He’s in a pickle, and his business is thriving

By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / September 9, 2009

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If a man in a pickle suit accosts you outside Park Street T station, don’t be alarmed. And if he tries to sell you a pickle, by all means do what the giant talking pickle says.

The guy in green is Travis Grillo, the entrepreneur behind Grillo’s Pickles, launched a year and a half ago from Grillo’s Allston backyard. “I was sitting there eating pickles, and a light bulb went off. Why not sell these pickles?’’ says Grillo, 27, once an art major who dreamed of working as a sneaker designer.

Grillo knew he had a sure thing: his Italian grandfather’s 80-year-old pickle recipe, a family treasure the Grillos grew up on. There’s nothing fancy or exotic about these spears; they’re cucumbers brined in vinegar, with garlic and fresh dill. But the chilled, fresh pickles, made with grape leaves to preserve their crispness, are like the Platonic ideal of a crunchy pickle, with a natural color and satisfying snap that tells you this is a premium, wholesome, top-of-the-line product.

And if they don’t tell you, Grillo certainly will. “Best in the world!’’ he periodically shouts at passersby as he and cousin Eric Grillo man the cart on a recent warm weekday evening. Sure, you’d expect him to say that, but what about the legion of customers - regulars and newbies - who stop by to grab two spears for $1 or a quart container for $6? “That’s a damn fine pickle,’’ says Mike Regan, a man in a crisp white shirt who’s trying Grillo’s pickles for the first time. Repeat pickle purchaser Jonathan Kardos says, “It’s a good pickle to have after a day of work; it carries me over to dinner.’’

Grillo says many customers are far more effusive in their affection for his pickles. One daily customer pays double for each purchase, because, says Grillo, “that’s what he thinks they’re worth.’’ He’s convinced that to taste the pickles is to love them. “They’re not fried, not greasy, nutritious, all natural - there are so many qualities to it, once they try it, they’re hooked. It just tastes so good.’’

Without giving away any family secrets, Grillo can report that he puts care and quality into every spear. He uses Poland Spring water and garlic from California, because he believes it tastes better. The pickling cucumbers are quartered lengthwise; a whole cucumber, says Grillo, tends to get mushier when pickled. For now, the actual manufacture of the pickles takes place at two Connecticut pizzerias near Grillo’s hometown. But he’s got big plans for these pickles and may soon need to ramp up production; as it is, he’s having trouble keeping up with the demand. Besides the cart, he’s gotten his pickles into a number of retail outlets, including Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, Pemberton Farms in Cambridge, and Brookline Liquor Mart in Allston. His dream is for Grillo’s to become “the leading pickle across the US.’’ A few restaurants are featuring Grillo’s Pickles, as well; Alibi, the cocktail lounge at the Liberty Hotel, uses them in its $13 Green Mile martini.

A martini may not be the most obvious place for a pickle, but Grillo offers a few other ideas. “A lot of people use them in macaroni salad, tuna salad, instead of the celery,’’ he says. And the leftover brine from the quart container can be used to marinate other vegetables - mushrooms, perhaps, or even more cucumbers.

For all Grillo’s confidence in his product, he’s also surprised at its runaway success. “I never imagined owning a pickle cart,’’ he says, and one thing that’s impressed him is how pickles cut across all socioeconomic lines. “Every nationality, every type of person, young, old, rich, homeless, they all love pickles,’’ he says, a theory he has had ample opportunity to test at Park Street’s busy crossroads. “If people are down to their last 50 cents, they’ll still buy a pickle.’’