McClure’s Pickles: Kind of a Big Dill

By Cameron McCool on
McClure’s Pickles: Kind of a Big Dill

It’s easy to fall in love with the story behind McClure’s Pickles.

Every year as children, brothers Bob and Joe McClure would spend a full day jarring pickles in the kitchen with their father. Ten hours later, using their great grandmother Lala’s recipe, the boys would have an abundance of homemade pickles to give away as gifts during the holidays.

Although several friends told the brothers to start selling the pickles over the years, it wasn’t until 2006 that the idea of turning their homemade pickles into a business began to make sense. Their motivation was simple: the brothers wanted to make some extra cash.

Hard work and serendipitous timing resulted in a glowing NY Times review that catapulted McClure’s Pickles into the national spotlight.

The brothers leveraged the exposure to secure national, and eventually international distribution for their brand. Fast forward to today and the once homegrown operation is now a full-blown pickle empire.

Based in Detroit, their pickle production plant processes eight to ten thousand cucumbers a day. And the McClure’s Pickles range of products has grown to include relish, potato chips, brine, and non-edible wearables. Eight years post launch, resounding support for the company continues to roll in; their bloody mary mix (pickle brine and tomato juice), described as “so good it’s habit forming,” has become so popular it can now be purchased by the gallon.

Mike McClure, Bob and Joe’s father, has since said that the growth of the company has “been beyond our wildest dreams.” Indeed, it’s the level of success that many entrepreneurs hope to experience, but one that only few manage to achieve.

We spoke with Bob McClure to learn how the brothers have mastered the art of long-term growth and created a deep, personal connection with consumers across the globe.

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Hi Bob. You and Joe launched McClure's Pickles in a tiny kitchen in 2006, and now you're overseeing a 20,000 square foot pickle factory in Detroit. What does a typical day look like for you both?

It’s a lot different to what it was eight years ago. For me, personally, I do mostly business development, administration, and leading the sales and the administrative team members in our company. My brother runs operations and production, so he’s out managing our floor team leaders and the floor staff every day.

Running things is never boring or inactive. There are always a lot of puzzle pieces that don’t come together, especially if you don’t have a background in business or manufacturing, which my brother and I do not.

You’re always learning something, for better or for worse. You learn from your mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes can be quite costly ones. Your team allows you to make great decisions.

Even though the process has grown, we’re ultimately doing the same thing we’ve always done, and that is making a great quality food product. But the way in which we do it, and evolve to get our product at a fair value and to consumers worldwide–that has significantly changed.

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It's a huge achievement to own a business that's still on the rise eight years into the game. What's your secret for the sustained, ongoing growth?

First and foremost it’s our customers. That’s what I’d attribute the success to. And word of mouth.

Without customers supporting the brand, you don’t have a product. You also have to have a great quality product for them to support. And you need values that support it.

We believe in great quality products. We believe in fresh natural ingredients. And we believe in giving people an amazing experience. We just happen to make food products, and beverage products, and snack products.

Speaking of your supporters, every time we meet a fan of McClure's Pickles it's obvious how deeply connected they are to your story.

Yes. The great thing about a story is that everybody has one. And the consumers that we target, the supporters of our brand, like our story because it connects them in some respect to their own story -- either their own history with what we’ve done, or their own family recipe or family business.

Our supporters are an active part of our business. They get to see us grow. They get to be a part of it. They get to watch something, almost in real time, happen. And you can’t say that about larger companies that have been around for a hundred years, because they’ve already established their enterprises.

Because we’re in the process of doing that ourselves, you can see the evolution, the growth. You can see how we’re making an impact on people’s lives and food experiences.

I do honestly believe you can become a very large company, one that employs many people, one that sells millions of units of product, and still have an ethically sound, positively value-driven company that is devoted to the consumer and the experience that you’re providing. And that’s what we hope to do.

We’re not all about profit, profit, profit. It’s about the experience and delivering something to the consumer and connecting them to our story so that they understand that there’s value to what we’re providing and how we’re providing it.

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Pre-McClure's Pickles, you and Joe walked very different paths. Joe acquired a doctorate of physiology, and you were an actor and comedy writer. What's been the best thing about transitioning from your previous lifestyle to that of a full-time pickle entrepreneur?

That’s a good question (laughing). I love the idea of unstoppable vision. And the idea that what you dream you can make happen.

Before I was in this business, I was in the entertainment industry. I love telling stories, and although my work gave me the opportunity to tell stories, they were other people’s stories. I was selling other people’s brands.

One of the best things about starting your own business is that you get to tell your own story. And there’s nothing more authentic than you being able to express your passion and get people passionate about what you believe in. It empowers people to believe that they can do whatever they choose to do. That’s the most exciting thing. Being able to inspire not only yourself, but being able to inspire others, too, who in turn inspire you.

Early on, to get McClure's Pickles off the ground, your mom and dad came on as employees and helped you out with a financial loan. To this day they're still on the payroll. Do you have any advice on how to work effectively with family members?

Well that’s a great question. Obviously as the business grows, no matter if you’re a family business or if you work in a large corporate firm with partners, there’s always going to be things that you agree and disagree on. And I’d say regardless if it’s a family business or not, clear distinction of roles is key, and who handles what is key. Knowing that you’re all going after the same vision, the same mission and vision for the company. When you’re working towards those goals and you have clearly defined roles, you’re never going to be out of question of what is right for the company. There needs to be leadership and support for the leadership. And it has to be clearly defined, because it gets difficult down the road if you don’t have those clearly defined.

Just because you get bigger or you start making more money, it doesn’t mean things get easier. Just, the problems become different, bigger, and you have more resources to handle them or screw them up.

To this day my parents are still on the payroll, they still work here. Joe and I didn’t take a pay check for five years, so we didn’t earn any money. We were working separate jobs in addition to this, we were paying other employees prior to us getting on the payroll. But yes, our parents are still on the payroll.

They took out a home equity loan on their house, put their house on the line, to give us our starting cash for the company. You know, a lot of people think, well their parents gave them money. Well they didn’t give us money, they put their house on the line to help us out. And it’s very different from starting a company with large amounts of capital or money that you’ve earned somewhere else and you’re putting towards something.

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We literally had nothing to start with except for a couple thousand dollars in savings and then our parents were, thankfully, willing enough to give us a break, a start, and one that’s obviously very risky for them too. But they saw the reward, they saw the potential. They believed in the dream. They believed in the passion.

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That's a phenomenal achievement, growing McClure's Pickles to what it is today from a couple thousand dollars and a leap of faith. Do you have any advice to share with other entrepreneurs who are in the process of building their business?

I think that a lot of entrepreneurs believe they have to make certain sacrifices. Like, oh I’ve got to work fifty hours a day to make this happen. I’m not sure that that’s true.

I do believe in working smart versus working hard. And I believe in seeing that there’s the ability to have work-life balance. And I strive for that. It’s a hard battle for me, because I know I’m not excellent at it. But I see where I need to improve a little more clearly in my personal life, my family life, and how I balance work. And I do see my career path and being able to create a company as a pathway to having that freedom.

How do I build up a team that helps me grow as a person? And how do I then employ them to be better people, and lead them to achieve their goals? It’s about a relationship and not a transaction.

So again I think there’s a duality of owning a company that you have to work very hard and smartly to get to where you want it to be. You also have to grow your team to help you get there. And if you want to have a personal life, you have to figure out work-life balance, otherwise you’ll eradicate some very great important parts of your life.

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Indeed. The challenge of striking a healthy work-life balance is relevant to every entrepreneur.

Well for me it’s very personal and I deal with it on a daily basis. Going back and forth it’s a work-life balance. It’s not something that I tell people often. But it’s key. One of the other things I’d tell an entrepreneur who’s starting a company is to build your team so you can have a company that allows you to be a better person.

And that doesn’t mean working 24 hours a day. It means you’re building a team that helps you grow as a person. And you’re building a company that allows them to grow as people too, because you’re paying them well, you’re giving them passion and inspiration and allowing them to feel empowered and grow with you as a person as well.

Now that you've secured international distribution and a loyal, global following, what are your plans for expanding the business?

Part of the next phase of our development is to take consumers on a journey that we are a brand that is proving a different food experience, not just a pickle experience. We really feel that we can enter remarkably different food categories and provide the same great quality experience that we do with our core products, like our pickles.

By going into cured meats, into adult beverages like beers and spirits, even mustards, we’ll stay within a relatively similar category of snack foods, condiments, drinks, and focus on consumers who want to have a better experience, be connected to a story, and feel like they’re getting value out of what they’re purchasing.

Even if it would be a product like pickles or mustard -- those are pretty much mainstream, commodity products in the marketplace -- we’re not innovating the category. We’re not changing the category. But we’re innovating on the quality. We’re saying: this category can be better than what is currently out there. And here’s how. And here’s why.

We’re not innovating the category. We’re not changing the category. But we’re innovating on the quality. We’re saying: this category can be better than what is currently out there. And here’s how. And here’s why.

To this day, McClure’s Pickles are sliced and jarred in-house. www.mcclurespickles.com

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