The Price of Pickles: Why is Good Food So Expensive?


Illustration by Paige Vickers
In supermarket aisles and food markets across America, prices are higher for products that are increasingly niche. Whether this is a natural evolution or predatory pricing seems opaque. Shelves are now stocked with artisanal items bearing cool labels that we never thought we needed, and which can seem, at first, like a joke we’re not in on. The pickle, for instance, has traversed a long and winding path through the culture, from nickel-priced snack at the boardwalk and movie theater to a stand-in for all that’s seen as precious and cliché about craft manufacturing in Brooklyn. Even the most discerning consumer may not know how we get from a $3 jar of Vlasic dill spears to a $10 jar of Brooklyn Brine Maple Bourbon pickles, though many suspect it probably just has something to do with hipsters.

And yet, the Brooklyn Brine pickles stimulate something in us. We want them, just as we want small batch artisanal Empire mayonnaise over Hellman’s, or Anarchy in a Jar preserves over Smucker’s. We may not know why. Ours is an era in which the origins and ingredients of our foods are discussed and debated more loudly than ever—just look at the labels in any boutique provisions market, which tout qualities like organic, all-natural, locally made, and non-genetically modified. The broad cultural shift toward valuing the artisanal has reached our pantries, remaking the acts of shopping for and consuming food into experiences to be cherished. Perhaps nowhere in America is this more prevalent than Brooklyn.

“All commodities—especially something like food—are embedded in deeper structural values,” says Dr. Krishnendu Ray, a food studies professor at NYU. “Things have social lives, and we evaluate things based on those lives—what values they exude, what qualities we’re appropriating when we buy something. It’s not just about calories
or taste.”

Ray is a sociologist by training; for him, food is social and cultural currency, like music or fashion. Above and beyond its absolute value, food has perceived value, which is driven by a largely unanalyzed complex of desires. The elevation of artisanal, locally sourced food items reveals social pressures that are becoming ubiquitous in liberal, upper-middle-class environments. “There’s a fashion element to it, and I’m not using that term dismissively,” he says. “We are social beings, and we always value things socially, via a dialectic between democracy and distinction. Food is a perfect field for that—everyone eats, but we want our particular tastes to be distinctive. Today, you have to take a position on food to be taken seriously as a social subject.” Ray says his sociology students voice much stronger opinions about restaurants and food trends than anything else. “There’s always emulative pressure, questions of fashion and trends. And it’ll change—20 years from now, some of this will go out of fashion. But right now it’s carrying with it a kind of utopia.

“We’re sold a lot of bullshit,” he adds. “But that doesn’t mean the whole critique is bullshit.”

If we think of food consumption and production as a social and cultural field, artisanal food is a relative newcomer to the mainstream. Ray has a general theory about mainstreaming: “Things have to be in the margins, but not far from the center,” he says. “The center has an eternal demand for newness, which has to come from somewhere.” Cultural proximity primes the mainstream for innovation. Picasso, famously, stumbled upon Cubism after viewing African masks brought back to Paris as the French empire expanded into that continent.

Ray cites David Chang, of Momofuku, as a good example of “a player in a field.” Instead of studying in France—the traditional culinary-training route—Chang apprenticed in Japan, a culture which has experienced a rise in America following WWII. When Chang returned to New York and opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, New York’s food culture was ready. He received instant approval from the James Beard Foundation and the New York Times’ restaurant critic. The current vogue for noodle shops was born of the same cultural moment. “Chang transformed the field partly by playing by its rules and partly by breaking them,” Ray says. “There’s internal pressure to a field. Ramen can play a part, but sub-Saharan mashed tubers are unlikely to make an impact in New York City cuisine—it’s too far out in the margins.”

As our valuation of food has changed, prices have shifted accordingly. By definition, artisanal products are only available in limited supply, which drives up prices, especially as demand escalates. According to Dr. Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist who studies food systems and food policy at NYU, the absolute food cost of a final product is small. Most of the price is determined between the time the food “leaves the farm and when it becomes retail.”

The cost of becoming retail in New York is higher than most places, no matter what product is being sold: factory space, advertising, and facilities are all costly. But food poses a particular geographic problem. “The main factor driving difference in costs between a New York State farm and an Iowa farm is that the farms here are so much smaller,” Dimitri says. “Farmers are not able to spread out fixed costs, like equipment and fertilizer, over larger plots of land to take advantage of economies of scale.”

Another problem, common to all US farmers—particularly specialty-crops farmers—is imported produce. “We have a hard time competing with imported produce because it’s often grown where labor is so much cheaper,” Dimitri says. “It’s hard to pay people decently. Plenty of organic farmers have started farming and wanted to be good employers but found it not economically sustainable.”

The biggest driver of high-end food prices is simple: quality ingredients cost more. The cost of artisanal foods is, to a large extent, the cost of actual food, plus the labor required to produce and package it (often without machines). For most of our history, humans have made food items by hand without fillers, additives, and preservatives. But starting in the 20th century, we began to trade farm-produced whole foods for expedient, convenient food products. The culture was quickening, and our diets went right along with it. Food moved from the farm to the factory, shifting our baseline evaluation of what it should cost.

For many artisanal food producers, like Anton Nocito of P&H Soda Co., “flavor is the most important thing.” P&H is an all-natural soda and syrup company, based in Greenpoint; Nocito rents kitchen space from Eastern District, a beer, cheese, and provisions store on Manhattan Avenue. Every syrup is mixed and kettle-brewed on a small stove there, and then bottled for shipment throughout the US. “It’s not an art project. It’s a food,” he says. “I just want people to buy it and enjoy it.”

BK14_Pickles_PQ1Taste is also first and foremost for sriracha-maker Jolene Collins of love hard, inc. (formerly jojo’s). “It goes hand-in-hand with sourcing excellent ingredients,” she says. “When businesses grow, they often cut costs by choosing lower priced—and often, I would argue, lower quality—ingredients. Flavor is always the first to suffer. At some point of scaling up, you lose the art in what you’re doing.”

Collins’s sriracha includes chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sea salt and organic palm sugar. (By comparison, a bottle of Huy Fong sriracha comes with synthetic additives like potassium sorbate, a preservative; sodium bisulfite, a salt compound; and xanthan gum, a thickening agent.) “When I first started, I used to take a granny cart from Park Slope to the Union Square Farmers Market for chili peppers,” she says. Now all of her chili peppers come from either local farms (in season) or via the Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the Bronx, the largest food distribution center in the world. Depending on the time of year, peppers can come from New York, Georgia, Florida, California, Mexico, or the Dominican Republic.

Slow food, artisanal products, local sourcing, craft beer—all of these began as microtrends in response to a fast food nation, and have moved into the mainstream as we’ve become more aware of what we put into our bodies—and where it comes from.

Shamus Jones, the founder of Brooklyn Brine, began noticing this paradigm shift around the year 2000, while working at a vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. “We were doing slow food, working direct with farms, composting—all that,” he says. “What was interesting to me was how people responded.” Better still, the food tasted amazing.

Jones brought the same “creative intention and chef standards” to his pickle company, which he founded five years ago and which grew by 62 percent last year alone. “Pickles are a stable pantry item, but they became so commodified,” he says. “We’re bringing a noncommodified specialty product to market, where people are used to seeing $2.75 for a jar of pickles. We can’t compete for price with something that’s machine-packed in India and steeped in corn syrup, preservatives, and crisping agents. There’s a contingent of people who will never buy our product because of the cost, but the people who do buy it cherish it that much more. They appreciate the creative intention, choice of ingredients—everything that goes into the jar.”

In its Gowanus manufacturing space, Brooklyn Brine goes through more than one and a half tons of brine per week. The apple cider vinegar, which serves as the brine’s base, is made purely from apples that come from Upstate orchards. Organic grade B maple syrup is used for the Maple Bourbon pickles. Each pickle has its own unique spice blend that’s mixed in-house.

BK14_Pickles_PQA Brooklyn Brine pickle “starts with the farm,” Jones says. “We can’t turn out a high quality product if we don’t have high quality ingredients to begin with.” Cucumbers are sourced from farms across the US depending on season. (Because of a white mold problem, New York has some of the worst conditions for growing cucumbers.)
The cucumbers are then shipped by the ton to Brooklyn, where Brooklyn Brine’s employees—all of whom make at least $16 per hour—sort, wash, cut, and stuff them into glass jars, which come from a distributor in North Brooklyn. The spices and seeds that flavor the brine are all sourced through Spice House, a distributor in Long Island. Everything is made and packed on-site, without the aid of a co-packer.

Jones recoils from the twee pretensions that are associated with artisanal, made-in-Brooklyn products. “We’re not trying to put out something that’s precious,” he says. “We’re constantly looking at ways we can achieve economies of scale and lower our costs and be able to pay it forward to our guests. But food is meant to be enjoyed. It’s an experience, and you’re missing out on that when you’re eating Hostess Cupcakes because they’re 25 cents.”

Developing relationships and integrating with the community on both ends of the production chain are important to Jones. It’s about reciprocity: the company aspires to close the loop between food production and consumption. “We’re creating jobs here, and we’re working with farms and distillers all within this region,” he says. Gesturing around the space, which has a retail shop in front for customers to come in and “smell that brine,” Jones can’t help but think big. “It really all boils down to what the ethos of your company is, and I feel like we’re doing a pretty damn good job of defending that,” he says. “We want everyone to be able to enjoy the creative intention, the love, the labor that goes into every jar. We’re so goddamned passionate about it.

“It’s just so weird that some people would presumably not think twice about buying a $100 pair of Nikes that costs $2 to make in a sweatshop in Honduras,” he adds. “You put food in your body every day. There’s a bigger picture here.”

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  1. Its a middle ground. Sometimes a guy can be in the mood for a crap jar of Vlasic pickles and then sometimes you want to try new hip pickles.

    Both can exist in harmony.

  2. The comparison made at the end is a bit unfair and potentially misses a valid point while making a more dangerous one: reinforcing the misconception that good, real food needs to be expensive. It’s that same misconception that drives people to buy cheap, artificially made food, partially because we’ve created this culture of a false dichotomy around it….

    Just as you’ve pointed out, there are hidden costs involved in sourcing, bringing, and selling your pickles. The same goes with sneakers. Even if we acknowledge that the raw materials and the labor costs to manufacture a pair of sneakers are relatively low compared to the retail cost, there are still people that need to design the sneakers, market the sneakers, transport the sneakers to retailers, and then the retailers themselves need to make money so of course there is going to be a mark up. What would be more interesting would be to see how Shamus’ costs compare to a company like Grillo’s Pickles in Boston, who also makes great pickles, pays fair wages, but somehow can sell them at half of what Brooklyn Brine pickles retail for ($6 a jar) and still stay in business. Not saying that Brooklyn Brine is inflating the price to appeal to a certain demographic, but $10 a jar is a hard sell even to a pickle enthusiast such as myself…