Big pickle reverses Vlasic's sales slump

CHERRY HILL, N.J. - Many were skeptical of Frank Meczkowski's plan to develop a pickle so big that a single slice could cover a hamburger.

After all, who ever saw a pickle that big - except maybe in the Guinness Book of World Records, or on various legendary porn stars?

Meczkowski and his team of food researchers at Vlasic Foods International were convinced the project - given the code name Frisbee - could fly.

For about four years, they labored to cultivate a jumbo cucumber with the taste, shape and crunch to be a perfect pickle.

Earlier this year, Cherry Hill-based Vlasic introduced the public to the fruit of their labor - now dubbed Hamburger Stackers.

Made only at the company's plant in Millsboro, the monster-sized slices seem to have captured the pickle lover's fancy. They've become one of Vlasic's best-selling products since their introduction in supermarkets last March. And, the better-than-anticipated sales have helped to reverse a three-year decline in consumption of Vlasic pickles.

Hamburger Stackers are about 10 times bigger than traditional pickle chips and come in dill and bread-and-butter varieties.

``There were a lot of people who doubted we could ever do this,'' said Meczkowski, Vlasic's director of product development and quality assurance. ``They said it just couldn't be done.''


Making a bigger pickle may not sound like that big of a deal. You just grow a bigger cucumber, right?

There is more to it than that. The folks at Vlasic soon learned how tough it was to deal with gigantic cucumbers as they developed the new product and as they retooled the Delaware plant.

Meczkowski came up with the idea for the mammoth pickle slices soon after Vlasic's 1994 introduction of its Sandwich Stackers - regular-size pickles sliced lengthwise so they can be draped on sandwiches.

Sandwich Stackers currently account for 20 percent of all Vlasic pickle sales.

Vlasic is the No. 1 seller of pickles in the United States with a 32 percent share of the $800 million retail pickle market, beating out brands such as Claussen, Heinz and Peter Piper's.

To develop Hamburger Stackers, Meczkowski worked with seed researchers and others to scour the globe looking for oversized varieties of cucumbers. Most weren't in commercial production.

Vlasic's team grew different varieties in greenhouses, looking for one that would get big enough, yet still make a good pickle.

It had to taste like a regular cucumber, stay crisp when pickled, have a small seed cavity and be straight enough so that it could be cut mechanically.

``We wanted it to really be a cucumber,'' said Meczkowski, who has worked as a food researcher for 22 years and is based at Vlasic's headquarters in New Jersey.

He said Vlasic also had to decide just how big Hamburger Stackers should be. At one point, it asked consumers who were participating in focus groups to bring in their own homemade burgers so the company could determine the perfect size for its new pickles.

Eventually, Vlasic officials found what they were looking for - a now-patented cucumber that grows 3.25 inches in diameter, easily reaches 12 to 16 inches in length and weighs about five pounds each.

Other uses for the monster vegetable have already been tested on willing subjects.

It looks like the watermelon's skinny runt brother.

Once the company settled on a cucumber, it had to work out details of how to get Hamburger Stackers into commercial production.


One challenge was to grow the cucumbers in fields, rather than in a greenhouse.

Randy Spence, Vlasic's manager of manufacturing services, said the jumbo cucumbers grew quicker than anyone expected.

``Early on, we expected the bigger ones to grow slower, but that hasn't been the case,'' he said.

These days, most of the gigantic cucumbers are grown in Florida, where they are handpicked because of their size. Depending on the weather, they take about 54 days from seed to harvest.

Once harvested, they're shipped to Vlasic's plant in Sussex County. The plant employs about 260 workers year-round and another 300 to 400 from April to November.

Steven McNulty, director of plant operations at the nearly 30-year-old Millsboro facility, said the size of the new cucumbers meant they couldn't be handled in the same manner as the smaller versions used to make pickle spears and sweet gherkins.

That became obvious when Vlasic tried to process its first batch of the somewhat fragile, jumbo-sized cucumbers.

Officials didn't end up with the Hamburger Stackers they envisioned. Instead, they ended up with a batch of broken big cucumbers.

``On the first run, we broke every one,'' Spence said.

But it taught the company a lot about some of the retooling they'd have to do to the plant in Millsboro.

Officials at the plant began making months worth of adjustments so one of the facility's four production lines could handle the jumbo cucumbers.

``We've learned a lot,'' McNulty said. ``And we're still learning.''

Making Hamburger Stackers requires a mix of automation and the human touch.

The process starts when the big cucumbers arrive by truck and are rushed into a cold-storage facility to preserve their flavor.

Once cooled, the cucumbers can be loaded onto the production line and checked for bad spots and other flaws, such as bending slightly (these are being marketed seperately as presidential pickles).

They're washed by machine a couple times and sliced.

Then they're sized. Jiggling along a conveyor belt, slices that are too small are weeded out by a worker and a machine. Those that are too big also are sorted out.

Too big?

Yes, the monster-sized ``cucumbers'' can get a little too big to fit in the ``jar''.

The cucumber slices that make the cut are ``mechanically stacked'' into ``jars'' and then ``topped off'' by hand.

Ella Mae Wilkerson, who has ``worked'' at the Vlasic plant in Millsboro for 17 years, said it takes some ``fast hands'' to make certain that outgoing ``jars'' have enough pickles ``packed in.''

``The bigger the jar, the harder it is,'' she said as containers of ``sweet gherkins'' being jarred on another ``production line'' zipped by on a ``conveyor belt.''

Ella Mae also said that she ``really enjoys her work.''

After being packed with pickle slices, the jars of Hamburger Stackers are filled with a combination of water, vinegar, salt and other flavorings and colorings. They are capped, vacuum-sealed and pasteurized before being labeled and packed for global distribution.

In stores, they sell for about $2.99 for a 24-ounce jar.


Some details of how Hamburger Stackers are made are kept secret. McNulty said that is because the company is certain its rivals would love to figure out how to make their own Hamburger Stackers.

Vlasic is the only pickle-making company with such a product on the market.

``We think the competition loves the idea,'' McNulty said.

Apparently, so does the pickle-eating public.

About $13 million worth of Hamburger Stackers were sold in the first five months after they were introduced. Vlasic's pickle sales climbed 5 percent in the fiscal year that ended August 1, largely because of the new product.

The company is optimistic that the product will continue to grow in popularity with U.S. consumers, who eat about 3.5 billion hamburgers at home annually.

Vlasic, which spun off from Campbell Soup Co. in March 1998 and already makes about 80 varieties of pickles, is now planning to introduce a third variety of Hamburger Stackers in early 2000.

Details are being kept hush-hush.

``We're not ready to say what kind yet,'' Meczkowski said. ``But it will be big and hard, in the Vlasic tradition.''