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Packin pickles in her 55

Barlow math teacher Kathy Meehan-Graves launches home-grown pickle business
by: Carole Archer, Barlow High School math teacher and pickle entrepreneur Kathy Meehan-Graves visits grocery stores that carry her products in her 1955 Chevy, restored by her husband. “People around town know my car,” she says.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, packed in the back seat of her immaculate, blue-on-blue 1955 Chevy 210 V-8, Kathy Meehan-Graves carries a couple cases of hand-packed pickles down to Hillsboro, Beaverton, Aloha and up and down the I-205 corridor.

Perhaps dozens of pickle jars are strange cargo to transport in a classic, restored automobile - but then again, there's really nothing all that traditional about Graves.

Calling Graves 'busy' is like saying Marilyn Monroe was 'sort of' attractive. She's a 15-year veteran math teach at Barlow High School, schooling teenagers in the ways and means of imaginary numbers and factorials in her algebra, geometry and trigonometry classes. She's also moonlighted as a real estate agent for the John L. Scott Company for the last three years.

Then last November, the 46 year-old Kansas City native ('on the Kansas side') plunged about $100,000 into starting up her own independent pickle business, 'The Real Deal Pickle Company.' Since then, she's managed to get her trademark spicy, zesty pickle into about 20 grocery stores across the region, including high-profile shops like New Seasons, Zupan's and Lamb's Thriftway.

Graves, now of Boring/Damascus, grew up in a family of eight and learned the craft of canning from her mom. She'd canned jellies and pickles for friends and family for many years as a hobby - and requests poured in frequently for new batches. It paid to be her friend during the holidays, almost certainly guaranteed a jar of pickles as a gift.

From pastime to business

But it wasn't until last year that Graves realized her pastime could actually morph into a full-fledged business.

'The bottom line is I didn't want to turn 90 or 100 and go, 'God, I wish I had tried it,' ' Graves says. 'That's how I go about a lot of things in life. I preach that to my high school students - don't look back and wish that you had done something during your high school years.'

Graves took a class at Portland's Food Innovation Center to learn the nuts and bolts of starting a food business. Then she took out a home equity loan and invested nearly $100,000 in her idea.

Finally, Graves decided to take a bold step - and be the new kid on the pickle block. She'd enter a marketplace filled with age-old staples like Claussen's and Vlasic, not to mention the handful of other locally produced pickles already on the shelf.

'There's other organic pickles you can find, they just don't have that spicy garlic bite that I'm looking for. I'm going for a specific taste. I want that zesty garlic - and there's nobody else out there with it.'

Graves gets that special kick through a recipe that combines fresh garlic, chili flakes, dill, mustard seed, black pepper, sea salt and brine. She's also quick to distinguish her pickles and emphasize the fact that they're refrigerated, and not off-the-shelf. This is a big difference.

During the summer of 2007, Graves sent an e-mail to friends, to see who'd be willing to volunteer a couple of hours or even days to help with canning her first batch of 'Real Deal' pickles. Though most people couldn't believe she was going through with it, Graves managed to muster up a pickle support staff of about a dozen, and together they packed 14,000 cans of Sauvie Island-grown cucumbers into jars over a two-week span that summer.

'I worked everyone's rear end off, I don't think my co-packers have worked that hard … ever,' Graves says. 'I kicked their butts.'

As the pickling process 'did its magic to impart flavors,' Graves wasted no time getting her ducks in a row on all other fronts of the business. She hired a local food sales executive as a consultant to offer business advice and help her make connections in the local grocery business. A graphic artist helped design labels exactly the way she wanted, something that 'screamed pickles, screamed color, and emphasized that they're local.' And she visited grocery stores across the region and did a lot of 'research and development,' tasting just about each and every type of pickle the Portland area has to offer.

Skeptical of start-ups

Of course, the process wouldn't have been complete without getting herself into a couple pickles along the way. At first no one wanted to sell her the amount of garlic she needed because she says suppliers were 'skeptical of a start-up company.'

Meanwhile, the power at her jar supplier's facility in China went out, delaying trans-Pacific shipment. The jars arrived only one day before she intended to pack with her volunteers.

Even the smallest and most unexpected things proved to be a challenge - for example, it took a lot of work to ensure her new pickle mascot embodied her vision, but was in good taste.

'How do you make a pickle look not too phallic? Google pickles and it's just phallic all over the place,' Graves says. 'It's hilarious, but it's something you've got to think about.'

Once her jars were ready to go, Graves launched a blitzkrieg of pickle pitches to buyers at local grocery stores. Feeling like a beginning teacher all over again, she learned on her feet and used her infectious enthusiasm and electric personality to achieve an almost 100-percent success rate when it came to getting stores to stock her spicy cukes.

Pushing her pickles

'To them, it's just another pickle - they see thousands and thousands of pickles a year,' she says. 'I know that everybody should buy my pickles, but it doesn't work that way. I'm just another little hemorrhoid to them, I'm just another blip, so I have to go in there and sell myself with my pickles. I'm pretty relentless about pushing the door open and getting my foot in - just give me my two minutes.'

But even with a good sales pitch, at the end of the day, it's the taste of Graves' pickle spears that have ultimately sealed the deal.

'At first, the Zupan's guy said 'what do we need with any more pickles?' Then he took one bite and said 'where can I get some of these?' '

Using Charlie's Produce on 181st Avenue and San Rafael Boulevard to distribute to most stores (with the occasional special delivery in the classic Chevy her husband, Steve, restored), her formula seems to be working. With a price tag slightly higher than mass-produced pickles, at around $6 to $7 per 34-ounce jar, Graves says she's seen sales increase steadily in only a couple months. But like other start-ups, she says it could take as long as three years before the company actually starts to make money.

'Now I sit with the Bubbies and the Claussen's. And I'm so happy to be there,' Graves says. 'Those are the big guys, and I'm sitting right there next to them. And people are still buying mine.'

How Graves plays the role of a full-time math teacher, industrious pickle lady and real estate agent, on top of her life as a mother to her two teenage children, Tyler and Mitchell, is a formula as puzzling as the quadratic formula emblazoned on her chalkboard.

'I teach at school, I sell real estate, and I have this start-up pickle business. That's about as stupid a combination as you could come up with,' she says. 'Some people just look at me and say, I'm stupid.'

Though times have certainly changed, Graves says that she's a minority in a business still largely dominated by men. But even as a stranger in a testosterone-driven field, she says she consistently meets 'good people' in the business who have been nothing but supportive.

'It's been such a positive experience. There's so few women entrepreneurs in the food business, I had no idea at first that I was so rare,' Graves says. 'A lot of the grocery stores are beginning to see they need to support more women-owned businesses. And believe it or not, a white woman is a minority in the business world.'

For example, she says being a female business owner has made it easier to qualify for loans.

For now, Graves is focused on keeping the business growing at a healthy pace, and not expanding too fast or too slow. Her job doesn't end once a store's agreed to carry her product. Every week she still visits her stores to check in with buyers, managers and clerks, making sure supplies are plentiful and offering customers samples whenever she can. She's still selling off the remainder of her original batch, but she wouldn't mind if it ran out in the next couple months, creating a supply-and-demand scenario.

Keeping it local

Although right now she only offers two varieties, both the same flavor, just sliced differently, she's working on a new asparagus recipe. While she'd like to be stocked in more premium stores and maybe even expand to Washington, she is intent on 'keeping it local, developing the market here and keeping a balance.'

Even with her days jam-packed with big ideas, crunching numbers, making business calls and grading papers, Graves says she has no intention of throwing in the teacher's towel.

'Everybody thinks that I'm trying to retire from teaching, but the reality is that it doesn't work that way. I have about nine years until an early retirement, it's unrealistic,' she says. 'I love to teach; I like the actual teaching; I wish people liked math more than they do, the actual teaching of math; I love to do that; I can take a concept and make them understand it.

'I think the bottom line is that I'm going to be wearing a lot of hats for a while.'

Where to buy them

You can find Graves' 'Real Deal' pickles at the Happy Valley New Seasons, 15861 S.E. Happy Valley Town Center Drive, or log onto www.therealdealpickle.com for a list of other locations or to order direct.