Chef Nick Melvin, formerly of Old Fourth Ward restaurant Venkman's , had to be persuaded to launch Doux South Pickles. Starting a pickle company was the brainchild of his father-in-law, Mark Hungarland. He’d tried Melvin’s preserved cherry tomatoes and hakurei turnips pickled with honey, rosemary and thyme and asked, “Did you ever think about selling these?” At the time, Hungarland was living in Chicago but considering a move to Atlanta.
Melvin’s initial response was “no.”
“Every time we came to visit, Nick would have some new pickle he’d created. They were fantastic. One after the other. But he wasn’t interested in selling them. After six or nine months of talking I wore him down and in April 2013, we launched Doux South,” says Hungarland.
When Melvin agreed to launch a line of pickles, he was determined there’d be nothing stereotypical about their products. No bread-and-butter pickles or sweet hamburger chips. “I wanted to teach people how awesome acid is and how you can use pickles on more than just sandwiches.”
They launched Doux South Pickles with a lineup of five products: Little Rock Caviar (a pickled black-eyed pea salad), Honey Kissed Turnips, Chow Chow, Drunken Tomatoes and Mean Green Tomatoes. “Pickled cucumbers were one of the last things we added to the line because I didn’t want to do pickled cucumbers,” said Melvin. Now his Angry Cukes are the company’s number one seller.
In the beginning, the entire family chipped in to make the pickles. “Even I was making pickles during that first six months. We’d crowd into our shared kitchen and spend long weekend days making jars of pickles. Now we have a production crew of five full-time staff,” says Hungarland.
They sold those first pickles at local farmers markets. “We started at the East Atlanta Village, Morningside and Peachtree Road markets. The more sampling we did, the more jars we sold and that told us we had something,” says Hungarland. They moved quickly into retail when shop owners like Rusty Bowers at Pine Street Market started asking to carry their products.
Melvin’s not in the kitchen making the pickles these days (that’s where the full time staff comes in) but he creates all the recipes. Recently they added mustards and relishes to the product mix and customers can expect a sweet cucumber pickle in the next few months.
In addition to the pickles available at local farmers markets and in retail stores, Doux South produces a line of refrigerated pickled vegetables for olive bars and salad bars in grocery stores across the Southeast. “We have pickled okra, cauliflower and corn relish that’s phenomenal,” says Hungarland. They make special batches of pickles for restaurant clients as well.
To handle this volume of product, they moved from their shared kitchen into what Hungarland refers to as an “old chicken shack restaurant” in Decatur, and then in October to a production facility in the Lee + White development at the southern part of the West End neighborhood. The complex adjoins the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail which is scheduled to open this summer. In their large new kitchen they are making pails and jars of pickles five days a week.
There are no clouds of vinegar-scented vapor here. Surprisingly, the facility doesn’t even smell like pickles. Unless you’re right up on the steam kettle, you’d never know it’s pickles that are being made.
In the steam kettle, they heat the brine that turns raw vegetables into pickles. Stainless steel tables are lined with five-gallon pails of cucumber slices waiting to be put into jars and covered with brine.
They may be turning out hundreds of jars of pickles, but the vegetables are still hand cut, the jars are hand filled and the finished jars are hand labeled.
More pails are filled sliced carrots waiting to be brined and then on their way to the olive bar at Whole Foods Market. Boxes of cut cauliflower are waiting their turn for processing. Pails of jalapeno relish are fermenting.
The white board lists the production needs for the next day. It’s all Drunken Tomatoes: 28 cases, each case with 12 16-ounce jars, and 30 two-gallon pails.
Each jar is hand packed. Seasonings go in first along with onions and garlic if they’re part of that pickle recipe. Then the featured vegetable is added and the jar is filled with brine. Tops are screwed on, then the jars are set for their boiling water bath. Minutes later, the jars come out ready to cool, label and pack into boxes for shipment. There’s no backlog of cases of pickles waiting for a buyer.
True to the mission of teaching their customers to appreciate acid, a whole section of the company’s website is devoted to recipes. Browse through recipes like the one that calls Mean Green Tomatoes to get chopped into Tomato and Turkey Chili. Or one that lists Drunken Tomato brine as an ingredient in a Caraway Remoulade used to dress the slaw for hot dogs. Or one that uses Angry Cuke brine to season a margarita.
“We like teaching our customers the story behind these pickles and that everything in the jar has a use. The pickle and the brine. For example, our Drunken Tomatoes are amazing in everything from Bloody Marys to dirty martinis to pizzas and salads or just as part of an antipasto platter,” says Melvin.
“The brine for every vegetable is different. I didn’t make things easy on myself,” he says with a laugh. For example, the Drunken Tomatoes brine is flavored with red wine and basil. The Chow Chow has lots of celery seed and turmeric.
Melvin, who says he’s been preserving since he was “knee high to a grasshopper” loves pickles and loves sharing his love of pickles for many different reasons. “The sharpness of pickles goes really well with food. It cuts through fat and lifts up flavors. It allows you to eat that extra four ounces of pork belly. It’s great.”