Pickle By Pickle: Interview with Kelley Hillis

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer

I met Kelley on a chilly morning at her booth at the Saratoga Springs farmer’s market in New York. Pickles and ferments with colorful labels shouted to me from the table. Kelley was deeply engaged in a conversation about health and nourishment, and–despite the cold–I stopped and edged in closer. I eventually asked her if she would continue the conversation with me, and with you. Here is what she said.

What are the health benefits of eating fermented foods? 

Fermented foods are beneficial in so many ways. Something as simple as a live active culture in your GI system not only nurtures “good flora,” it also enables your body to absorb more nutrients from all the other food that you’re eating. The healthier our GI system is, the better the rest of our body will function.

The effect of fermented foods isn’t limited to the body, though. They can even affect your mood. There has been research showing that people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) actually feel better after incorporating fermented foods into their diet. About ninety percent of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for happiness, is produced in the gut. Its production requires the “good” bacteria we get from cultured foods.

Food is one of the most potent forms of medicine that we have. It’s so simple, but it’s been forgotten. Because we indulge, feeding our cravings and emotions instead of nourishing ourselves, we forget that food is such a strong form of medicine. Something as simple as eating in balance can have a hugely positive effect.

Let’s talk about your pickle-making business. How did you begin?

 Pickles have been a love in my family for a long time. As young as thirteen, I’d go down to New York City and stand on the street, waiting for my pickles out of a big barrel. We had these clear plastic containers filled with pickles to take upstate, but by the time we got to New Jersey we’d eaten every single pickle.

So, pickles have become something of a traditional food in our family. My daughter’s first solid food was a pickle. She went right from nursing to a full garlic sour pickle.

This passion led us to a hobby of making pickles, but it was nothing serious. Then something happened that changed my life.

I was training for a marathon one winter, and I broke my leg. Lying in the hospital, and then in my home, I had a lot of time to think. I had an epiphany. I was home with my kids, and I thought, this is where I need to be!

So I spent the last couple of weeks with my cast on trying to figure out how to make my pickling hobby into a business. I wanted to have my kids with me throughout the whole thing, and that’s exactly what happened.

What are some challenges you’ve run into?

 We started out huge. We had a 3,000 square foot building, and eight people working for us. But it was too much too soon, and we almost lost the business. We needed to go to the basics.

I eventually got rid of the huge building and had to let the eight people go. I put a commercial kitchen in our house, and my husband and I took over every aspect of the business. This cut our overhead in half. Now, the two of us are producing more than we did when we had a big building and eight people working for us.

I learned a lot from those experiences, and things are running smoother now. But there are still difficulties. There are challenges having a refrigerated food product. We also have to time the fermentation process according to the season—the hotter it is, the more quickly it will ferment, and vice-versa.

Plus we have to make sure we’re getting good, fresh cucumbers. I don’t know how many distributors I’ve ticked off because I keep sending things back. But you can’t make an extraordinary pickle out of a crappy cucumber.

Being a woman in business is difficult. So is dealing with distributors and marketing our product. It’s tough on every level, but it’s also so rewarding.

Why is your work as a fermenter meaningful to you?

I believe in the nourishment our product provides. I believe in small business, and watching our hard work pay off every Saturday and Sunday after farmers market.

I don’t know how many times people have told me how much money I could make if I used contract packers and sold at big box stores. I’ve turned it down every single time because I don’t believe in doing things that way. I don’t believe in additives or preservatives. We got one of the products from the contract packers once. I ate a pickle, and my face got the biggest hives I’ve had in my life. For me, small is good.

I’m not making millions, but I go to bed knowing that I worked my hardest and that I’m putting the best possible product out there. You can’t put a price on peace of mind.

My kids see me work my butt off day in and day out, and I think it’s important for kids to see you doing that. It’s not like I’m checking out at 8:30 every morning to go to an obscure office somewhere. They see me lifting heavy bushels, scrubbing cucumbers, and engaging people at the farmers market. It’s a learning experience for my kids, even if they never want to make a single pickle. It’s about the ethic of hard work and seeing the fruits of your labor pay off.

How have you seen your food impact those who eat it?

An elderly woman approached us once, clutching an article she’d read about our fermented foods. She was in her nineties and had some health problems that required she take lots of probiotic pills. She was miserable, and wanted to know if we could help. We gave her a jar of fully sour pickles (which have the highest concentration of probiotics), and it made a huge difference in the way she feels. She comes back every week now to pick up a jar of sauerkraut. It’s a wonderful feeling to see someone’s life improved because of your food. I’m not a doctor, but I am offering a food product that’s helping people enjoy their quality of life.

Can pickles change the world?

I know they’ve changed mine. They’re creating a world for my kids. They’re going to send them to college and help them fulfill their dreams.

Any final words?

We need to go back to the basics. Eating whole foods means taking responsibility for our health and how we feel. People are so quick to give their power to others. But we have everything at our fingertips to help us lead the lives we want to live. We just have to pay attention.

Live in upstate New York? Check out Kelley’s Business, “Pucker’s Pickles.”

One thought on “Pickle By Pickle: Interview with Kelley Hillis

  1. Thanks for such an informative and encouraging interview, Nicholas and Kelly– for people striving to balance their diets to achieve the best of health, your view of the fermentation benefit is illuminating. That’s my “gut feeling” as I look forward to pickles or maybe sauerkraut for lunch each day.

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