PHILADELPHIA — Sometimes, during a particularly hectic day, William Baker would love to stop and smell the pickles. The trouble is, he can't.
It's not that he doesn't like them. Just the opposite: They're his livelihood. But spending up to 10 hours a day in a warehouse filled with pickle brine does something to the nose.
Baker's production plant packs and purveys plenty of pecks of pungent pickles. He considers his operation unique--the only black-owned and -operated kosher-style pickle maker in the country.
"Every once in a while I eat a pickle, but I can't smell them anymore," says Baker, 60, watching his son's arm disappear up to the elbow into a barrel of pickled green tomatoes. "I try, but I'm immune."
Luckily for him, other Philadelphians are not. Street people, medical students, nuns, patrons of Jewish delis all salivate at the chance to bite off a chunk of a sour, garlicky Baker Pickle.
Baker started "working pickles" at age 15 and worked his way up to being a loose-pickle salesman for Shupak and its corporate successor, Vlasic, which since has been bought by Campbell Soup Co. In 1981, when Vlasic stopped selling loose pickles, Baker opened his own shop.
Today more than 250 clients in the Philadelphia-southern New Jersey area come to him for dills. He delivers them himself and claims to supply pickles to all the region's Jewish and Jewish-style delicatessens.
At the Bonanza deli in central Philadelphia, roughly 1,000 Baker pickles are given out each week to accompany sandwiches. One Hahnemann University medical student consumes a half-dozen each day.
Manager Mitch Haftel takes home buckets of them for his 4-year-old daughter too.
"Everybody loves them," Haftel says. "I have a Jamaican guy outside, a street person, he holds a sign up for money. He collects money and he comes in and buys pickles."
In conversations, Baker readily describes himself as "the country's only black pickle maker," but he doesn't play it up in advertising and says it has little effect on business.
Richard Hentschel, executive vice president of Pickle Packers International, an industry group based in St. Charles, Ill., knows of no other black-owned pickle operations.
"I think it's great that anybody can get into the business and be judged on a product and not other considerations," Hentschel says. "As pickle connoisseurs go, they just know a good pickle. They're not concerned about where it's made, how it's made or who made it."
The classic kosher pickle was brought over by Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the mid- to late-1800s with their garlic-laced recipes. But the country's first pickled vegetables, Hentschel says, accompanied early explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
"Pickled vegetables played an enormous part in early American history," he says.
Pickles rose in popularity when ethnic foods went mainstream in the 1960s, and today an American consumes an average of nine pounds of pickles per year--or a total of about 29 billion pickles a year.
Most, though, are cooked and mass-produced--the Heinz and Vlasic varieties. Not Baker's. His require refrigeration, are crunchy instead of flaccid and, when bitten, flood the mouth with lively flavors of garlic, clove, mustard seed and bay leaves--similar to the old Shupak recipe.
The old beer distributorship that houses Baker Pickles churns forth 10,000 bushels of pickles a year, shipped by the hundreds in barrels.
A Baker Pickle starts out as a Kirby cucumber--a small variety with a thinner skin that allows the vat-mixed brine to seep through and cure in big barrels at near-freezing temperatures.
Once soured, the pickles are sorted according to size by Zamier Sheed, whose yellow-gloved hands sort roughly 5,000 pickles daily.
The aromatic factory also churns out pickled tomatoes and a delicacy called sweet cabbage, a hybrid of cole slaw and sauerkraut.
Baker laments that pickles are becoming more of a condiment than a snack. He says that--in Philadelphia at least--business appears to be dwindling.
But he's doing well, and he's apparently not alone.
"Smaller pickle manufacturers have a unique marketing system," Hentschel says. "These are fresh pickles made on a frequent basis in small batches. That's what makes that product work."
Baker remembers the old days on his sales route, and how deli owners once sprinkled pickle brine on the floors in the morning to entice people with the aroma.
And though Baker can't smell his own handiwork, that doesn't mean he can't eat it. His whole family does, actually.
"I stand behind my product 110%," he says. "So I kind of have to eat it. I wouldn't give people something I wouldn't eat."