New Ownership of the Don Hermann Pickle Factory Will Extend the Iconic Ohio Brand’s Reach

“We bought the business not to cost-cut but to invest,”

click to enlarge The cuke magic at work - Photo by Doug Trattner
Photo by Doug Trattner
The cuke magic at work

I’m not sure I would love pickles as much as I do if not for Corky & Lenny’s. Meals at the New York-style delicatessen on Cleveland’s east side didn’t start until the stainless tub of bright green pickles landed on the table. Only after devouring our weight in complimentary half-sours would we move on to the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.

Since 1967, those pickles have been made at the Don Hermann & Sons pickle plant in tiny Garrettsville, Ohio. It’s a place that I’ve been angling to visit since I began writing about food nearly 25 years ago. Recently — at long last — I was welcomed into the dill-scented pickle factory, where a crew of mainly female Amish employees washed, sorted, cut, packed, filled and labeled a dizzying volume of pickled cucumbers.

Don Hermann relocated his family from Cleveland Heights to the Portage County hamlet of Garrettsville 55 years ago because he wanted to move to the country and raise poultry. He did just that until a disease wiped out his flocks, which is when he began experimenting with pickles. His unique half-sour pickles are based on a Hungarian recipe passed down for generations. After being jarred and boxed, the pickles were delivered to Jewish bakeries, markets and delis across Northeast Ohio. The company began to grow exponentially when Don’s son Larry got involved, soon securing a local distribution deal that turned Don Hermann pickles into a beloved regional brand.

While ostensibly a simple product, commercial pickles can go wrong any number of ways. Who hasn’t had a pickle with an unappetizingly tough skin, flabby texture, mushy interior and flat flavor? When you grab a jar of Don Hermanns – with the “cloudy brine that assures freshness” – you know that every pickle will be crisp, crunchy and cold, with a pronounced garlic, dill and salt flavor.

To make pickles shelf-stable – i.e. requiring no refrigeration – the filled jars need to be heat pasteurized and pumped full of preservatives. Don Hermann’s fermented pickles can only be found in the refrigerated section, preserving both texture and beneficial probiotics.

A couple years ago, the Hermann family was approached with an offer by Pat and Tim Viancourt, brothers based in Hudson.

“And Larry says, ‘So what makes you think you can run a pickle factory?’” Pat recalls.

The Viancourts, as it turns out, have a wealth of experience in the food field, with Pat running both a candy manufacturing facility and a produce processing business.

“The pickle category is expected to grow twice the GDP in the next five to seven years,” Pat explains. “It’s a hot category with all the different health benefits. We feel very bullish. And it’s just fun to tell people you own a pickle factory.”

In the beginning, the Hermanns grew their own cucumbers. As demand outpaced their harvests, they reached out to other growers. These days, a steady stream of refrigerated trucks arrive from all over North America.

“The way the cucumber growing cycle works, in the middle of winter you’re down in Mexico,” Viancourt explains. “As it gets warmer, you move further north in Mexico, then hop across the border to Alabama. And then we’ll move up to Ohio, then to Michigan and Ontario before working our way back down.”

While the Don Hermann brand is respected and adored across the Ohio Valley, its reach doesn’t extend much beyond. That’s where the Nathan's name comes in. Since 1998, Don Hermann has been the exclusive manufacturer and seller of pickles bearing the famous hot dog brand’s labels. Inside the jar, the kosher dills, half sours and hot & spicy chips are identical to Don Hermann, but the Nathan’s label gets those products onto the shelves of major retailers.

“We think that we are underdeveloped with the Nathan’s brand,” adds Viancourt. “It used to be that it was a New York brand, then it was an East Coast brand, now it’s an east of the Mississippi brand.”

In addition to the Don Hermann and Nathan’s brands, the Garrettsville facility does co-packing for brands like Boar’s Head and Dietz & Watson and private label products for Kroger, Whole Foods, Weis Markets and soon Harris Teeter.

Passenger vans shuttle Amish employees to and from the plant. It’s a labor force that kept the facility humming without a glitch throughout Covid. Of the 110 employees, many have worked at Don Hermann for 15, 20 and even 25 years. While factory improvements and upgrades, which are required to get products into places like Trader Joe’s, are being implemented, Viancourt says none of it is happening at the expense of staffers.

“We bought the business not to cost-cut but to invest,” he explains. “Automation and labor go hand in hand; there is a high need for both to support our future growth strategy. We have actually added jobs over the past 20 months and anticipate doing so over the next two to three years.”

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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