A long time ago, before restaurant menus started boasting brine in every appetizer, before the food world fell mouth-over-heels for pickles (and before Portlandia made fun of us for it), Travis Grillo had a crazy idea.
In 2008, the founder of the now-ubiquitous Boston-based pickle company had just endured a rather involved interview process for a job at Nike when the pickle idea came to him. Nike narrowed it down to just two candidates, and when they chose an inside guy, Travis gave the corporate world the proverbial middle finger and decided to start selling pickles out of the back of a wooden cart built by his cousin Eric.
But they weren’t just any pickles. The stuff Travis was so adamant about sharing with the masses was his grandpa’s recipe, passed down through his dad, and it was special. Not intended for long storage, these spears aren’t overwhelmed by heavy flavor-killing vinegar—they are fresh, balanced, and impossible to stop eating.
“We didn’t wanna just taste the vinegar,” Travis said, explaining how his family would eat their grandpa’s pickles just days after he made them. A lot of the fodder for those pickles came from the Grillo family garden in Connecticut, so it was important that the Grillo’s Pickles of today taste like they came from real vegetables, too.
Travis had never made pickles before 2008, but he’d watched his family make them for decades and the motions quickly became second nature as he churned out batch after batch in his Allston basement. Friends at the Brookline Liquor Mart offered up storage space for his goods, but it wasn’t long before Travis’s antics around Boston (hocking his wares in a giant pickle suit at Fenway, for one) got the word out about Grillo’s and the company had to seek larger storage for their pickle arsenal.
Now, folks who follow food trends could speculate for hours about what makes a tiny idea become a booming success. Insanely delicious pickles aside, we can’t talk about Grillo’s Pickles without talking about the simple, pervasive, and ingenious branding behind the company. It started with a logo that snackers the world over could identify with.
“My mom’s a beach fanatic, so I wanted a pickle in a lawn chair,” Travis explained about their signature chilled-out little dude. Their brick-and-mortar location just outside Inman Square is decked out in more pickle swag than we knew existed (and we consider ourselves fairly well-versed in superfluous pickle accessories). Pickle potato chips, pickle-scented chapstick, pickle breath mints & veggie-flavored candy line the counter, and there are Grillo’s logos emblazoned on retro spectator shoes, skateboards, and straw summer hats, too. Did I mention fridge magnets? Oh, and giant inflatable pickles. None of this even goes into the extensive line of t-shirts and hoodies on offer here, many of which were designed by Travis himself.
You probably see our point by now—this guy knows how to brand. And it’s this style of be-yourself marketing that has kept things fun for him and the friends who helped him out along the way.
“I’ve been able to grow the company the way I wanted to make it,” Travis explained, “that’s why we’ve grown, everybody’s happy.” This collective mentality is, according to Travis, a big part of the Grillo’s success. Another major part of the growth they’ve experienced is experimentation.
When we decided to start carrying Grillo’s at AP, the product we were most smitten with was their pickled mint grapes. Yes, you’re reading that right—a red grape, pickled and flavored with fresh mint leaves that is sweet, crisp, and stupid-perfect on a charcuterie board. We’re also carrying their pickled green tomatoes, and look forward to trying out some of their other briney varieties—pickled fennel, castelvetrano olives, and spears with pickled hops floating at the bottom from their current collection, and a citrus ginger blood orange pickle they’re still developing. The trial and error process of chef-ing these ideas out isn’t always dreamy—Travis recalled a misadventure with some mangoes—but this tendency to keep pushing boundaries has kept the company interesting in a world now over-saturated with the Next Big Pickled Thing.
Grillo’s expansion has brought them to pickle-lovers as far south as Florida and as far west as Mississippi. And in Boston, their growth has earned them a resident spot beside Clover Food Lab’s Cambridge Street location, a space originally intended as a short pop-up stint for rotating artists and producers. They set up shop there in 2012, and show no signs of leaving soon (at least, as far as we can judge from the green and white paint job and the TVs Travis had built into the wall, which show a Karma Loop cartoon of dad & grandpa Grillo gardening, pickling veggies, and just generally coolin’).
Travis’s phone has been lighting up throughout our chat, so we eventually wrap up to let him return to pickle business. “I’m running a company now,” he remarked about the changes in his life since starting Grillo’s (which included having a kid a few years back). “I still sometimes want to just ride my bike to the Commons. I used to wake up, bike there, come home, make pickles, then do it all over again the next day.”
But even if the flights to business meetings across the country take a toll on him, Travis still gets to experience the best part of his early pickle-cart days.
“When I see someone try the pickles for the first time and like them,” he said, a smile creeping into his eyes, “that—that never gets old.”
You can get your Grillo’s Pickles fix at AP any time! We carry their Original and Hot Pickles, as well as their Pickled Mint Grapes & Pickled Green Tomatoes (the latter of which are conveniently sliced crosswise for perfect burger application).
You can also visit Travis’s storefront in Cambridge at 1075 Cambridge Street or try to catch the cart at SoWa & other markets around town!