Shopping Local Not Only Tastes Great, but Supports Homegrown Producers
May 28, 2020 05:16PM
By Vanessa Orr
Photos courtesy Pittsburgh Pickle Co.
One of the most important things to come out of the pandemic was the realization that buying local—whether from farms, family-owned stores or Pittsburgh-based businesses—is key to supporting our local economy. Helping our neighbors just makes sense, especially when they produce some really great tasting products right in our own backyard.
Miller’s Mustard, based out of Mars, PA, has been making banana pepper mustard for the past 18 years.
“It’s based on a family recipe that we made at home for years and years,” explained Robb Miller, founder of Miller’s Mustard. “We would give jars away, and it grew in popularity. People wanted more, but we only made so much, so we decided to try to sell it, not knowing anything about the food industry.”
The Millers made their first 3,000 jars in the family kitchen, which took a year and a half. “We just started walking it into stores and telling our story,” said Miller.
As they grew, they began working with a co-packer out of Lancaster, PA, and now sell their products in 2,000 stores and export them to four countries.
According to Miller, the reason that their mustard is so popular is because of its unique flavor profile.
“It has more of a pepper flavor than a mustard flavor; there’s also a sweetness to it,” he says of the fat-free, gluten-free product. “It’s also all-natural and non-GMO; all of our ingredients can be pronounced.”
While it is branded as a mustard, it can also be used as a sauce, as well as a dip to complement charcuterie plates or pretzels. “It’s also great on sandwiches and on anything off the grill like burgers, pork loin and salmon,” said Miller, adding that it is also a much healthier option than mayonnaise.
Miller’s Mustard partners with a farmer in Ohio to create their product.
“The key is vine-ripened peppers; over our years of making it, we realized that the longer they mature, the more flavor they have,” said Miller. “When you see banana peppers in grocery stores that are yellow or lime green, it means they were harvested early for a higher yield.
“The farmer we work with lets them mature, and also irrigates his crops, which keeps the heat in our peppers consistent from year to year,” he said, explaining that a dry summer creates a hotter pepper. “He also has a huge cooler, so within two hours of being picked, our peppers are stored inside, maintaining freshness.”
Miller’s Mustard comes in three flavors—Mild, Hot and Habanero—and can be found at most stores throughout western Pennsylvania. “We make a great product; it has a unique, fantastic flavor profile that people really enjoy,” said Miller. “Even people who don’t like mustard love it. Once we can get them to try it, they’re hooked.”
When three brothers bought the BeerHive Bar in the Strip District in 2011, they wanted to start serving fried pickles on the menu. But when Will Patterson, John Patterson and Joe Robl couldn’t find the pickles they wanted, they decided to make their own.
“They were looking for a pickle with all-natural ingredients that could hold up in the deep fryer, but like any good Pittsburgher, when they couldn’t find it, they figured they’d make it themselves,” explained Evan Pohl, sales and marketing manager, Pittsburgh Pickle Co. “Pretty soon, the bar regulars became pickle regulars, and would come in just to buy pickles.”
The brothers moved production to a church basement in 2014, but when Giant Eagle came calling, they needed a larger facility. “They bought a building in Verona in 2016 and started making a couple hundred jars of pickles a week,” said Pohl. “Now they’re producing a couple thousand units a day.”
Pittsburgh Pickle Co. added about 100 Giant Food Stores and Martin’s markets to their distribution network last year, and they launched in Weis Markets at the end of May. The Pennsylvania state liquor system also put in an order for the company’s popular Briney Mary mix and began carrying the product in May.
“We’re really proud that our Briney Mary mix just won double platinum awards at the international Drunken Tomato Awards, with the highest ratings in a blind taste test in both the mild and unique categories,” said Pohl.
No matter how large they get, the philosophy behind Pittsburgh Pickle Co.’s products hasn’t changed—creating the freshest, best-tasting products.
“A lot of other companies buy Grade B cucumbers and let them sit in tanks for months with a ton of salt before rehydrating them with water and chemicals,” said Pohl. “We get Grade A cucumbers from a farm in New Jersey every Monday, handwash and sort them, and by the end of the week, they’ve all been cooked. We go from a cucumber to a pickle in about five days.”
The company’s current product line includes Pittsburgh-Style Pickles, Fire and Smoke Pickles, Dill Mill Pickles, Better Bread & Butter Pickles, Picklexir, and its Briney Mary mix, which is infused with Pittsburgh Pickle Co. brine.
“We launch new products at Picklesburgh because that’s where we get the biggest buzz,” said Pohl. “If it takes place this year, you’ll be seeing more new products.”
Valerie Cannon, owner of Speckled Hen Chocolate Company, credits her company’s success to a lot of hard work and creativity.
“I’d always wanted to run my own business—I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” she explained of the company that celebrated its eighth anniversary this past Mother’s Day. “I never felt comfortable working for someone else making their ideas come to fruition; I always wanted that for myself.”
In 2013, Cannon was working in the corporate world at a job she liked but realized that it wasn’t enough. “I had the nagging sense that this was not what I wanted in life; it wasn’t a passion or something I truly loved. So I bought a dilapidated building and decided to do something for me.”
Though living in Ohio, Cannon found a building in her hometown of Sarver, PA, and bought it even though it had been vacant for 10 years. “It used to house Wilma’s chocolates, though there wasn’t a chocolate-making tool to be found,” she said. “I didn’t even talk to my husband first; I just bought it and then asked, ‘Do you want to move back to Pennsylvania with me and start a business?’ That was quite a dinner table conversation.”
While the company started small, it took off thanks to the support of loyal customers. “In the beginning, we were teeny tiny—I made some turtles and chocolate-covered cherries, just some very basic things, and the customers loved it,” Cannon said. “They supported us as we grew and grew into this amazing business.”
One of the things Cannon likes most is experimenting with new products. “While we make all the traditional things, we’re also constantly trying new things based on whims and customer requests,” she said. “Someone might walk in and say, ‘When I was a kid in Texas, I had chocolate that tasted this way,’ so we make a sample for them. We have plenty of time to play and get it right.”
Cannon’s creativity also extends to chocolate molds, which she embellishes to create unique products. “We make molds more fun,” she says of wine bottle molds filled with pretzels, edible wine glasses and trout molds turned into delicious fishing-related products.
Working with American Natural eateries, she also created one of her most popular products during the pandemic—chocolate toilet paper.
“We heard about everyone hoarding toilet paper and wanted to make people laugh, because who doesn’t need to laugh right now?” she says of the collaboration. “We sold a ton of these over Mother’s Day—I’ve had moms calling me saying it’s the craziest gift they’ve ever received.”
In addition to American Natural stores, Speckled Hen products can be found in their retail store on Rt. 228 heading into Saxonburg, as well as in wholesale locations including Planet Mart® Food Stores, Grandma Ann’s Nutbread, A Fare To Remember, Harvest Valley and Freedom Valley farm markets, and more. To find more locations, visit www.SpeckledHenChocolateCompany.com.