves making at Workshop, a DIY school for the maker set in San Francisco, where she now teaches seven or eight classes a month. Focusing more on the craft gave Kelly an opportunity to become more singularly focused, she said. With the increased focus on artisanal food in the community, it also just “felt like the right place at the right time” for her personally to begin a business because the market was ready for what she could offer—plus she got a lot of great feedback and support.
“It was almost like it was meant to be. It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t like I had to go beg people to give me a chance. People were like, ‘oh, you’re doing this, that’s great, let’s work together.’ People in this community are really open and supportive, so that helped a lot,” she said.
Kelly says it wasn’t even that she thought she had one recipe or product that she knew would be a runaway hit. Rather, she just felt she had the confidence that if she really wanted to make a business, she could create food that people would want to eat. The whole process, she said, has snowballed with each step she’s taken leading to the next and then the next. “It kind of just had a momentum of its own. Once the ball was rolling, it was like ‘OK, there’s a clear path here,’” she said.
McVicker Pickles features a variety of seasonal products so what Kelly makes constantly changes, aside from the traditional dill or bread and butter pickles. She currently shares kitchen space with the Pig and Pie restaurant in the Mission, a relationship that came about fortuitously when the restaurant had decided they wanted house-made pickles but they wanted to take the responsibility for making them off the chef’s plate, so to speak. They now feature a plate of McVicker’s Pickles on their menu and sell them jarred on premises as well. Additional sales are primarily done at local pop-up markets, such as the Bluxome Meet Market, Workshop and or at pop-up restaurant collaborations with friends. She also has plans to begin selling at the Mission Community Market on Thursdays.
Kelly’s products also span a wide spectrum. At any given time, she said, she features six to eight varieties of pickles, as well as two beer mustards made in collaboration with Speakeasy Brewery, cocktail shrubs and bacon jam.
“I make a little bit of everything, and I think that’s been one of the challenges for me in making it into a business that’s more streamlined is I’m a bit of a magpie – I like to take a bit of everything and collect it all together and make something new,” she said.
The serendipity of how one thing has led to another for Kelly has been one of the most rewarding parts of starting her business. In addition to getting help and support within the food industry—such as a friend who introduced her to the folks at Pig and Pie or teaching classes at Workshop or through Sidetour, she’s also had the opportunity to present a TedX talk through someone who took one of her classes. “The path has almost felt effortless,” she said. Having doors open also helps to reinforce that you’re doing what you should be, she said.
“What I’ve just been delighted to come across again and again is the way people help each other out and support each other and connect with each other through food…it makes it so much more rewarding than just trying to make some money,” she said.
What drew you to food?
I think a big factor was growing up cooking and learning this kind of kitchen skills from the women in my family. My family’s pretty traditional and gender divided, and that kind of pissed me off a lot when I was younger – oh, the women are in the kitchen and the guys are out doing the farm stuff outside. But it’s true that I really did get a lot of time and connection through that at an early age. But honestly, I’ve always been kind of a serial entrepreneur. I’ve always liked to engage and interact with people through making something, creating something and selling it. And food, in a way, is a vehicle for that right now. The products themselves are important to me, and I love everything that I make and I love making people happy with it. But I think it’s as much having a vessel as a means of connecting with people as it is just being with food and being passionate about interacting with food everyday.
Why pickles and preserves?
The pickle part – I mean my last name is McVicker, and there is a recipe in my family cookbook that’s just called McVicker Pickles and it’s one that dates back to the 1880s. It involved such fancy equipment as an earthenware jar and basically that’s it. So I knew that that family recipe was there, and I’d also wanted to try it and so the McVicker pickles sort of immediately caught on as opposed to just one type of preserve. Preserves and pickles, it had to be there from the beginning with the pickles. And then I grew up canning and was always just experimenting with jams and jellies and stuff like that so that’s where making the bacon jam and some of the other stuff that I do came in.
The other thing is just—I am an omnivore (I eat meat sparingly, but I do eat it)—but when I’m in the kitchen and making the food, I love just to work with fresh produce. Some people are passionate about meat or baking and love to work with flour, and I really just love to get my hands on fresh produce and transform the flavor. That’s what pickling’s about. I just love that you can take something that’s fresh and would have a life of a few days and you preserve it in a way that will last a year or two.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
In terms of recipes, I really am an obsessive online researcher. I love the library so I do a lot of checking out several books at a time and going through recipes, looking at things that maybe people used to make a lot and they haven’t made in a long time that aren’t as popular now to see if I can somehow tweak them and be re-inspired by the suggestion of a recipe, but then taking it to a different level.
And then I think just living in San Francisco, every meal you have, every place you go has something you can take away. Even if it’s not a pickle or a preserve, but a flavor combination. For example, I love butternut squash and I had a really good butternut squash cooked with sage, so I thought, ‘OK, how could I make a butternut squash pickle that has the sage and has a sugary sage flavors?’ So I ended up making one like that. So you can take inspiration from pretty much anything that you eat and turn it into your own process.
And then I have a lot of friends sort of on the outskirts of the food world doing pop-ups and will cook like one night a week at a restaurant, and I guess the informal mobile food culture [is inspiring, too]. And with that you get a lot of people who are always making something different and have more freedom and flexibility than if you’re running a traditional restaurant. For example, I’m good friends with Wes Rowe who does the Wes Burger pop-up. He does a couple nights a week at different places, one of them is Mojo Café on Wednesday nights. Anyway, so Wes and I will get together and make some pickles together and he’ll do one variation for his burgers and I’ll do another variation and then we’ll compare. Or a few weeks ago we made fried pickle tots, which is basically a traditional tater tot, but we chopped up dill pickles very fine and mixed it in with the potatoes and made pickle tots. So things like that – there’s always an opportunity at a pop-up or an event that you can collaborate and make something together.
I think the best piece of advice that comes to mind is from the owner of Papalote, and I met him at an event that Whole Foods put on for food entrepreneurs and he was a speaker on the panel. And he said you have to make sure that you are not paying to subsidize someone else’s good taste. And it’s true, you’re not working to subsidize someone else’s good taste. You can be busting your ass and making something really awesome and having a great time, but at the end of the day if you’re not actually making a profit on it – if you’re just making good food for people, then that’s great, but you don’t have a business, you have a hobby or a passion. Before you put all that work into it and just kind of close your eyes and try to make it happen, you’ve really got to think—is this something that I’m going to be able to make a profit on and have a little bit, whatever you’ve figured out that margin is, to have that. Otherwise you’re just subsidizing other people’s good taste. That’s a good way to sum it up, you know – keep it in focus.
I think for me in terms of advice that I got, the thing that worked for me is start really small, take advantage of opportunities as they come along but not be in a rush to really scale up. You know a lot of people are like, ‘oh now you’ve got a product, you should scale it up’ and if you do that then immediately you’re going to a co-packer and taking production out of your own hands, and that’s not a bad choice, that’s a totally viable business plan that a lot of places choose to do. But for me it just didn’t make sense, and I felt like that’s not really what my goal was. So start small and be comfortable building it as opposed to making a leap that’s going to totally shift your entire structure. And then what I did, I didn’t think about it too much – I’m the kind of person that if I’d set up a whole business plan and set up the numbers and everything like that from the beginning, I probably would have felt discouraged and backed away. You know a little bit of ignorance is bliss and if you put the blinders on for just a little bit and kind of just go and get that running start, then it’s time to get serious and talk about, are you subsidizing somebody else’s good taste? But I had to have that push from the beginning, I don’t think I would have had it if I’d made it too big from the get go.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
The biggest challenge has been increasing my production without dramatically increasing my costs. I think that’s probably common to any business that’s producing anything. It’s a Catch-22 because I myself know that I’m pretty limited to what I can make in a week and that limits how big I can get, but if I bring somebody on, that’s a whole other level of costs and then I’ve got to make sure I’m making more to support that. That is that path that you want, you want to be growing, but I guess is just knowing how to do that and having the capital to say at some point, OK, I’m going to put this into a person’s salary or hiring hourly help a few days a week. Knowing when to do that and put that money in is a challenge for me.
The only thing I’d add to that is working out of a space here is obviously very expensive so trying to find a place that you can have a big enough production but also just not paying to just to rent a huge space – the fact that rent here is at a premium and just the costs of living in San Francisco and renting counter space here.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
The best thing is I get up every day and I have a series of things in front of me and none of them seem like chores really. Every day is a little bit different, and it’s always interacting with people. That’s the best thing about my job right now, is every day I’m interacting with people face to face whether it’s being in the kitchen and working alongside the staff there or or going out and selling at the market and meeting people or going and teaching a class and meeting new people that are interested in learning to how to pickle.
Going back to what I was talking about in my office job, I didn’t get a lot of that before sitting in an office with the same people all the time. So being out in the world and spending more time connecting and meeting people has really given me a lot of energy. And just the fact that I don’t have a set schedule – I mean I do have set hours that I’m going into the kitchen, but other than that, it’s very flexible. I get to choose my priorities for the day and how I’m going to go about it, there’s no like ‘you need to be in this place from this hour to that hour’ and that is really freeing and if you’re a self-motivated person and you’re driven and passionate about what you’re doing then that frees you up to be more productive as opposed to taking away your productivity. I think if you can choose your hours and how to spend your own time in a way that works for you, I’m way more productive now than when I was in a stationary role.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Hmmm, that’s tough since everything changes seasonally, my favorite thing does change seasonally. Right now I think I’d have to say my pickled Brussels sprouts. I take small Brussels sprouts and halve them and put them in a brine with apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, a bunch of mustard seeds, garlic and then make it sweeter with a little bit of cinnamon and cloves so it’s got this nice kind of savory/sweet balance. And Brussels sprouts are basically like tiny little cabbages so the leaves really absorb all that liquid so they just get really nice and thoroughly picked but they also have a bit of the crunch so they have a sharpness to them. So that’s my favorite thing right now this being kind of winter season and the Brussels sprouts have been amazing that I’ve been getting, they’re locally grown. In the next couple of weeks asparagus is going to start coming out so I’m super excited for that because pickled asparagus in a Bloody Mary is pretty sweet.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
The Awesome Bar girls, Leah and Stephanie – they’re definitely at the top of the list – because I think they have a really solid product. They have different flavors, but it’s clear what it is, it’s not all over the place. They’re really hard working. They do pretty much all the production, delivery, marketing, they do it all kind of themselves and they’ve been so forthcoming with sharing information and giving advice – they really embody that spirit. A similar person is Ben Thorne, he does Sneaky’s BBQ and when I first started working out of my first kitchen it was a place called Rebel Bar and I had never worked in an industrial kitchen before, I was kind of clueless as to what I should be doing and he was really nice and patient and helped me out, kind of like showed me around. We’ve collaborated on a few pop ups on sandwiches, and he’s delivered my pickles through his network. He’s one of my favorites.
There’s so many people coming to mind. I already mentioned Wes of Wes Burger. Dafna [Kory] of INNA Jam is awesome. She’s also somebody who embodies that spirit of having a really solid product but also a really solid vision and realizes it’s as much about community as it is about business. She’s been very helpful and supportive to a lot of food entrepreneurs. And then Kelly Malone and David Knight, they aren’t food people but they are the co-owners of Workshop where I teach classes. And they basically built this DIY school in the Western Addition and you can take anything from sewing to pizza making to pickling and woodcrafting there. It’s kind of this crazy, schizophrenic place, but you come and figure out a new skills and make things and you’re not going to master it in one night but you can come and hang out and have a beer and learn how to make pickles. It creates community for people who want to take classes, but also for the teachers. I mean I wouldn’t have been able to get my business off the ground nearly as successfully or quickly if it weren’t for Workshop. Teaching classes there, it gives you another form of income, an extra stream and that has make all the difference for me. They’ve just supported a ton of local entrepreneurs – everything from food people to designers to carpenters and things like that.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Mmmm, oh man, that’s a tough one. You would think I would have an immediate answer for that. I would say my mom’s spaghetti with Bolognese sauce. We just call it spaghetti, but she just makes this awesome meat sauce. And the basic thing is you simmer it for a day or two or three or however long you can let it go and it just tastes really amazing and it was the thing I grew up eating and loving the most. It’s more of a comfort to me than the flavors themselves, and I’d probably pick that over some fancy schmancy French specialty. So my mom’s spaghetti, and I would probably need to have a little bit of affogato at the end, a really nicely made affogato to finish it off.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I’m a fan of the little hole in the wall places, the small family restaurants. I mean as much as I love a new high-end, high-concept San Francisco place, honestly, what makes me happiest and what I crave the most are places like Tu Lan. I love Pagolac which is on Larkin. I’m a big fan of this place just went to a few weeks ago for the first time called Cholo Soy – a Peruvian place down in the Mission and it basically translates to “I’m a gangsta” in Peruvian. And I think it’s just awesome that that’s the name of the restaurant! I don’t know if there’s a significance to it or not. But they have amazing ceviche and it’s kind of this little hole in the all type of place almost in a courtyard mall area – they have this ridiculous ceviche and this sauce made with yellow peppers you can only get in Peru and some guy flies in with cases of it – very, very amazing sauces – that place just blew me away, everything’s really, really good.
I love Yamo, which is a little noodle bar in the Mission. Most of these places are kind of like on the cheaper end of the spectrum, which reflects my career as a non-profit worker and now as a small business owner. You can tell where I dine is not many of the high-end places, but we’re so lucky in the city to have all these different family owned restaurants from families that have come from all over the world and opened something and make the most awesome things from back where they came from – we’re just lucky in that way.
Photos courtesy of Kelly McVicker, McVicker Pickles.