Bubbies Pickles began in 1982 as a sideline hobby for former owner Leigh Truex, whose presents to relatives and friends of her homemade pickles led to their encouragement that she produce the pickles commercially. Truex’s pickle operation was a roaring aesthetic success but financially, it was another story.
“Kathy and I met while we were working at the bank”, says John Gray, “and as we both got to know each other, we realized that we had the same dream—to be in business for ourselves and to bring a truly great product to market”.
When a client of the Grays mentioned over lunch that a pickle business by the name of Bubbies happened to be for sale, the first thing the couple did was walk down the street to a specialty foods outlet in San Francisco to buy a jar. They were impressed. A money-losing but charming pickle operation with potential upside seemed like their perfect ticket to a new life.
Reality Drops by for a VisitAs former bankers and even small business owners, the couple had a pretty good business and financial background, but everyone knows the food industry can be tough.
“I remember our first day after we bought the business, our briner informed me he might no longer be willing to supply us,” relates John.
“For a time, things just puttered along,” he says. In the food business it is very difficult to get a new product on the store shelves. “Without the independent grocer and their willingness to innovate—to try new things—and our loyal following of consumers who love our naturally-brined, wholesome foods we wouldn’t be here today,” he adds.
When the Grays purchased the company in 1989, Bubbies was only a pickle, only sold in a few local area stores, and not really a recognizable brand. But then Kathy and John were introduced through a mutual friend to a Harvard strategy guru who asked them a question that changed everything: “Are you a manufacturer or are you selling something?”
The pair realized at that moment that like all small businesses, you can only focus your resources on a limited number of things. Almost anyone can make a pickle. Though Bubbies’ recipe is a closely guarded secret, “if we don’t get it onto the shelves, make sure the brand is recognized, desired, asked-for, bought by the consumer and then bought again after the consumer tried them the first time—everything else was all for naught,” relates John.
A Lesson from the Consumer About Brand Value
The couple sought the help of another entrepreneur who had just left his comfortable job at a big Ad Agency to start his own firm. “Steve Rustad changed our labeling, our brand message and goaded us constantly to focus on building the relationships with our customers, distributors and food brokers,” says John.
“We spent months looking all over for the perfect Bubbie, then one day I looked up on our living room mantel and there she was. Everyone we showed the photo to said, ‘That’s it! That’s her!’” says Kathy.
The new product label—with the prominent picture of Bubbie—evoked what consumers who’d tried the product were saying about it. “Natural, old-world, bringing back the good feelings we had about our families and the home-cooked, wholesome experiences with something that tastes unique, refreshing and distinctive.”
As John describes the Bubbie persona, “She’s the essence of the kindly Jewish grandmother who happens to be passionate about things like cooking and pickling. She stands for all Old World grannies who pamper their family with wonderful foods they’ve hand made using authentic ingredients and traditional recipes.”
Staying in Touch
“I can tell you we went to a lot of shows, met a lot of folks and we learned that ‘brand’ isn’t a ‘product’…it’s the consumer’s lasting experience with our foods,” opines John.
With the help of the marketing expert, the Grays hit on the idea of having a website—the look and feel matching the label and brand image—and the ability for consumers to write in directly.
“The results exceeded our wildest imagination,” says John. Since he began tracking them in 1995, Bubbies has received more than 1,000 fan letters—to ask what stores in friends or families areas carry the product, or just simply to say “Thanks.”
“The letters are important to me,” says John, “because people in the food business for years have told me they’ve never received even a single letter. Bubbies products obviously connect with our customers in an emotional way.”
Bubbie’s worldly advice is evident in the company’s playful slogan: “Eat My Pickles. Wear Clean Underwear. Marry a Doctor.”
Although kosher dill pickles continues as the Bubbies flagship product, the line has expanded over the years to include bread and butter chips, pickled green tomatoes, kosher dill relish, sauerkraut, two kinds of horseradish, Sweethot Mustard and two kinds of pickled Herring. All are made with the same deliberate Old World methods, using only natural ingredients and emphasizing a zesty taste. The bread and butter chips are the sole exception to the product line’s required placement in refrigerated sections.
Besides its natural niche in ethnic food sections and delis, the Bubbies brand has attracted significant interest from natural foods stores and their customers, where the kosher element is equated with pure ingredients and healthy eating. It has also long been found in the Ralphs Supermarket chain, among others.
The company has grown from a small distribution base in Northern California to an international marketer with products on shelves from coast to coast and in Canada. Bubbies continues to be privately held.
As the leading brand in its food category, what’s in store for the future? “In the end,” says John, “we make products that are authentic, wholesome, and they just taste better, and we will continue to listen to our customers and promote who and what we really are.”
After a five year bout with early onset Alzheimer’s, Kathy passed away in July of 2011. She and John were the entire staff of Bubbies for over 15 years. Through all the anxiety of Bubbies early years, Kathy never lost hope or had any regrets about leaving the corporate world behind. She once said; “We have to succeed, because I am never going back to work for the bank!” Her indomitable spirit touched everyone she knew, whether as a classroom Mom or as President of the Board of Hospice of San Joaquin. She is profoundly missed by her family, friends and co-workers. Her legacy at Bubbies is seen every day in the way we do business.