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Diane Mastrull: A business fueled on pickle power

Victor Mallet admits the pairing was not a logical one: a Ghana-born-and-raised business consultant becoming part-owner of a pickle company.

Victor Mallet and Elizabeth Killough with Weavers Way PhillyFresh Pickles outside the Mount Airy co-op. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Victor Mallet and Elizabeth Killough with Weavers Way PhillyFresh Pickles outside the Mount Airy co-op. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Editor's Note: The opinions and analysis expressed here reflect the views of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TD Bank, N.A. or its affiliates.

"I did not like pickles," Mallet said. In his West African country, "we didn't eat a lot of . . . cured products."

But there he was in 2005, agreeing to join S&C Gourmet Pickles, then a home-based business run by Stan and Christine Coleman in Chester's West End. The Colemans had a pleasing recipe but lacked the financial wherewithal to get their savory, crisp spears into stores. Their customers were mostly friends, neighbors, and church members.

More than their pickles, Mallet was sold on the idea that the Colemans had support from two people he respected: Untours Foundation founder Hal Taussig and its manager, Elizabeth Killough.

Through his work as a consultant at the Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, Mallet had met the leaders of Untours, which supports small businesses with a social mission.

After trying the pickles, Mallet - who, with a degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been eager to start a small business - determined the Colemans "had legs, a tangible product." He bit, figuratively and literally.

"They're kind of addictive," Mallet said of the pickles, which come both mild and spicy.

Within months of his joining S&C, production was moved to a cold-packaging plant near Lancaster, and the pickles were popping up at more and more farmers markets and food co-ops, as well as a few stores.

Mallet was feeling optimistic enough to quit his job at the Enterprise Center and invest his IRA funds in S&C, which Untours had helped with a $30,000 loan. But it was tough going.

And it would get tougher. In June 2006, Stan Coleman, reportedly battling depression, shot his wife and himself to death.

"I really didn't know what to do at that point," Mallet said, noting that Coleman, not he, was the "food innovator."

He opted for grad school at Stanford University, selling the recipe for the then-renamed PhillyFresh Pickles to Untours for $1.

Before heading to California for an MBA, Mallet helped arrange a deal that in 2008 made Weavers Way Co-Op the recipe's licensee. In exchange, the grocer, with member-run stores in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, agreed to pay Untours, based in Media, $2 for each case of pickles it sold.

The decision wasn't exactly a Wharton-scale deliberation, said Weavers Way purchasing manager Norman Weiss.

"There was a little bit of, 'We've never done this before. What the hell,' " Weiss recalled.

So far so good.

This year, from Jan. 1 through April 30, 732 jars - retailing for $4.99 each, slightly less for Weavers Way members - were sold in the co-op's stores, and an additional 348 went to stores and restaurants, Weiss said. He recently shipped two cases to a Boston man who had sampled them on a trip here.

"They definitely have their fanatics," Weiss said.

Untours board member Bill Wiedmann, who runs a vanilla company in Spring City, is trying to get PhillyFresh into more venues, including Whole Foods.

His "biggest weapon," Wiedmann said, is getting people to try them.

Weavers Way has been creative in that regard, turning to a local musical group, Saint Mad, for help. The musicians were asked to come up with an entertaining advertisement for what are now called Weavers Way PhillyFresh Pickles to incorporate in Saint Mad's December show at Allens Lane Art Center.

Trumpet player Martha Michael, a home-infusion nurse for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, said the words came easily. Within a day, she had come up with a rollicking bluegrass number inspired, she said, by Weavers Way's description of the pickles.

Here's a nibble:

They're never soggy or saggy,

And the spicy ones pack a punch.

At my request, Saint Mad performed the pickle song on the sidewalk outside Weavers Way's Mount Airy store one afternoon last week. Stopping to listen was customer/member Aminda Edgar, who affirmed that the pickles were worth singing about.

"They are very good. I'm on my third or fourth jar" in as many months, Edgar said.

Taking in the performance with a mix of pride and incredulity was Mallet, 33, who has been running two start-ups in Ghana since graduating from Stanford in 2010 and was in Philadelphia for a visit.

"It's rewarding to see that it lives on, and that people still love the product," he said of the pickle company. "I wasn't crazy to join the business."

At Untours, Killough said, the hope is to recoup $28,000 lost from the original loan, to help the foundation continue its work. After that, pickle royalties will go to the Colemans' two adult sons, believed to be living in Delaware.

"They deserve the money," she said. "Their parents built this company. It's their recipe."

Weavers Way Pickle Song

Exquisite flavor,
the perfect crunch.
The taste you'll savor
each time you munch.
They're never soggy or saggy,
and the spicy ones pack a punch.
So try a Weavers Way
PhillyFresh pickle.
If you try one,
you'll want a bunch.

- Saint MadEndText