By Lauren Durden, Foodable Contributor
Though he didn’t know it then, when Joshua Miller took a job as a cook at his father’s convenience store, making hot food for hungry customers, it would lead him down a path that would eventually bring him to the brine. What started as a part-time job at the family business turned into positions in kitchens and bars throughout the city of Philadelphia, where he still resides today. Miller’s time spent behind kitchen doors and bars only served to increase his personal passion for cooking and dining out. And when he read an article one night about the rising popularity of the humble pickle, he knew he had found his niche.
Miller founded Passyunk Pickles, named for an avenue in South Philadelphia, in 2013. Using the food knowledge and experience he had in the Philadelphia restaurant industry, combined with a few canning classes, Miller started making and jarring pickles during his off hours. When Miller’s restaurant friends tasted his creations, they urged him to start selling them. Out of this, the Passyunk Pickle brand was born.
Miller first rented kitchen space at the Fountain Porter, a local community-minded craft beer tavern in Philly, where he began to make larger batches of pickles to sell. He drew inspiration from intensely flavorful dishes he already enjoyed, and employed those flavor profiles to create unique, cold brined pickles — a far cry from the basic garlic cucumbers rapidly popping up around the country.
The Passyunk Pickle Difference
As the fermentation trend took hold of the United States, Miller and his wife, Maura, began to focus on what set their pickle brand apart from the myriad of fermented goods available on the market. With a focus on global flavors like Thai Green Curry French Beans and Szechuan Carrots, along with a respect for local, seasonal produce, Passyunk Pickles began to carve out a corner of the pickle industry. As Miller outlined, “The devil is in the details. There’s a love of big flavor behind all of our recipes, but we like to play with nuances in spices and vinegars to get the flavor right.”
The husband-and-wife duo still handcraft each small batch of their cold brined pickles together, but have since upgraded to a larger kitchen at Southwark restaurant. They rent out the space during the restaurant’s off hours. They’ve found that the friendships made throughout Miller’s years working in the industry have been one of their greatest assets, and one which they could not have been as successful without. The support for the pickle company is apparent, as the pickles are distributed throughout Philadelphia to restaurants, bars and private customers to be used on charcuterie plates or as elevated Bloody Mary garnishes.
The Importance of Seasonality & Fall Pickles
While well-known bread-and-butter pickles are still Passyunk’s “bread and butter,” the brand has become known for its signature products that highlight seasonal produce. While most pickle companies' first products involve a pickled cucumber, Passyunk Pickles went a different route and released a pickled squash as their inaugural recipe. This premiere pickle is indicative of Miller’s love for pickled produce beyond the confines of the ’cuke — produce which is seldom seen on the roster of other pickle companies.
Though not exclusively local and seasonal, Passyunk Pickles sources as much produce from local purveyors as possible throughout each season, which in turn make for pickles that are preserved at their peak flavor. Miller notes that this aspect of fermenting or pickling — the ability to preserve the best of each season throughout the year — is part of what makes pickles so special. He makes sure that a few specialties recipes are included in each season’s pickle lineup. Passyunk’s own list of out-of-the-box pickles include beautiful, ombré rat-tail radishes in the summer and peppery springtime ramps, amongst others.
If you’re looking to cold brine your own produce this October, Miller recommends ground cherries, also known as cape gooseberries, which he himself plucks from his purveyors in early fall to create a seasonal pickle, the last of the late summer’s heirloom cherry tomatoes, or sweet lunchbox peppers.
Though now flush with orders and widely distributed throughout Philadelphia’s bars and restaurants, the Millers’ Passyunk Pickle story is still in the early chapters. While Miller and his wife were able to overcome many of the initial startup hurdles facing small food businesses, thanks to his restaurant industry know-how, they are now looking to take their mom-and-pop endeavor to even greater heights. Possible expansion into e-commerce, or a physical presence on the shelves of local retail spaces, are all on the table for the couple. But an attention to quality and an involvement in the community are at the forefront of their decisions. Though there are many avenues for growth the craft brand can explore, one thing is certain: delicious pickles can always be found at Passyunk Pickles.