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UMaine Today Magazine


Pickling potential
[-
Back to Pleasing Palates-]

Mike Henderson of Mike's Maine Pickles
Mike Henderson of Mike's Maine Pickles
 

Growing up on a potato farm in Aroostook County, Mike Henderson was surrounded by fresh produce and home cooking. One of the foods he most fondly remembers: pickles made by his grandmother, aunts and mother. A staple on the lunch and dinner table.

Henderson admits that he still can't make pickles as good as his 85-year-old mother, but that's news to the many fans of the product line known as Mike's Maine Pickles.

Henderson took a handful of favorite recipes and added "a pinch of something." The look clear pint canning jars with no-frill lids and miniscule labels is right off the kitchen pantry shelf. The fresh pickle taste, his signature.

Sure, you can buy his old-fashion bread and butter pickles, dilly beans, and pickled eggs and sausage, but Henderson also cranks up the volume by offering "hot" varieties of the traditional favorites. Even his candy carrots have a certain zing.

"I wanted to become the Ben & Jerry's of pickles," says Henderson, standing in the front room of what was once a small restaurant that is now home to his pickle packing business in Easton, Maine. "I loved to eat and make pickles. And I realized there was a void of Maine-made pickles in delis."

Henderson was a school counselor working in southern Maine when he decided to take the advice he was giving young people: Pursue your dreams. In 19xx, the Houlton, Maine native packed up and moved back to Aroostook County to launch his own business.

He has long since been dubbed "Mike the Pickle Man." The company slogan: "We were potato pickers who became pickle packers."

"It all started in my home a mile down the road and became a monster," says Henderson of his 10-year-old business that outgrew his home kitchen and has his new location near bursting at the seams.

But like so many new food businesses, success also known as survival has not been easy. His first sales were at craft fairs, county fairs and farmers' markets. He drove from one to another. He traveled Route 1 throughout Maine and into New Hampshire, stopping at mom-and-pop shops along the way, selling wholesale out of the trunk of his '86 Lincoln Town Car.

He describes the business as "self-financing."

"I remember one afternoon when the fuel gauge was on empty and I had to make it to Gray to drop off pickles in order to have money to buy gas to get home," says Henderson. "Sometimes, that's the challenge, but I firmly believe God is blessing me.

"If you want to work hard, this is the greatest country in the world."

Like all new food products in this state, each of Henderson's recipes underwent process review at the University of Maine. In recent years, he's counted on UMaine food scientist Al Bushway to help him meet federal Food and Drug Administration standards for food security that only got stricter after Sept. 11, 2001. And it was Bushway who was particularly helpful in troubleshoot what has become one of Henderson's signature products pickled garlic.

"Everyone who was doing pickled garlic ended up with the garlic turning green," Henderson says. "With Al's expertise, we discovered that enzymes were setting off sulfur, so we came up with a process that gave me an edge above everybody else garlic that didn't turn green."

A few years ago, Henderson learned that many food producers from New Hampshire also send their products "to Al" for process review. "That's when I realized what a gem we have here in Maine," Henderson says. "And he's only a phone call away."

Today, with the help of distributors, Mike's Maine Pickles can be found in nearly 300 retail stores in Maine (and NH?). This past summer, his production tripled last year's.

Sure, there are still those out-of-sync days when the 200 pounds of garlic wasn't delivered and the proverbial check in the mail didn't arrive and an order for 250 jars of pickles waits to be filled. Those days, Henderson reminds himself why he puts it all on the line. 

"I'm a firm believer in doing something I enjoy," Henderson says. "I'm 61 and having the best time of my life. I meet people, and put my heart and soul into what I do.

"You've got to be a dreamer. That's what at least 98 percent of this is all about. And most who are successful have a vision beyond what they're doing. It's the dream and the vision that keep us growing and going."

 

UMaine Today Magazine
Department of University Relations
5761 Howard A. Keyo Public Affairs Building
Phone: (207) 581-3744 | Fax: (207) 581-3776


The University of Maine
, Orono, Maine 04469
207-581-1110
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