PILOT MOUNTAIN — Niki Farrington is quietly building a pickle empire from a large commercial kitchen she leases at The Pilot Center.
Farrington’s namesake pickled delicacies, “Niki’s Pickles,” have been gaining traction with local and regional chefs and foodies, so much so that she and five part-time employees turn out 1,000 gallons of pickles a week to keep up with the demand, going through half a ton of produce in order to do so.
“My pickles are sour and salty like my soul,” Farrington proudly says of her product, and possibly of her soul.
“Don’t ever trust a woman who can’t rise bread or whose pickles are limp,” Farrington says before adding, “I suspect there’s a larger statement there.”
But she doesn’t linger over what that larger statement might be, as she moves past two rows of five-gallon plastic buckets that will be filled with pickles by Farrington and two young staffers before the evening is over.
Farrington is the chef at Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, a breakfast, brunch and lunch eatery that closes at 2 p.m., so pickle-making is an evening activity for her and her band of workers, most of whom also work with her at the restaurant.
Before becoming a professional pickle-maker, Farrington was born in Winfield, West Virginia, moved to North Carolina and graduated from Mt. Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, before going on to Appalachian State University in Boone and the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she attended the Jane Adams College of Social Work.
Farrington left her career in social work to pursue a career in pickles, but “it’s all social work,” she says. Her business model is of the rising tide floats all boats variety, as she builds her business while simultaneously working to expand the businesses of the farmers she buys produce from and the stores and chefs she sells her products to.
Van Cooke’s Salty Dog Farms in Mount Airy is one of Farrington’s primary suppliers.
“I’ll buy every speck of dill he grows. Van grows the best dill. I’ll buy every radish. When Van started with me, it was a box of cucumbers. Now, he drives up with a truckload.”
Farrington doesn’t just buy cucumbers. She buys all the cucumbers. She uses the perfect ones for her pickles. She uses the funny-looking but still good ones at farmer’s markets as samples to give to children, and the bad ones she passes on to a local organic hog farmer, Raven Ridge Farm, in Pilot Mountain.
“If a farmer grows something for me, he’s got a guaranteed buyer. He can plan his business accordingly,” says Farrington.
Some business people who have found a good supplier would keep that information to themselves, but not Farrington. She likes Van Cooke’s cucumbers, so she tells the chefs she sells her pickles to about him.
“They need cucumbers for salads,”says Farrington. She has coined a word for the way she recommends customers to suppliers and suppliers to customers, benefiting everyone. “Cross-pimping,” she calls it.
“I buy only US produce, and I’m working at getting it closer and closer to home. I knew it wasn’t a realistic goal to buy 100 percent local from the get-go. In the middle of the winter, I have to get my cucumbers from Georgia. But as Van adapts his growing season to meet my needs, I’ll be able to buy cucumbers locally.”
Farrington says she makes sure to keep track of the boxes and crates that produce is delivered in, so she can return them to their owners to reuse them. And she accepts jars back for recycling. Not just her own jars, but jars in general.
“We have gotten literal truckloads,” she said. “People will just give us truckloads of jars, complete with basement spiders.”
Her young assistants are shaking their heads at the memory.
“We threw away almost none of them. What we ciouldn’t use, we gave to Olio Studio.” (Olio is a glassblowing studio in Winston-Salem that transforms recycled glass into art.)
Farrington says she didn’t necessarily select this career. “It picked me.”
“I made a pickle 15 years ago for a friend who was pregnant. We liked that first pickle. Sandwiches need a pickle.”
She made pints of pickles after that, until the Cobblestone Market in Winston-Salem lost their pickle vendor and asked her to replace the vendor. When they asked if she could handle the demand, Farrington said sure. She makes a face as she tells the story, indicating her potential for keeping up with the demand was more hopeful than actual.
She showed up at the market the first time with what she thought was a large amount of product, eight cases.
“I sold out in 45 minutes,” she says. “I said, ‘Holy (salty expletive deleted), what am I going to do?’ That was at a time when I was living in a place with no heat and driving a car with bald tires, but I left the market that day with enough money to make more pickles for the next week. There were a lot of 14-hour days, but here we are,” she sighs, looking around the commercial kitchen she occupies at The Pilot Center.
The back room has three large walk-in coolers that she offers to her suppliers in the summer to keep their product in so it doesn’t go bad before they can sell it. And she has offered the use of her kitchen to other start-ups.
Farrington says she sees her work with food, both Niki’s Pickles and the food she prepares as a chef, as revisiting Southern culture and cuisine, sort of like what Grandma fed you, but better.
“But I have a weird Grandma,” Farrington adds. “Her name is Ethel, and I probably got some of my sass and some of my salt from her.”
Niki’s Pickles can be purchased at Cobblestone Farmer’s Market, Colony Urban Farm Store, Crossnore Farm Store at Crossnore Children’s Home, all in Winston-Salem, Company’s Coming in High Point, and vetted, producers-only festivals and markets regionally.
Restaurants that use Niki’s Pickles include Old North State, Mount Airy; Muddy Creek, Bethania and Sparta; Noble’s Grill, Winston-Salem; Foothills Brewery and Pub, Winston-Salem; The Filling Station, Greensboro; and Scrambled, Greensboro.
Below, Niki Farrington offers a recipe and a few ideas for using Niki’s Pickles.
Pickled Potato Salad
5 pounds of small red potatoes, washed and quartered
1 cup of Duke’s mayonnaise
1/2 cup of Dijon mustard
1 cup of Niki’s Pickles Super Sour Dill Chips, minced
1/2 cup purple onion, minced
1/2 cup celery, diced
salt and pepper, to taste
Boil the potatoes until just fork tender, drain, and cool. Mix remaining ingredients and combine with cooled potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve cold with additional Niki’s Pickles Super Sour Dill Chips as garnish.
More than cucumbers get pickled at Niki’s Pickles. A current favorite of Farrington and her staff is pickled cauliflower. Farrington suggests marinating roasts, steaks, chicken, and pork in the juice from Niki’s Pickles Spicy Cauliflower.
Deviled eggs are another old favorite that can be given a jolt of the new with Niki’s Pickles. Top your favorite deviled eggs with minced Niki’s Pickles Ruby Red Radishes.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-4515-4699.