Mt. Olive Pickle Company, Inc.
Mt. Olive Pickle Company, Inc.
Sales: $100 million (2000 est.)
NAIC: 311420 Fruit and Vegetable Canning, Pickling, and Drying
Mt. Olive Pickle Company, Inc. is America’s largest independent pickle company. Each year it packs and sells over 80 million jars of pickles, relishes, and peppers. With its operations located in the small town of Mount Olive, North Carolina (population 5,000), the company is a dominant brand in many Southern states. In large part, pickles are a regional business because the cost to transport the heavy jars puts a manufacturer at a price disadvantage with local packers. Mt. Olive also caters to the tastes of its regional customers by selling sweet pickle cubes, used by southerners in potato salad but an item unfamiliar to most northerners. In a similar way to Duck Head pants, Mt. Olive Pickles has gained sentimental brand loyalty from many southerners. Nevertheless, Mt. Olive has made a long-term effort to expand its distribution. Its products can now be found in 30 states, as far north as New Hampshire and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma.
Company Origins in the 1920s
Compared to Charles F. Cates & Sons of Fiason, North Carolina, Mt. Olive was a latecomer to the pickle business. In 1898 Cates began to produce pickles according to a family recipe. Originally operating out of Swepsonville, the company moved to Faison, just eight miles away from Mount Olive, in order to be closer to its cucumber growers. Mount Olive farmers not only produced cucumbers, over the years they grew tobacco, cotton, and even rice. From 1900 to 1905 the town billed itself as the strawberry capital of the world. It was a bumper crop of cucumbers in 1925 that would lead to the formation of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. Rather than let the excess cucumbers at the town’s major produce market go to waste, a Lebanese immigrant from Goldsboro named Shickrey Baddour wanted to brine the cucumbers, then sell the brine stock to pickle companies. With the blessing of the local chamber of commerce and the assistance of area businessman George Moore, who had previously worked for a North Carolina pickle company, Baddour built a large tank that he filled with water, rock salt, and cucumbers. The newly formed Mt. Olive Pickle Company managed to sell some of the brine stock but not enough to be profitable. Now the company’s backers decided to make plans to pack pickles themselves. Rather than sell their cucumbers to Cates, Mt. Olive growers saw a chance to cut out the middleman by gaining a stake in the town’s new pickle company.
In 1926, 21 men, all but four of whom lived in Mount Olive, incorporated the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, with a capitalization of $15,875. All the equipment of the original Mt. Olive Pickle Company was turned over to the new corporation in exchange for $5,000 worth of stock. Baddour was also hired as the company’s salesman and Moore as the factory superintendent and foreman. In the first year Mt. Olive packed 6,250 cases of pickles, most of which were under the Carolina Beauty label. Within two years annual sales exceeded $50,000. In the beginning everything was done manually by a handful of employees. In 1931, the company brought in an experienced man to serve as plant manager, hiring Harry Kraft away from a Heinz pickle plant in Michigan. During the years of the Great Depression, the company needed help from the Chamber of Commerce and backing from one of its investors, physician C.C. Henderson, to pull it through. Still, the company was large enough to justify the purchase of its first long-distance delivery truck in 1934. It was in the late 1930s that Mt. Olive began to “fresh pack” pickles, a process that produced a very crisp product by packing cucumbers only hours after being picked and pickled.
Mt. Olive cracked the $500,000 annual sales mark in 1942. A year later it instituted a profit sharing program for employees, a idea not only progressive for a small town but for the country as a whole. It was one of the first 200 companies in the United States to implement such a plan. By 1947, sales topped $1 million. During these early years Mt. Olive packed pickles under an array of brand names in addition to Carolina Beauty: MOPICO (an abbreviation of Mt. Olive Pickle Company), Little Rebel, Little Mommie, Way Pack, Pick of Carolina, Play Mates, and Plee-Zing. In 1953 the company developed a Mt. Olive label in distinctive script that it began to feature on all of its brands, and which led to the gradual development of a single Mt. Olive brand ahead of similar moves undertaken by its competitors.
In 1955, at the age of 31 and just five years after joining the company, John N. Walker began a run of more than 30 years at the helm of Mt. Olive when I.F. Witherington, who had managed the company since 1928, died of a heart attack. Walker earned an MBA from Harvard, part of the famed class of 1949 that went on to run a number of major corporations. Walker was a serious businessman who was lighthearted about pickles. He became known for his pickle paraphernalia, and pun-laced conversation and correspondence, habitually closing letters with “Dill then.” More than anyone he fashioned Mt. Olive’s long-time marketing approach emphasizing that pickles are fun, based on his belief that consumers don’t view pickles as a staple item but rather require some prompting to take a jar off the shelf.
Technology Improves the Pickle Business in the 1960s
At the same time, Walker was instrumental in Mt. Olive looking to apply whatever technological advances that could be brought to bear on a pickling process that had remained virtually unchanged since it was developed in Mesopotamia over 4,000 years ago. Pickling was always as simple as it was unsightly. Unwashed cucumbers were tossed in uncovered vats of brine, then steeped under sun and rain for as long as two years. No one knew how a little dirt and salt water changed a perishable cucumber into a long-lasting, tasty pickle, and few even asked the question. Mt. Olive began working with research universities like North Carolina State University in the 1960s to improve the pickle business. In 1966, North Carolina harvested its first fall crop of cucumbers. Until that time, the state produced just a spring crop, ready in June and July, but advances now allowed farmers to plant a second crop that was ready in September and October. In 1969, Mt. Olive became the first food processor in America to replace sugar with fructose corn syrup. Also in the late 1960s researchers at North Carolina State finally discovered a way to control fermentation, the culmination of efforts that began many years earlier. A pilot plant was set up at Mt. Olive, and over the course of the next five years research was conducted that led to improved fermentation methods for the entire pickle industry. Eventually clean cucumbers would be fermented in enclosed fiberglass tanks with designer bacterial cultures.
The pickle industry changed in other ways in the 1960s, as large conglomerates bought up local pickle companies to add to their food holdings. Owned by some 200 shareholders committed to keeping the company locally controlled, Mt. Olive was able to compete. By the mid-1970s, the conglomerates realized that pickles were very much a local, regional affair that had to be run by people who knew how the business worked and were committed to it. They started to sell off their pickle interests. Mt. Olive, in the meantime, continued to grow, reaching the $10 million mark in annual sales in 1974. Ten years later the company would top the $25 million level.
Mt. Olive took a number of steps to improve its business. In 1984, it installed its first piece of computerized technology in its plant, which initiated an on-going effort to upgrade and automate the production process. Eventually computers would become key players from the start of fermentation to the final packing and shipping. In 1991, Mt. Olive would also look to save money by eliminating its ownership of a fleet of delivery trucks, opting instead for a full-service leasing program.
Walker retired in 1990, becoming president emeritus of the company. He was replaced by William H. Bryan, who started working at Mt. Olive in 1985. Raised in the community, Bryan went away to school at the University of Carolina, where he became Phi Beta Kappa and earned a degree in business, then went to work as an accountant in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1985, he returned home to help with the family plywood business, decided to stay, and went to work for Mt. Olive. After Bryan finally took charge of the company, Mt. Olive soon became the fastest growing brand of pickles in Flordia, Gerogia, Alabama, and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., market. When North Carolina-based Food Lion grocery stores expanded into Texas, Mt. Olive gained a toehold in that market as well. Moreover, it began to penetrate grocery chains in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. By 1993, the company was packing 400 million jars of pickled products each year. To accommodate its rapid growth, in 1997 the company opened a new 175,000-square-foot distribution center. In 1998, Mt. Olive reached the $100 million mark in annual sales, after topping the $25 million mark just 13 years earlier.
As Mt. Olive grows, so does the opportunity for people to be hired and to move up within the company. Our employment practices are based on the objective of maintaining a competent, enthusiastic and efficient organization of people who work well together to make our business successful and profitable. Our statistics bear that out. We have an outstanding safety record, with a rate of incidents just one-quarter of the state target rate and just 28 percent of the pickle industry as a whole. The average length of employee service is over six years, and our turnover rate is quite low. At the same time, we’re the second-leading brand of shelf-stable pickles in the country, and we’ve seen average annual double-digit sales growth over the past decade. Who are the Pickle People at Mt. Olive? They are the single best ingredient behind every jar of pickles, peppers and relishes we make.
Mt. Olive Targeted by Farm Workers in 1997
In the late 1990s, Mt. Olive was a thriving enterprise, having become the dominant pickle company in the South. It was its name recognition, however, that would result in Mt. Olive being targeted by the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). In the summer of 1997, FLOC announced that it was beginning a campaign to improve wages as well as living and working conditions for the thousands of migrant workers that harvested North Carolina’s cucumber crop. Although Mt. Olive did not hire farm workers but rather contracted for cucumbers from growers, FLOC sought to pressure Mt. Olive into entering a three-way negotiation, in which the company would apply pressure on the growers to make concessions. It was a tactic that had proved successful for the union in the past.
FLOC was established in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez and other young Chicano activists in the northwestern counties of Ohio, where at the time tomatoes were the primary crop and cucumbers secondary. FLOC first employed its strategy of engaging processors in labor contracts in 1979 when it targeted Campbell’s Soup Company, which was a major buyer of local tomatoes. Drawing on support from church and community groups, FLOC organized a boycott of Campbell’s products, as well as urging consumers and Campbell shareholders to write letters of protest to management. A drawn-out struggle ensured, highlighted by a 1983 march to Campbell’s Camden, New Jersey, headquarters. Finally in 1986, after seven years of struggle, Campbell’s took part in negotiations that led to a three-year contract with tomato growers and farm workers. Other contracts were later signed with Campbell’s subsidiary Vlasic, as well as Heinz, Dean Foods, and others.
FLOC faced a different landscape in North Carolina, which was a right-to-work state traditionally hostile to unionizing activities. In addition, the migrant worker population was much larger than what FLOC worked with in Ohio, and instead of being families consisted mostly of single males, many of whom were in the country under a government work contract and more reluctant to speak out. Valasquez sought to publicize FLOC s unfolding campaign against Mt. Olive in June 1998 when he led a 70-mile march to the steps of the state capital from the company’s main gate. The next step for FLOC was to initiate a formal boycott of Mt. Olive products in 1999. The company maintained that it was being singled out because of its name recognition, and that it had no place in negotiating a contract between growers and laborers, although it would abide by whatever deal the two sides struck. FLOC argued that because Mt. Olive set the price with contractors even before the crop was planted, the company essentially dictated the wages that growers could offer, and was therefore very much a legitimate part of a labor negotiation. Mt. Olive suggested that the fight was more about FLOC’s efforts to bolster the power of its organization than to help North Carolina’s migrant workers.
Early support for FLOC’s boycott of Mt. Olive Products came from a large number of church groups. Ohio and Michigan were also strong bastions of support, albeit the motive was as much economical as it was moral. Workers in those states were paid $6.10 per 100 pounds of cucumbers, compared to $2.40 for migrants working for Mt. Olive contractors. The FLOC message that cheap North Carolina labor endangered Midwestern jobs and businesses clearly resonated in Ohio and Michigan.
Bryan joined the public relations battle, staunchly defending Mt. Olive and even debating Velaquez on a number of occasions. While continuing to resist being drawn into workers’ rights issues, the company did contact growers to make sure housing was up to state standards. The business continued to grow, the boycott seeming to have little effect. Several supermarket chains, mostly located in Ohio, pulled Mt. Olive products from the shelves. The stores claimed that Mt. Olive, new to the market, did not perform well enough to warrant its shelf space. FLOC, on the other hand, attributed the poor sales to the boycott. In any event, the conflict between FLOC and Mt. Olive dragged on. Even if Mt. Olive agreed to enter a three-party negotiation, growers showed no inclination to bargain with FLOC, in many cases vowing to abandon farming altogether. FLOC had already proved to be tenacious and extremely patient, more than willing to devote years to make a boycott work. Velaquez told the press, “Mr. Bryan can negotiate a contract now, or he can negotiate a contract after a crippling boycott. But he will bargain a contract. We will always have more time than the company has money.” Only time will tell what effect the boycott will have on the business of Mt. Olive.
Vlasic Foods International, Inc.
- The company is incorporated.
- The company reaches $1 million in annual sales for the first time.
- North Carolina harvests its first fall cucumber crop.
- The company reaches $25 million in annual sales.
- The company tops $100 million in annual sales.
- Farm Labor Organizing Committee initiates consumer boycott of Mt. Olive products.
Coburn, David H., “Mount Olive, N.C., Pickle Firm Becomes Farm-Labor Group’s Latest Target,” Charlotte Observer, April 22, 2000.
——, “Union Fights Drags On against Mount Olive, N.C.-Based Pickle Grower,” Charlotte Observer, March 9, 2000.
Curry, Kathleen, “The Green, Green Vats of Home,” Charlotte Observer, July 18, 1993, p. El.
Howell, Leon, “Boycotting Pickles,” Christian Century, January 3, 2001, pp. 6-8.
Johnson, Clint, “You Can Smell the Profits in Pickle Country,” Business North Carolina, October 1987, pp. 33-39.
Morrissey, Marietta, “The Political Economy of Northwest Ohio Agriculture and Options for Labor Organization,” Migration World Magazine, 1999, pp. 18-22.
McNish, Jacquie, “They Make Pickles Old-Fashioned Way, and It’s Disgusting,” Wall Street Journal, April 15, 1986, p. 1.
O’Neill, Patrick, “Union Leader Brings Organizing Campaign to Cucumber Pickers,” National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997, p. 12.
Sengupta, Somini, “Farm Union Takes Aim At a Big Pickle Maker,” New York Times, October 26, 2000, p. A22.