When you step inside the Pickle Guys, you’re bound to get more than just pickles. You might have some fun, too. “People want to feel that human thing; they want to talk,” says owner Alan Kaufman. “Nowadays with the telephones, nobody talks. We’ve got a little atmosphere, a little razzmatazz. It’s an old-school New York atmosphere.”
It’s not the only thing that’s resolutely old-school about the Pickle Guys, which can be found on the corner of Grand and Essex streets in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Once upon a time, this part of New York City had more than 80 shops and stands selling sour, half-sour and new pickles, but now Pickle Guys is the last man standing.
If we were to go, then that would be it. You might as well forget about the whole island of Manhattan, there's nothing else left!
Today’s Lower East Side is an expensive and fashionable place to live, but it used to teem with working-class life: This was the first port of call for many Jewish immigrants to America.
There’s still plenty of culinary evidence of that era, from Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys (next door to the Pickle Guys) to Katz’s Delicatessen and Russ & Daughters on East Houston Street, but when it comes to pickles, it’s just Kaufman, 58, and his merry gang.
He’s only too aware of the value of this tradition.
“When I was a little kid, I used to get pickles down here, too, and I lived all the way up in Queens, two boroughs away,” he says. “My parents used to bring me down here to get two things: pickles and school clothing. If we [the Pickle Guys] were to go, then that would be it. You might as well forget about the whole island [of Manhattan], there’s nothing else left!”
Kaufman has been making pickles since 1981, when he started working with the legendary Gus’s Pickles, then on Essex Street. When the owners sold the shop in 2002, he set up the Pickle Guys down the street, and despite a recent move to a new site about 60 yards away, the modus operandi remains the same: pickles sold out of barrels with a side order of wit.
And what a variety of pickled goods. “We got mangos, pineapples, okra, green beans, olives — eight different types of olives! — five different types of peppers, four different types of tomatoes,” says Kaufman. “If we can pickle it, we do it!”
The most popular, though, are the sour pickles. The recipe is simple: saltwater, pickling spices and garlic, but they need time. “That’s the thing with sour pickles,” says Kaufman. “They’ve got to sit for three months. You’ve got to leave them somewhere, and every so often you’ve got to maintain them, clean off the top, add a little bit more brine to them.”
What I really get a kick out of is when people come in, take a bite out of the pickle and say, 'Wow! This is a good pickle.' I like that a lot.
The Pickle Guys has some extremely loyal fans, says Kaufman, but also plenty of people who are trying their wares for the first time. “People travel from all over to come here,” says Kaufman.
“When they land at JFK, before they go to their hotel, they’ll stop here to get pickles. But what I really get a kick out of is when people come in, take a bite out of the pickle and say, ‘Wow! This is a good pickle.’ I like that a lot.”
Pickle Guys may be a shop with a foot in the past, but it’s looking toward the future, too. Permits permitting, Kaufman hopes to be selling fried pickles by the fall. There’ll be a simple menu: fried pickles, fried okra, fried tomato and a burger, all of it Kosher, plus a few tables and some chairs outside. He’s just waiting for the city to give him the go-ahead.
“It takes a long time before the city starts moving their feet,” he says. “They need to clear everything, so it’ll be at least six or seven months from now. They’re not in a rush, I guess!”
Pickles and a sense of humor: two Lower East Side traditions that have hopefully got a few years in them yet.