Justin Park ordered up a career in the nonprofit world, with a side of pickles. But after he and his friend Tyler DuBois got serious about their pickling hobby, Park found that running a small business could lead to an even bigger positive impact on the world.
In 2010, Park was working at a grant-funded research center at the University of Colorado – Denver. He was part of a team that partnered with and contributed resources to public health efforts in low-income Latino neighborhoods in Denver.
At the time, Park and DuBois were making pickles for fun.
“Tyler had a garden, so he was really motivated to put everything to use,” Park recalled. “One day, I was over at his house and he had made a batch with leftovers from his garden. He asked if I wanted to try.”
The pickles were so flavorful that they were literally life-changing. DuBois and Park look back on that moment now as their “pickle epiphany.”
Seven years later, their pickles are a staple at farmers markets, merchant fairs, and high-end grocery stores across the Denver metro area. Their company, The Real Dill, employs 10 people, and sales are steadily increasing. They moved 10,000 cases in 2016, up from 1,000 in their first year in business back in 2012, and they recently launched a new philanthropic initiative.
In an interview with Crain’s Denver, Park shares advice about turning a hobby into a career, without losing focus on what’s most important at the end of the day.
After this “pickle epiphany,” as you called it, what was your first step into professional pickle-making?
We both had full-time jobs, but neither of us were thrilled about where they were leading us, and we were excited to find something else. So we got really excited about the pickles. We spent a bunch of our free time perfecting the craft and working on recipes. We developed our vision for what the company would be.
I think we both secretly believed that we’d lose interest, but that didn’t happen.
Our first day in business was May 5, 2012, at the Cherry Creek Farmers Market. That was close to two years after the pickle epiphany. We had four products that first day, including the habanero horseradish – our most popular pickle still – and our jalapeno honey dills.
Why start at the farmers market? What was your underlying strategy?
We were intent on starting small and building one step at a time. Back in that first summer, we agreed with each other not to do anything but the farmers market. If any other opportunities came up, we would have said “no.”
That way, our initial investment was moderate, and we could get out if it wasn’t what we expected. At the same time, we knew we were committed to reinvesting.
We are still 100 percent committed to slow and intentional growth. Neither of us have done anything like this before, and we know there’s a lot to learn, so it makes sense to develop the company in a way that allows us to do that.
It’s also a good fit for our personalities. We wanted careers that we enjoyed that gave us ways to express ourselves creatively. We wanted to create a brand that could provide a good quality of life for others and have a positive social impact.
How did you develop a customer base?
The biggest thing is valuing the importance of relationships. From day one, we’ve tried to cultivate relationships. It’s up to us to create trust and to consistently meet our standards.
Once that first summer at the farmers market ended, we switched our focus to wholesaling. Tyler had worked at Marczyk’s Fine Foods, and they were aware of us. Because of our relationship with them, they committed to carrying our product before they even saw the bottles or knew the prices. They were our first retail partner, and that was exclusive for the first month. After that it was just a matter of adding partners one at a time. At a certain point, retailers started reaching out to us, and we now have more than 450 wholesale accounts.
We are actually 90% wholesale. Our partners run the gamut from grocery stores and garden centers to bars and flower shops.
How did it feel to leave the nonprofit sector behind?
It was always important to us to consider the ways the company could have a positive impact on the community.
For me personally, I felt a strong pang of guilt leaving a nonprofit career for something that felt pretty selfish. The guilt started to go away when I realized how much more I could contribute to the community through a company with more resources.
When we first started, our resources were extremely limited. There was almost nothing we could do. We were just donating products to fundraisers and stuff like that.
As we’ve grown, we’ve found a number of creative ways that we can give. One great example is our food waste. We bring in so much fresh produce every week that we wind up with a fair amount of vegetable scraps. Those used to just end up in the landfill. Now we partner with one of the nonprofits I used to work with, Re:Vision, which is working to build sustainable food systems. We donate all our compostable scraps to them and they use them. We are now diverting around 1,500 pounds of scraps per month away from the landfill.
We also just launched a new charitable partner program. Our giving used to be very reactionary – we would just respond to requests for donations or support. It was not an intentional way to give and it wasn’t maximizing our impact. So we sat back and accounted our resources. We decided to pick one charitable partner each year, so we could learn more about their needs and they could learn about the ways we can support them. This year, we’ve selected the Growhaus, a nonprofit farm in Denver's Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.
What does the future hold for The Real Dill?
The answer has always really been the same. Yes, we look ahead, but we also want to take things one step at a time and be flexible.
You’re never going to look at us and say, “Gosh, how much they’ve changed.” Our goal is not to be in every grocery store across the country. A lot of care and love goes into our products, and that limits our scalability. We are not willing to compromise on the quality.
Right now, we are really focused on Colorado. We want to establish ourselves as a brand Coloradans are proud of.
The Real Dill is on Twitter at @therealdillco.