By GREGORY ZELLER //
Randy Kopke knows there’s an artisan in all of us.
For the self-employed contractor – tile and masonry, mostly – it turned out to be pickling, a hobby he shared with his wife, Cori, a freelance bookkeeper.
Just two years after the amateurs supplied 200 jars of handcrafted pickles as favors for a relative’s Montauk wedding, their inner entrepreneurs have come roaring out. Their 2013 startup Backyard Brine Inc. is graduating from Stony Brook University’s Business Incubator at Calverton; several high-profile shops and supermarket chains are carrying their wares, with more to come; and the Kopkes are fully invested in bringing their pickles to the next retail level.
Randy actually gave up contracting as of 2014 to focus on Backyard Brine, and while Cori is still providing accounting services to multiple companies, she spends plenty of time balancing Backyard’s books – and is looking to transition fully to the family business.
Running the skyrocketing startup is not exactly what the Kopkes had planned. But they spent a couple of days in Montauk after that wedding and were surprised to see word of their pickles spreading – “the talk of the town,” according to Randy. They were doubly surprised when folks asked for more.
“People started calling us and ordering pickles,” Randy said. “Then the IGA in East Northport offered to carry them.”
Realizing that pickles could be their bread and butter, the Kopkes incorporated and “spent the rest of 2013 learning how to be a food company,” Randy added. Cori’s accounting expertise went a long way, but their greatest advantage were the outrageous pickles.
“People were going nuts for them,” Randy said, noting a variety of 10 dills and sweets including Dill Death Do Us Part, a popular garlic dill, and the Everything Bread and Butter, which is fermented in a variety of seeds and a Vermont maple syrup brine.
Other top sellers: the habanero-dill Rowdy Pepper Belly and summer-season favorites Smokey Sienna, bathed with smoked jalapenos, and BBQ Betty Lou, a sweeter jalapeno alternative.
“They’re all very popular,” Randy said. “They’re all pretty good sellers.”
Good enough to land Backyard Brine, so far, on the shelves of 100 independent and chain retail outlets between Brooklyn and Montauk, as well as single-store shops in Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
The fledgling company’s marketing has been completely word-of-mouth and legwork; the Kopkes have attended many food shows, including the national nonprofit Specialty Food Association’s enormous Summer Fancy Food Show, held in June at New York City’s Jacob Javits Center.
That show and others have led directly to retail deals, including Backyard Brine’s November debut with Whole Foods Market, the Texas-based supermarket chain specializing in organic products. Whole Foods is rolling out the brand slowly; for now, it’s only available at the chain’s Lake Grove store, but after the holidays Backyard’s pickles should appear at other Long Island Whole Foods locations, then at stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan and “around the Northeast,” Randy said.
The pickles are already available at IGA markets across Long Island and several Island-based specialty food stores and butcher shops, with strong concentrations in the Hamptons and Oyster Bay areas.
Backyard Brine wound up in a Baltimore shop, he added, after the Kopkes attended Expo East, a September natural products showcase held in Maryland.
It’s an impressive rise for two amateur enthusiasts who weren’t even imagining professional pickling just 30 months ago.
“When we spoke to a consultant last year, she said the amount of stores we got into as quickly as we did was just unbelievable,” Randy said. “I guess you never know what’s going to happen.”
With the Whole Foods expansion and other retail deals pending, the Kopkes are now looking to step up production. That starts with Backyard Brine’s first-ever corporate HQ: They’ve been pickling at the Calverton Incubator since March of 2014, but have now leased a 2,000-square-foot space on Cox Lane in Cutchogue.
Their Long Island-based distributor has enough stock on hand to satisfy customer demand through the end of the year, Randy noted, and if necessary the Kopkes can still use the Calverton kitchens for new production. But the plan is to be out of Calverton, and up and running in the new Backyard Brine headquarters, by January.
The Cutchogue rental includes enough room for a small retail shop up front, Randy added, in addition to 1,800 square feet of manufacturing space. That will come in handy as Backyard Brine grows its product line – new relishes and condiments are on tap, as well as those seasonal offerings – and new retail deals come to fruition.
“There are buying seasons, and spring is definitely better,” Randy said. “We’ll hit it hard again in two months, when stores start picking up.”
The pickle brokers also expect their Cox Lane location to pay off. It’s within cork-popping distance of numerous Cutchogue vineyards, meaning a potentially rich combination of local and day-tripping customers.
“Everyone says we’re very lucky to be in this location,” Randy said.
Backyard Brine was also lucky to be among the first Long Island companies accepted into Empire State Development’s new Innovation Hot Spot program. The state initiative, run locally by SBU, offers tax breaks, mentoring, continuing education and business-development assistance to startups affiliated with Island incubator programs.
Unlike the similar Start-Up NY program, which requires startups to be physically located near a university or research center, Innovation Hot Spot’s benefits are portable, meaning Backyard Brine can take its five-year moratorium on state sales and corporate taxes to Cutchogue.
That’s welcome relief for entrepreneurs who’ve spent roughly $25,000 getting their startup to this point, on everything from cucumbers to jars to food-show fees.
“The tax savings are incredible,” Randy said. “And any little bit of money we can save helps out.”
Backyard Brine Inc.
What’s It? Artisan pickles
Brought To You By: Amateur hobbyists-turned-entrepreneurs Randy and Cori Kopke
All In: About $25,000, self-funded, for food show fees, tools of the trade and incorporation costs
Status: Taking the East Coast one market at a time