A PA Preferred family business

Jars of Luke’s Cukes in a bushel of pickle cucumbers.
Photos courtesy of Lititz Pickle Co.

It’s a growing trend that many family farms are developing niche markets. Mark and Tracey Olenick in Lititz, Pa., started the Lititz Pickle Co. (www.lititzpickleco.com) by making pickled vegetable recipes handed down from Mark’s family.

Setting up shop, literally

“Tracey and I have been making our family recipes for close to 20 years. These are ones I grew up with as a kid [Olenick’s family emigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine in the early 20th century]. We would make them and then hand them out as gifts and such during the holidays and special events. They were always received well. In 2008, after sampling some, a friend encouraged us to start a business and sell them,” Olenick says.

For the past year or so, Olenick has renovated a building on his property, as well as procuring the necessary licenses to open a food processing business. “Between 2008 and 2009, we used a small refrigerator to cure the pickled products, which were then sold at open air markets in Lititz, Harrisburg and local fairs. It was during this time we contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture [PDA] and inquired about requirements so that we could sell them to local stores. After learning that wholesale distribution of our products would require a dedicated facility, which was not attached to our home, we decided to renovate a detached building that was located on [our] property.

Lititz Pickle Co. sells a variety of pickles and pickled vegetables.

“Since the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture required a certificate of occupancy [CO] from the local township as part of their process, we worked with our township to obtain the necessary permit and inspections of the renovated building. We also had to request a variance to our zoning since we would now be operating a business on our property. Construction, permits, inspection and CO took about six months. Both the PDA and the local township were able to supply all construction and configuration requirements for the commercial kitchen used to produce the pickle products,” he says.

Pennsylvania has strict requirements when it comes to when, where and how food is prepared for the public. In addition to PDA’s requirements for the commercial kitchen facilities, the Olenicks also needed to be certified in food preparation and food safety. “These two items were met by successfully completing required class work and passing exams for ServSafe and Better Process Control schools. Both were two-day calls with the certification tests being administered at the end of each class. ServSafe has a five-year renewal cycle,” Olenick says.

Inside Lititz Pickle Co.’s commercial kitchen.

PA Preferred vendors

The Lititz Pickle Co. is recognized through the PDA as a PA Preferred company (www.papreferred.com). According to the PDA’s Web site, PA Preferred members are licensed to use the PA Preferred logo. “Products bearing the logo have been grown, harvested and, if applicable, processed in Pennsylvania. Research has shown that 93 percent of Pennsylvanians want to buy and consume local products. The PA Preferred program serves both producers and consumers by identifying them,” says PDA’s Web site, www.agriculture.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/pennsylvania_department_of_agriculture/10297.

Since Olenick needs a variety of produce and herbs to make his signature pickles, he has plenty of opportunities to use Pennsylvania-grown produce. His brand, Luke’s Cukes, features special sweets, garlic dill, bread and butter and Kickles Pickles. The ingredients for these include cucumbers, dill, onions and various spices. Additionally, Olenick uses asparagus in Sassy Grass and hot cherry peppers for the Shooters variety. He also makes pickled garden varieties that include cabbage, cauliflower, beans, carrots, celery, pepperoncini and red peppers.

Olenick is licensed to use the PA Preferred brand, and he makes sure that many of his products, from the produce that he pickles down to the jars and boxes he uses to package his products, are Pennsylvania-produced.

During the growing season, Olenick gets his vegetables locally. “During the spring, summer and autumn months, we’re using locally grown cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, onions, etc. The vegetables we use for processing come from local markets, such as Green Dragon [www.greendragonmarket.com] in Ephrata, Pa.; Leola Produce Auction in Leola, Pa. We control quality by direct purchase inspection during these times. The vendors we deal with know the quality we expect.

“For our bulk purchases, we use Four Seasons Produce, Inc., [www.fsproduce.com] in Ephrata, Pa., and Sun Sprout of Lancaster County, Inc. in Lancaster, Pa. When not in season, our produce may come from anywhere in the world. Typically, through the season, it comes from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Mexico and Peru. Again, as a PA Preferred product, we want to use as much local produce and local business as possible. In the near future, our plan is also to look into joining a community supported agriculture program to procure local vegetables, as well,” Olenick says.

Specifically, Olenick works with Henry’s Produce at The Green Dragon. His contact at Henry’s combs the streets of Philadelphia, Pa., to find heads of dill and garlic, as well as other vegetables that may be out of season in Lancaster County. When all else fails, Olenick will turn to Four Seasons and Sun Sprout to buy wholesale herbs and produce that are out of season and can’t be found in the city.

Jars of pickled vegetables at Lititz Pickle Co.

Selling pickles to local venues

“Once we had our process and packing, we used a direct-sale method,” Olenick says of how he finds markets to sell his pickled cukes and vegetables. “I would visit local stands and stores and drop off samples and see if the store would like to carry them. If you have a good product, at a reasonable price, it will sell,” he continues.

Currently, the Lititz Pickle Co. has their products in six Lancaster County businesses:

1.Darrenkamps (www.darrenkamps.com), located in Willow Street, Mount Joy and Elizabethtown.

2. Martin’s Country Market in Ephrata.

3. Oregon Dairy (www.oregondairy.com) in Lancaster.

4. Sensenig’s Poultry in Lititz.

5. Stauffers of Kissel Hill (www.skh.com) in Lititz and Rohrerstown.

6. Stoudt’s Wonderful Good Market (www.stoudts.com/bread.htm) located in Adamstown.

Olenick also sells his pickles in three Schuylkill County, Pa., locations: Del Camps Market in St. Clair; Kowalonek’s (www.kielbasy.net) in Shenandoah; and Way-Mart in Pottsville.

Olenick says his biggest challenge in this business is “learning the art of paying the right price for the product you are buying. You must know what it is capable of selling for and the current volume on the market. You can’t afford to pay too much, otherwise you won’t be able to make a profit. The trick here is to know the fair market price for what you’re purchasing. This is the point where you get a good deal, and the grower/seller is able to make a reasonable profit as well. This really just comes with experience; I have yet to meet someone who will share knowledge in this area.”

Mark, Tracey and Luke, the inspiration behind Luke’s Cukes.

Ultimately, Lititz Pickle Co. is a family business, and Olenick and his wife find that involving the entire family is the most rewarding aspect of their jobs.

“There is no better experience than running your own business with your family. It is a microcosm of the world we live in. It provides the ability to teach respect for the entire cycle of grower to sales to producer to consumer. It is very much a symbiotic relationship,” Olenick says.

Finally, Olenick shares that when it comes to his family recipes for his pickles, there are five ingredients he can’t live without. “You can never go wrong if they include garlic, dill, salt, vinegar and water,” he says.

He also advises others interested in going into the specialty food market. “If you are doing so to get rich or to make a lot of money, you have chosen the wrong line of work. Also, know the science behind the recipes, the ingredients and the process steps. This type of knowledge allows for understanding the impact on the final product and, more importantly, your customers.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa. She writes for various trade magazines focusing on landscape companies, agriculture and business. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.