Va. pickle pros hone their craft as business grows

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — The fermented pickle isn't typically on the all-American list of go-to munchies.

But for the founders of Arlington-based Number 1 Sons, fermented pickles, a pungent sauerkraut or a batch of kimchee always can be found on the menu.

Although the District of Columbia is not considered one of the nation's premier pickle producers, brother-sister pair Yi Wah and Caitlin Roberts have made it their business to offer fermented vegetables in a variety of guises, a product line you won't find on the shelves of Wal-Mart.

"Comparing jarring to pickling, you are creating a sterile environment where these pickles live in the jar, whereas our pickles and our foods are still very much living," said Caitlin Roberts. "That's part of the fun. The flavors can still kind of evolve and they're active."

In the siblings' 1,000-square-foot pickle factory in the city's Clarendon neighborhood, the blue 50-gallon vats of half-sours and kicky kosher emit a cloud saturated with salt as part of the fermentation process.

A bite into a half-sour stuns the tongue with a palpable fizzing sensation and powerful punches of flavor, so striking it makes one wonder whether it is safe to eat. Along with pickles and krauts, Number 1 Sons offers Korean-style kimchee, including a kale-based variety, and a sampling of salsas and pickled beans, beets, carrots and turnips.

Yi Wah Roberts, a restaurateur, and Caitlin Roberts, who has graduate degrees in government and microbiology, take pride in manipulating the science of fermentation to produce the sharp flavors and exotic effects.

"That's why you get that fizziness, kind of like soda, because there is some carbon dioxide that's released as part of the fermentation process," she said. "For our foods, you're getting really good microbes for your body. You're replenishing your gut or your flora and fauna of your body."

According to Pickle Packers International, a trade association for the pickled vegetable industry, nearly 70 percent of American households eat pickles. Americans consume more than 9 pounds of pickles per person annually.

Big-name brands such as Heinz, Claussen and Vlasic may dominate the mainstream grocery shelves, but the Washington-area's "craft" picklers are starting to make their mark, with small producers such as Gordy's Pickle Jar, In a Pickle, Oh! Pickles and Fresh Crunch Pickles joining Number 1 Sons in the local market.

Gordy's is sold in 100 retail stores, and co-founder Sarah Gordon said the local picklers have a camaraderie along with the competition.

"There's always been one goal from the start: To create community and make the best pickles at the same time," Gordon said in an email. "Owning and operating a startup requires enormous amounts of sacrifices, so be ready to give 100 percent to whatever you set out to create."

The founders of Number 1 Sons say they benefit from a heritage that does not shy away from pungent flavors.

"A lot of the foods we eat are fermented: cheese, some types of bread, sourdough, chocolate, coffee, wine, beer. The list can go on and on," Caitlin Roberts said.

The siblings grew up tasting the fresh and powerful flavors of fermented foods. Half-Irish, half-Chinese, the young entrepreneurs credit their love of fresh food to their mother.

"I thought it was weird when my friends had a cake that was made from a box," said Caitlin Roberts. "I was like, 'What?'"

Number 1 Sons came together in May 2012 when Yi Wah Roberts began tinkering with the robust flavors of fermented pickles.

"The real story is that he got drunk with some friends," his sister joked. "I think they were drinking some whiskey, I don't know. They decided to make pickles — I guess that's what you do when you're in the food industry."

The name of the company comes from the Chinese tradition in which the first-born son carries the burden and the honor of the family name.

"It's kind of a funny, antiquated idea now, but growing up we jokingly called my brother the 'No. 1 Son,'" she said.

She recalled their mother yelling, "No. 1 Son, do this!"

The company has grown in demand from 5-gallon batches of pickles to 50-gallon vats with long wooden paddles to stir the fermented vegetables, some of which will bathe in the brine for weeks before they are ready.

Caitlin Roberts said they initially used small batches of cucumbers, but last fall rented a car and drove to New Jersey to buy a couple of tons.

"Two-and-a-half tons of cucumbers behind me in this 20-foot truck, and I was driving down the Jersey turnpike," she recalled. "My brother is like sitting in the seat next to me and he's like, 'Yeah whatever, it's cool.'"

They arrived back to the factory around 11 p.m. A handful of workers were ready to pour the spices and brine over the cucumbers.

"We wanted to work the cucumbers right away," Caitlin Roberts said.

With only $500 to start Number 1 Sons, she said, they discovered the advantages of farmer's markets, which allow them to engage with the community and get local produce.

Caitlin Roberts said her brother is never fully satisfied with a recipe, so the mixtures are always changing. Regulars will stop by to try the new flavors that each batch of pickles and kimchee brings.

"It's like I'm a bartender and he goes, 'What's good today?'"

Number 1 Sons will continue selling fermented goods at farmers markets but is expanding to retail establishments. The products are already on the shelves of MOM's Organic Market and Glen's Garden Market and will be in Arlington's Whole Foods this spring.

"As much as I would love to think that everyone goes to the farmer's market every weekend, it's actually a pretty small percentage of the population. To really bring awareness to fermented foods and the Number 1 Sons' brand, you have to figure out other ways to reach people," she said.

Caitlin Roberts is hopeful for the future and the need for a fermented pickle company.

"Our revenue will probably double this year with our new markets and our new wholesalers," she said. "Do you think we could fit enough pickles in a Wal-Mart?"

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Information from: The Washington Times, http://www.washtimes.com

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