It’s every entrepreneur’s dream: Stop your day job and turn your passion into a successful business with local retailing, online national sales and five employees. But for Cecilia “Sis” LaVigne, it’s reality. In just two years the Purdy schoolteacher has gone from unemployed to small-business success in a surprisingly popular market: organic pickled veggies.
Purdy Organic Pickles don’t just taste good, with a tangy punch that evaporates freshly and none of the chemical cling of conventional pickles. They also use locally grown organic vegetables: bread-and-butter pickles, dill pickles, beets, carrots, garlic, onions. And they’re getting so popular that big stores such as Whole Foods, PCC and Marlene’s are asking to stock them.
LaVigne spoke to us about how she’s turned a summer experiment into a full-time business and what she’s setting her pickling sights on next.
Question: Pardon the pun, but how did you get into this whole pickle in the first place?
Answer: I started it as an experiment in 2011. I was a teacher, and I’d lost my contract and was doing substitute work. There wasn’t any in summer, so I started pickling as a pastime.
Q: Why pickling?
A: I love pickles, I’ve been pickling and canning for 30 years. And I was looking for something people would like to have. There’s not a lot of organic pickles out there, and I’m really big on eating organic food.
Q.: How did you start selling?
A.: I started with two farmers markets in June 2011, then I got serious in 2012, doing more markets and getting into local stores. I brought my daughter Tracy on board — I needed help! She’s now a co-owner. Harbor Greens was the first store to sell my pickles. It’s not as hard as you might think; a lot of local stores like to support local food makers. Now we do nine markets a week in the season. And I started the online store in 2012; I have people buying from nearly every state. My goal is to get into more wholesale — doing farmers markets is a lot of work, and I do most of them myself.
Q.: Any plans for expansion?
A.: Yes! Now I have big Seattle stores like Whole Foods, PCC and Marlene’s interested in buying my products. I get my pickles tested at Washington State University and I have my processor’s license from the Washington State Agricultural Department, but now I’m getting my organic state certification. We’ve also had to move to a bigger, organic kitchen to fill the orders: I used to just make them myself at the Boys & Girls Club in Gig Harbor, but now we’re in Island Springs Tofu on Vashon. I have about five or six employees helping out during processing. We’re really going to grow this year; it’s so exciting.
Q.: You use food from local organic farms like Alvarez in Mabton, Tahoma Farms in Orting, Rising River Organics in Rochester and Nash’s in Dungeness. How do you choose?
A.: I buy straight from the farmers at the market, so it’s just whoever has the best price on 300 pounds of beets. And I pickle whatever’s in season within two days of it being harvested. Right now we’re doing beets, carrots and onions; later in spring it’ll be asparagus and then cucumbers all through summer.
Q.: Do you grow any organic food yourself?
A.: Not at all — I’m too busy.
Q.: What’s the most popular pickle?
A.: Beets are our best seller, three to one. They’re delicious, and I think people can’t find them around. Also, I have a recipe for a beet salad on the back of my business card. But everything’s popular.
Q.: So what’s the secret of making popular pickles?
A.: Using fresh produce right from the farm. And I only use very simple ingredients: vinegar, water, sea salt, and maybe some lime, dill or sugar depending on the vegetable. Everything’s organic and fresh.
Q.: Is there anything you haven’t pickled yet but want to try?
A.: Ginger – people keep asking for it. And cauliflower, green tomatoes. We’re starting green beans this year; I think people want them for making bloody marys. People want pickled everything.
Q.: What’s the weirdest thing you’d like to pickle?
A.: I have a friend who’s a geoduck diver, and he gave me a couple to experiment with!Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org