EASTON — Mike Henderson is in a pickle, but the owner-operator of Maine’s only full time pickle processing plant wouldn’t have it any other way.
For 15 years, Henderson and his wife Susan have procured, pickled and packed pretty much anything that doesn’t move at Mike’s Maine Pickles in their central Aroostook County facility.
Cucumbers, beets, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini, jalapenos, green beans, brussel sprouts, fiddleheads and eggs all find their way into vats of simmering brine where they are transformed into 28 gourmet pickle products.
“You can pickle any living thing,” Henderson said. “Pickling is anything in a vinegar solution of 4.4 percent or less.”
Henderson should know — he comes from a long line of picklers and fondly remembers the smells and tastes of his youth thanks to countless batches of pickles and relish prepared in the kitchens of his mother and grandmother.
Today, Henderson remains true to his pickling roots.
Don’t look for fancy, computerized or automated equipment in his pickling plant.
Rather, the converted restaurant on U.S. Route 10 in Easton is an operational tribute to decade’s old pickling methods.
Three full time employees are busy year-round washing, peeling and chopping fresh vegetables, boiling and peeling eggs, sterilizing Ball Mason Jars, preparing the brine solutions, measuring spices and packing the products all according to Henderson’s exacting standards.
Crates and barrels of produce are neatly arranged along the walls and on the tables in the processing area and on a nearby large stove jars of pickles are processed in a hot water bath inside large, black canners just like the ones used by many Maine home canners.
In the packing room, dozens of boxes of canning jars are piled high and the smells of vinegar and cooking vegetables hang heavy in the air.
Overseeing it all is Henderson who at age 65 is showing no signs of slowing down, or making any radical changes in the way he does business.
“When we started this 15 years ago there was nothing on the market like what people would have in those old Ball jars,” Henderson said.
Gambling on the hunch people were hungry for the kinds of pickles they remembered from their childhoods, the Hendersons loaded up their old Lincoln Town Car with — of all things — jars of pickled eggs and started driving down Route 1.
“We’d stop at small grocery stores along the way and leave several jars,” Henderson said. “We told the owners we’d be back in a month with more.”
“Pickled eggs are my best seller,” Henderson said. “I’ll walk into a specialty gourmet store and they’ll tell me they can’t sell pickled eggs [because] no one will by them, and I tell them I’ll bet there is not one person who has not had a pickled egg at least once in their life in a bar or in the military or in college.”
Turns out, Henderson was right and pickled eggs are a universal treat.
From those humble beginnings, Mike’s Maine Pickles now goes through 300 cases a week of canning jars and in an average week processes 300 dozen eggs, 800-pounds of cucumbers, 300-pounds of green beans, 300-pounds of sausage and 200-pounds of onions.
His products are carried in grocery stores and specialty shops in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“We are the only facility open year-round that processes pickles,” Henderson said. “Everything we make is 100 percent natural with no dyes or artificial ingredients.”
Henderson believes so much in his products he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.
“I guarantee my products 100 percent,” he said. “If they don’t sell I’ll take them back.”
According to Henderson, selling out of Mike’s Maine Pickles is not a problem for stores carrying his products.
“One of the blessings I have is because I’m known for the quality of my ingredients and for that guarantee I can walk into any store with a new product and they will take it,” he said. “Of course, it depends on the market where certain things sell the best.”
His sour mustard, for example, flies off the shelves in Maine but few jars are sold in Massachusetts.
In addition to the small shops throughout New England, Mike’s Maine Pickles are carried by several high end franchises and suppliers who, in turn, ship the products as far away as North Carolina and Texas.
Henderson admits the trick to getting people to purchase his products is to first get them to try it.
“There is a real thrill when you watch a person bite into a product you’ve created,” Henderson said. “You have created something that appeals to their senses and that’s the ultimate experience for a human being.”
Along with the taste, Henderson relies on his minimalist packaging to woo current and potential pickle connoisseurs.
“People like the old fashioned mason jars,” he said. “Our labels are small and simple so it looks just like the canning they did at home.”
Since that first selling trip in the old Lincoln Town Car, Henderson figures he’s logged more than a million miles on the road.
He and his wife Susan handle all the New England deliveries and are on the road together three days a week.
“Last year we stayed in 180 hotels,” he said. “We put about 85,000 miles a year on the road.”
Not content to rest upon his laurels — pickled or otherwise — Henderson always is on the lookout for new items to process.
“We did okra in the spring and sold out,” he said. “I have plans to pickle mussels and two or three other things.”
Pickling the way Henderson goes about is a labor-intensive process that keeps his three employees — including grandson Tim Rooney — working eight hours a day, five days a week.
“I started working with my grandfather when I was 12,” Rooney, now 26, said. “I guess you could say I’ve grown up in the business.”
As he peeled and packed eggs into jars, Rooney admitted to getting a bit tired of pickles from time to time, but then caught his grandfather’s eye.
“Oh, the boss is here,” Rooney said with a laugh. “I love the pickles, they are the best, I can’t get enough.”
Standing to his left at the shiny countertop, Troy Dewitt was peeling and quartering cucumbers by the bucket load.
“Yeah, I see these in my sleep,” he said.
In the next room, Rick Williamson was opening mason jars by the caseload in preparation for washing and sterilizing.
Henderson said it’s the combination of his employees’ dedication, his own hard work along with his wife’s, the quality control of the product and an overall commitment to excellence that has made Mike’s Maine Pickles New England’s top gourmet pickles.
“You’re reputation is all you have and it might not make you rich but it sure makes you a lot of friends,” he said.
“How good are our pickles?” Henderson added. “So good I could sell pickled moose droppings [and] I’ve had people ask for that as a novelty.”
More information about Mike’s Maine Pickles and where to purchase them is available here.