Mike Chu doesn’t smell a thing. Not anymore. After 15 years working amid the salty, vinegary stench that swirls in the nostrils at this pickle shop on the Lower East Side, Chu is immune.
The sour aroma, oddly enjoyable, emanates from 29 barrels of fermenting vegetables that account for about half of the storefront on Essex Street, just below Grand Street.
“The only time I smell anything is on my day off when I do laundry and smell it on my clothes,” said Chu, a longtime employee at The Pickle Guys. “My girlfriend says my car smells like pickles.”
The Pickle Guys is the lone pickle shop in a neighborhood that used to be rife with them. It’s small, about 700 square feet, and dim. An assembly of burnt orange plastic barrels – filled with everything from pickles to pineapple to olives to okra – offers an array of briny goods, fresh and cured on the premises.
To the left as you enter, passing through the open doors and under the bright green awning, a black sign with white lettering reads, “Under the Rabbinical Supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Feshelis” – everything at The Pickle Guys is kosher.
The menu is eccentric. Of course, there are the pickles, at least a half dozen varieties that range in sourness. Carrots and cauliflower, celery, green tomatoes, grape tomatoes, baby corn, all sorts of peppers, green beans, turnips, mushrooms and more. Seasonal options include watermelon. All pickled.
The selection has grown over the years. The Pickle Guys concocted recipes and took suggestions from customers. The apples and lemons never caught on, but the pineapple — preserved in a blend of cinnamon, cloves and sugar vinegar – is a favorite. An employee from Trinidad suggested that one, Chu said.
On a good day, customers will find owner Alan Kaufman working the store. He’s been in the pickling business for three decades. He talks of the “old timers,” the men who used to operate the many pickle boutiques – about 40 in the Lower East Side, Kaufman said, beginning in 1910 – and who taught him the trade. He opened The Pickle Guys in 2001 after years of overseeing the operation at Guss’ Pickles. When Guss’ owners sold the naming rights, and left Essex Street, Kaufman opened his own place right down the block.
Everyone is Kaufman’s friend. Walk in the store, and you’re his “buddy,” a refrain Chu has adopted too. It’s not uncommon for Kaufman, 53, a man with a brownish-gray goatee and slight New York twang, to refer to a male patron as “handsome.” His laugh, which he lets loose often, has a hitch at its start that evokes the cartoon Porky Pig.
The Pickle Guys go through a ton of cucumbers – 2,500 pounds a week, actually – and business picks up around the Jewish holidays, when Kaufman said regulars from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maryland visit.
During Passover, The Pickle Guys grind horseradish at a table in front of the store, churning fresh, spicy root all day long. This is no easy task — employees wear a gasmask if on duty.
One recent afternoon, a middle-aged man, tall, graying, mostly bald, wearing a blue suit and purple tie, walked in the store. It had been just two weeks since his last visit, but he was greeted like a relative who hadn’t been seen in years.
The customer, David Kaufmann, a lawyer and native New Yorker, shares a last name with the man providing the hearty welcome. But there is no relation.
“Dave! Been a while,” Alan Kaufman said. “How are the kids?”
When his two sons were young, David Kaufmann – who said, “Same last name, but I paid for the extra N,” – would make trips to the store with his children in tow. They’re in college now.
David Kaufmann’s haul for the day included three kinds of tomatoes: cherry, blush sours and regular sours.
“Stuff you can’t get anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Before going, he had one more request for Alan. David Kaufmann asked if the pickle man behind the barrels would allow him to record a message to send to his two boys away at school. Alan obliged and David drew his phone from his pocket.
“These are my pickles!” Alan beamed into the phone. “You better get down here if you want my pickles!”