Family and a Love for Pickles

Karen Bennettson and Vinessa Monaco pour hot brine into jars of what will become Rowdy Pepper Belly pickles at the Backyard Brine Handmade Artisan Pickles facility in Cutchogue. Michael Heller photos

Randy and Cori Kopke both grew up in families with foodie sensibilities, with parents who tended backyard vegetable gardens, and wanted to share the experience of enjoying delicious food with a homemade stamp on it. So it’s no surprise that, as a married couple, they’ve created a successful specialty food company that is focused on one of their favorite foods — pickles.

The Kopkes are the owners and operators of Backyard Brine, a Cutchogue-based company that sells several varieties of pickles, as well as other specialty food items such as Bloody Mary mix, and other sauces and dressings.

But pickles are clearly their passion. They got into the business six years ago, when they were asked by Cori’s brother to make jars of pickles as favors for their wedding guests. The Kopkes had for years grown their own cucumbers and made pickles, and her brother and other family members had become fans of their work. For the wedding favors, they created two varieties that have become signatures of the Backyard Brine brand — Dill Death Do Us Part, and We Go Together Like Bread and Butter.

In just a few short years, they’ve achieved nationwide recognition, with Backyard Brine pickles sold in 300 retail stores across the country, from King Kullen to Uncle Giuseppe’s to Whole Foods. But they’ve maintained the kind of local, grassroots feel they started with, saying that while they are gratified to see their business expand to big name stores, they still love collaborations with local restaurants and farmers markets on the North Fork and in the Hamptons the best.

Vinessa Monaco pours hot brine into jars of pickles.

The core philosophy of their business is in the name, and is a reminder that pickling is something anyone with a vegetable garden and a little time on their hands can do on their own.

“We used to make pickles all the time, and started by just getting the spice packet from the grocery store,” Cori said in an interview earlier this month, sitting next to her husband at their production facility in Cutchogue. “But then we started reading the back of the packet, and seeing the ingredients, and we said, this is atrocious. We started making our own recipes, and it just tasted so much better.”

While working on the wedding order, the Kopkes needed to purchase more pickles, and when they told the grocer at the local IGA what they were doing, he offered to sell them in his stores. The rest was history. Backyard Brine now has four employees and sources its pickles and other produce for the spice mixes from local farms.

Using fresh, natural ingredients and eliminating harsh preservatives and chemicals found in many of the big-name, mass produced brands of pickles is part of the key to success in making delicious pickles. There are basically two ways to make a pickle. The easiest way, and most manageable for the modest amateur backyard gardener, is to make vinegar pickles. At Backyard Brine, workers prep the raw cucumbers and spice mix, and stuff those in the jars, then add boiled salt brine and vinegar. The jars are then sealed, and dropped into a pasteurizing container with boiling water, where they sit for roughly 10 minutes. Once removed, the jars sit on cooling racks overnight, and the process creates an airtight seal, meaning bacteria cannot grow inside, making the pickles shelf-stable for over a year. In a single work day, Backyard Brine produces 900 jars of pickles.

For their varieties of sweet vinegar pickles, they will use an apple cider vinegar, as well as brown sugar, cane sugar and/or maple syrup.

Pickles can also be made using a fermentation process where the raw products (cucumbers and spices) are added with just the salt brine, and the fermenting process takes the blend down to the proper acidic pH levels. Randy Kopke described the difference in taste and look.

Tubs of pickles wait to be prepared for commercial and restaurant use.

“Vinegar pickles are what most people are used to. They’re like your standard Vlasic pickles, although I hate saying that word,” he said. “Fermented pickles are super sour, like what people would call a Jewish pickle. They’re sour, tart and translucent.”

The fun of making pickles, both for small-business owners like the Kopkes or someone experimenting with cucumbers from their own small garden, is playing around with different flavors and styles. Randy is a big fan of barbeque, so Backyard Brine has a smoky, bbq flavor-inspired line, which includes two brands — Sweet Betty Lou and Sienna — named after their dogs that passed away several years ago. They even have a Holiday Thyme variety, with fresh thyme, rosemary and garlic, that they market during the holidays. No matter the flavor, there is one principle that always guides what they do.

“You should be able to grow it all in your backyard,” Cori said.

The Kopkes spoke about the high levels of preservatives and other unnatural ingredients that are common in most generic brands of store-bought pickles, from the food dyes that give them the unnatural, bright yellow color, to pickles that are marketed as dill pickles but do not have dill listed as an ingredient. They also point out that the satisfying, snappy crunch everyone enjoys in a pickle often is courtesy of alum, a metal chemical that is an ingredient in many jarred pickles. So yes, actual metal is making your pickle crunchy. The Kopkes themselves were not even aware of that until they were asking around and talking to other people who make pickles, trying to figure out how they could get theirs to maintain that snappy crunch. Once they realized what that took, they decided they were ok with a slightly less crunchy pickle.

The Kopkes also pride themselves on being a low-waste company. They have various uses for leftover salt brine, from using it as an ingredient in cocktails (Cori loves to add it to her favorite drink, a margarita), or for marinating meats, to selling it by the quart to extreme athletes. They say that at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market, road cyclists and runners love to buy their salt brine, drinking it and then watching its electrolyte properties help alleviate leg cramping.

With the sales of both their pickles and the brine, and other specialty food items, the Kopkes have watched their business grow steadily. They admit it’s a grind, in large part because they both still have other jobs — Cori is in accounting, and Randy is a masonry contractor. They hope to make their company their main gig eventually, but say, for now, the hustle is worth it.

“We don’t have kids, so this company is our baby,” Cori said. “When you really love something, you make it work.”