Made in New England: Meet Travis Grillo of Grillo’s Pickles
When Travis Grillo’s dreams of becoming a designer at Nike went sour, he got to making pickles—using his family’s cherished, 100-year-old recipe. He started slinging spears for a buck out of a cart in the middle of the Boston Common, but Travis has grown Grillo’s Pickles to the national, million-dollar brand it is today. We got to chat with Travis about the importance of staying humble, why he dubs Grillo’s the “World’s Best Pickle,” and how he went from making dollars wearing a pickle suit to millions in a couple years. Oh, and spoiler: He finally launched his own limited edition sneaker!
R.K.: Take me back to when you first launched. How did you take it from idea to business? Did you always have that entrepreneurial blood in you?
T.G.: I was a designer and always hustling; I sold my artwork and would buy sneakers and resell them, which helped me make money growing up so that was always in my blood. Back in 2008 after college, I didn’t get a job as a designer at Nike and I was super bummed. That summer, I was making my family’s pickle recipe out of the garden and decided I was going to sell pickles out of my car. Everyone laughed, but I was like “I’m really going to do this.”
That summer, I drove around baseball fields and basketball courts in Norwich, Connecticut (where I grew up) and started selling them. I called my buddies in Boston, who suggested I sell them in the park in Boston, so I went to the Health Department. They laughed at me and said I wouldn’t last an hour.
I then started selling them out of a cart in the Boston Common. Next thing you know, Whole Foods found me that first year. So I would close down my cart and drive people to the stores for sales through Twitter. I started by selling two spears for a dollar then grew my company to a million dollars! To get to a million was hard, but now it’s a whole other business, so I’m even learning myself now.
R.K.: What makes Grillo’s different than your average, er, dill? Why are you the “World’s Best Pickle”?
T.G.: Most traditional pickles in the country have so many chemicals, extracts and oils to preserve the product on the shelf as long as possible. We use only fresh ingredients—fresh dill, California garlic, habaneros and garden-fresh, Grade A cucumbers. Most cucumbers are old and have been stored for about two years before they go into the process. At the end of the day, traditionally in America, pickles were a four-year-old product and they’re not even pickles anymore.
Our ingredients are top-of-the-line and fresh; we use only the best cucumbers available and our brine doesn’t have any chemicals in it. With natural brine, you can drink, marinate and even make salads with it!
For me, having a design and a sneaker background, it helped us stand out on the street in the early days. When we were launching 10 years ago, everyone was like “Really, pickles?” It was an untouched market. But you’ve got to respect the pickle. Now we’re number two in the county! That’s why I call it the world’s best—we live in a world that’s hard to be Number One.
R.K.: What were some of the challenges you experienced in the early days—selling the spears out of a wooden stand in downtown Boston?
T.G.: Honestly, the challenge is having the patience and time, and do you have what it takes to lose some days and win some days. Some days you make no money, some days you make a lot of money. When we started, it was a hit and we had lines. Year two and three, I was hiring other people to work the cart and we were getting in some grocery stores.
We kept our presence street-level; you want to look as small as you can in those early days. That was the hardest part—consistency. How consistent are you going to be out on the Boston Common? It’s time and patience. I didn’t take any financing or investments, until I made a little over a million bucks!
R.K.: You’ve come a long way since then, and you’re now in Whole Foods, Target and grocery stores across the country. What’s one of the biggest lessons you learned, that you would tell yourself when just getting started?
T.G.: We are set up to believe you should go one way and that’s the way you should go. People are taught you should work a nine-to-five or do what your dad did or what your mom does, so for me it was all about rebelling and being unruly. If you’re able to be unruly and successful at the same time, you’ll make it.
At the end of the day, the corporate world is just as nasty at the street world. Bigger risk, bigger rewards, but you’re still taking risks. The ups and downs are roller coaster rides and you’ve got to have a strong gut. But I know how to be broke, so there’s not as much risk for me. What’s the worst that can happen? Also, you can’t be entitled. I’m still the CEO of the company.
R.K.: You’ve had a great deal of success and have made quite the name for yourself! What’s your proudest pickle moment?
T.G.: One of my proudest pickle moments is being able to have a product that was made in a small family and not ever leaving my family, and having it now to share with the whole country. When they eat our pickles, it reminds them of their past. A lot of people say it reminds them of their mom’s mom’s recipe or their grandpa’s recipe.
And now I have my own sneaker line and clothing line, so you’ll see this gear coming out in stores soon. That’s a proud moment for me. I’ve got my own shoe now!
R.K.: It all started right here in downtown Boston. Do you think there has been a benefit to starting your business in the New England you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
T.G.: One hundred percent! You’ve got all the major highways of transportation, trucking lanes going through New York and New Jersey. This is the best place in the country to distribute and start a business. There’s also a lot of venture capital firms, so money is available out this way. The only thing is I hate the cold; if there was warm sunshine here year round it would be the best place in the world to live!
We have a lot of resources up here to start a business, and people should take use of it. There are also a lot of kitchens and all kinds of things in the city to help people start businesses. I’ve spoken at Roxbury Community College in Boston to share about my story, and every time, there are stories of students who get motivated to then go out and start their own businesses too!
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
T.G.: Ted and Nicky Katsiroubas. They have a produce facility in Massachusetts, and they were basically the first people who took me off the street and let me make the pickles legally in their warehouse. All of my produce was bought there, and my pickles were made there for years. As I grew, I had to say goodbye, but that’s an example of someone helping me out early on. They tried my pickles and said, “This is the best pickle I’ve ever had, where are you making these?” When I told them [I was producing the pickles] in my house, they showed me their facility and helped me get started.
A lot of people get money and grow their business, then become someone they’re not. I’m just the same dude doing the same thing, living life, growing the company. It will be a room of suits and I’ll be in a sweats. I have a big office, but I only go there for meetings. I’m always out traveling and growing the brand!
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
T.G.: I hope Grillo’s is going to have a full, on-the-go option, in 7-Elevens everywhere. We’ll also explore drinkable brine and marinades possibly, and I think the brand will be worth over 100 million.
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business from scratch?
T.G.: When I was getting started, I shut off the TV and didn’t do much social media; I didn’t want influence from the outside world. People are going to support you and going to hate you, and you kind of have to go with your gut. At the time, my gut was saying, “If I can make this much money on the street, imagine how much I could make in the supermarkets.”
You have to stay in you lane, have a mission and follow it. And you’ve got to know what it’s like to starve! It’s hard because I’m around people that buy and sell businesses, so I see how you can start and sell a business in two, three of four years. Tech businesses do that, and it happens but Grillo’s is the original sh*t and people are attracted to that. Don’t ever believe the guy next to you on either side; go forward. Because if you don’t go forward, it really wasn’t a business for you to do. It’s your business and you’ve got to do it!
Early on, it wasn’t the best thing selling pickles dressed in a pickle suit. I wanted to design shoes, but it was fun and I got to interact a lot with people! I like to cook but I don’t like to stay up until 2 a.m. making pickles, but we just made it a party. Embrace what you have, and if you can hang out at the park all day, life’s pretty good. Being broke was the highlight of my life!
At the end of the day, the hustle of starting a business is the only thing we live for. I’m always hustling. The money is here; it’s how hard you want to work to get it.
R.K.: At WELL, we believe wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
T.G.: Wellness for me is eating good foods all the time, not eating good foods once in a while. It’s a lifestyle change. I grew up Italian eating meat regularly all the time. By eating healthier, my digestion has improved, I feel better and have more energy. Eating a healthy diet full-time with steady exercise is a way to live a life. Health is wealth.
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