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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
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
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
"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."