A young Buffalo couple has opened up a market on the city’s Lower West Side/Historic West Village dedicated to foods that are pickled. Buffalo Barrel + Brine is located in a former corner store that was once considered the thorn in the side of the neighborhood. After neighbors fought to have the business closed, the space sat empty for quite a while. Recently RJ and Lindsey Marvin decided the it was the perfect location to open a pickling business. “We live right down the street,” said Lindsey. “Ever since I’ve known RJ, he’s wanted a corner type store such as this.”
If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the idea of a market that is dedicated to the art of pickling, then you probably haven’t been doing a lot of traveling to larger cities like NYC and Montreal. “Those types of cities have dozens of shops that are dedicated to particular types of foods,” RJ mentioned. “There are cheese shops, fish mongers, pickle shops, etc. Buffalo’s restaurant scene is finally starting to arrive, which means that there are going to be more people who appreciate specialty foods. Some people think that it’s weird, but there are a lot of people who love what we’re doing.”
During a recent visit to the shop, called Buffalo Barrel + Brine, three young kids from the neighborhood walked in with skateboards in hand expecting to find a store that sold candy, most likely. One of them shouted out, “What kind of a place is this? What do you sell?” “Pickles!” replied RJ. The three youngsters looked at each other, before one of them exclaimed loudly, “That’s weird – this place smells like pickles!” Upon, realizing they had walked into a pickle shop they abruptly walked out.
Fortunately, the rest of the people that walked into the pickle shop during my visit all arrived in search of pickles. One woman walked up to the front counter and sampled a number of slices, before proclaiming her favorite variety. A couple of young guys walked in looking for one of the bread and butter varietals, but they were already sold out. Sold out! Yes, there appear to be a lot of pickle fans out there who are extremely happy to have these picklers in the neighborhood. “It’s like going to a brewery and ordering a flight of beers,” RJ explained. “But instead of beers, it’s pickles.”
Before long, I found myself trying a number of the different house pickled cukes – some in vinegar and brine, and others in salt water. RJ’s favorite is the Buffalo Sour (a full sour), which is fully fermented in salt water, with garlic and a couple of spices. It’s raw, all natural, and took a month to make. After popping one into my mouth, RJ told me, “It’s yeasty and funky… it’s like being in NYC in an old Italian or Jewish deli – there’s nothing else like it.”
While the Buffalo Sour was not thenumber one on my list, I did find that the rest of the pickles that I sampled were pretty dynamite, especially the bread and butters. “Those are great,” said RJ. “The bread and butter dates back to times when people were too poor to eat anything but bread and butter. Occasionally, if they were lucky, they managed to come across this style of pickle, which they would put on top of the bread and butter, hence the name. Then we have the Million Dollar Pickle, which was resurrected from old Amish recipes, resurrecting old world recipes. If you like beer, then try the Southern Tier IPA Pickles, which are dry-hopped with fresh hops.” It’s true – the pickle has an IPA taste about it!
For those of you wondering how RJ and Lindsey got into all of this, it all started when RJ was working at Elm Street Bakery. “He worked in the restaurant business for 17 years,” said Lindsey. “Elm Street had a market, which is where he got a lot of experience in the business. He was doing a lot of pickling at the time, but he wasn’t able to do everything that he wanted. He wanted to experiment with pickling – he wanted to create flavors that no one else was doing. In order to achieve that goal, we needed to open this business.”
“It started when I was young,” RJ added. “It’s something that I always knew how to do. My grandparents preserved their tomatoes for the winter time, and my dad was always pickling. I was always helping when I was young. For years I was making kombucha (fermented tea) at home. I was also pickling and fermenting. Now I have taken all of these learning experiences and applied them to a business.”
Aside from pickles, Buffalo Barrel + Brine does carry a number of other products including house made kimchi and sauerkraut. The owners even serve up kimchi shots! When they make ferments, they create additional brine and add juices – it’s essentially a probiotic gutshot, according to RJ. There are also a number of products that are sourced from other supplier friends in the industry, such as BBQ sauce and rub. But most everything right now comes from the brain of RJ, who considers himself a Willy Wonka sort of character when it comes to pickles. “Next we want to do miso and vinegars… a steam punk cider vinegar… barrel aged,” RJ reflected. “The door is wide open for all sorts of ideas. In NYC there are people who come together as a ‘think tank’, dreaming up different ideas. I want to do that here in Buffalo. Maybe we might have one kick-ass sandwich that is what we become known for. We might do pop-up grilled cheese or tacos. Right now I’m looking for a rabbi – we want to be certified kosher [seriously]. I’m also thinking about putting out a Craig’s List ad, in search of a couple of old Italian guys who would sit outside and play dominoes all day [laughing].”
In the end, RJ dedicates much of the success of the market to his wife. “She helped to shred 300 pounds of cabbage a couple of days ago, and she plays a huge role in the day to day operation,” he told me. “She is 100% involved. I couldn’t do it without her. I wouldn’t do it without her. We both make the decisions, and we both roll up our sleeves.”
Was I expecting to see a pickle shop open at the foot of Johnson Park, in the shadow of The Avant? No. Am I anticipating heading back to score a jar of bread and butters as soon as they are available? Of course!
Buffalo Barrel + Brine is going to become a mainstay in the neighborhood, hopefully fueling others to follow their own culinary passions, no matter how weird they may seem. In the end, it’s these types of places that will enhance our city’s overall culinary prowess.