All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
Two thousand pounds of West Texas cucumbers tumble into a hot tub. Jets of water jostle them around; they look like forest-green fish fighting to the surface for feed. The cucumbers are getting a bath, and next, they climb up a lift that looks something like an amusement park for cucumbers.
They go through the brush washer for another cleaning with stiff bristles. From the second floor of the factory, we watch as the cucumbers pile into a slicer, where hundreds of grass-green medallions pour out onto a steel shaker table. The shaker table — somewhere in between a thing you use to pan for gold and the game Operation — pops and vibrates the cuke discs around to allow the curvy cucumber butt-ends to fall to the floor.
The cucumbers pour into five-gallon pails, which get measured for weight, and a waterfall of brine fills the pails. Then goes the lid and the label, and about 2,200 discs — from 65 to 70 whole cucumbers — load onto a pallet.
There’s a briny, spicy, sharp aroma soaking the air as soon as you walk in the door of East Garland’s family-owned pickle factory. It’s unmistakably the waft of pickles: You could be blindfolded and know where you’re standing. This is First Place Foods, the quiet but powerful factory that has been keeping Dallas briny since 2006.
It’s a humble space, makeshift offices upstairs and the factory downstairs. The pickles, some a spicy bread-and-butter recipe created by president and head of the family Pat Hunn, some hamburger dill chips and some fresh brining cucumbers, will make their way to the front of the house at such joints as Twisted Root Burger Co. and Bob’s Steakhouse. One of the best burgers on the planet, the Grape’s brunch burger, has used a horseradish pickle customized by the Hunn family. In other words, these are some excellent pickles.
“They’re running one about every eight seconds,” says Collin Hunn, the vice president and Pat’s son, talking the speed of pickle pail production. It’s mesmerizing. A handful of workers inspect the cucumbers along the way, tossing the weak ones overboard. Much of this operation happens by hand rather than by machine.
“It gives it an artisan feel,” Pat Hunn says. “Frankly, we’ve never had the financial situation to buy a whole bunch of automated stuff.”
Hunn’s little factory will slam down lids on enough five-gallon pails to stack about 80 pallets. It’s easily a galaxy of pickles. The Hunn family veins flow with pickle juice.
Around 2001, Pat Hunn left his job in Big Pickle to start his own pickle company. His father, J.B. Hunn, got into pickles while working for Morton’s Food in the mid-20th century. The brand was called Wiejske Wyroby. When Morton’s pickle factory closed, J.B. Hunn bought the Wyroby name: He had the label, the recipe and the brand. He’d even purchased the wooden pickle tanks and deconstructed them, fashioning them into corrals on his farm in Celina.
“He thought there was a void,” Pat Hunn says, explaining why anyone would focus his entire life on pickles.
The Wiejske Wyroby model is what Pat splintered off with in 2001— he worked with a food scientist for months— to craft hundreds of thousands of his own Hunn family pickles. He’d contacted Walmart (he’d done business with the company for years before selling Wiejske Wyroby to Vlasic), which promptly obliged by selling his new family pickle. He started off his new family business with the biggest retail customer in the world — which turned into the biggest mistake of his life.
Walmart sat on the purchase order, waiting a year before producing it. Pat had hundreds of thousands of cases of pickles sitting around, gathering dust. He was forced to sell them salvage: It docked him hundreds of thousands of dollars, wiping out the company sale savings he’d made selling to Vlasic years earlier, he says.
After bottoming out hard with Walmart, Pat brainstormed solutions to save his business. Far down on the list of viable solutions was Garland’s Goldin Pickle Co., a ramshackle factory on the edge of town that sold industrial-sized relish.
“He kind of pretended to be a pickle company,” Pat says of the Goldin factory before it was his. He had visited Goldin on a weekday, and it was dark as a movie theater and nowhere near ready to retail pickles.
“They had a relish dicer, a pickle slicer and that’s about it,” Colin Hunn says. Pat went to the Garland pickle factory armed to negotiate and left ready to purchase the whole place. He left and asked his wife what he should do. As Pat describes it, her response set things moving for their new family business: “We’ve never been able to make pickles in our own town.”
There are three ways to make pickles: the pasteurization route, what’s done to pack the glass-jarred Vlasics you’ll find at the store; the fermentation route, your good, old wood barrels and salt brine and fermenting agents; and, finally, the refrigeration route. Hunn’s Private Stock, the pickles coming out of the First Place Foods factory, use the latter two methods.
I’m sitting at Twisted Root the best and right way: with my cardboard tray absolutely loaded with every type of Hunn’s family pickle that’s offered. Twisted Root uses Hunn’s fermented-process pickles. You’ll find them in the mini-barrel vats on a table at Twisted — the Atomic pickles, Christmas light-red, sweet dills and bread-and-butters. Hunn’s pickles are about 75 percent of the reason why I eat at Twisted Root. I like to pile way too many bread-and-butters onto a Twisted veggie burger for the crunch and the bite of sugar and maybe an Atomic or two on top of the fried green beans.
The pickles at Bob’s Steak and Chop House, the ones you find hanging on the table when you sit down, are essentially marinated cucumbers, giant, fresh ones that use Hunn’s refrigerated process. These are Hunn’s premium product, the Cadillac of pickles. Hunn’s pickles for Bob’s have a pure saltiness, nearly oceanic, like the artisan stuff you’ll find at most chef-driven burger joints.
That refrigerated process is what I’m witnessing from the second floor of First Place Foods, and, to a lover of pickles — whether they’re near cucumber or under a beef patty — it’s a wonder to behold. Everyone, all of us, should find a way to witness the production, no matter if it’s a massive, automated factory or the steady crafting of farmhands, of our favorite foods. It makes you love what you love even more.