Advocacy through food: How Ugly Pickle Co. uses produce to help the planet

Erin Haar/Staff

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Rain, shine, wind or heavy fog, the historic Ferry Building in San Francisco comes alive on Saturday mornings. Local farmers, innovative food lovers and grocery shoppers alike surround the Ferry Building with E-Z Ups and reusable bags. And food, of course. Fruits, vegetables, pastries, flowers and some cosmetically irregular cucumbers turned into climate change fighting pickles.

Kayla Abe and David Murphy’s setup at the market is a colorful one. From the teal and earth green sign at the back of the booth to the vibrant ingredients in their products, the station reflects the passion they exude about using the food they make to encourage sustainable habits. Though the couple met here and still participate in the farmers market years later, their first experiences with the Ferry Building differ.

Murphy has been a professional chef for more than 15 years. Throughout his career as a chef, he has continuously prioritized purchasing fresh ingredients from the farmers market to make the best possible dishes.

“As a cook, I would go there with my chefs. It was a treat if you got to go there with your chefs to the market to shop for produce,” Murphy says. Even as he progressed from cook to sous chef to chef at various restaurants, Murphy continued to purchase from local farmers at the Ferry Building as he cooked in the Bay Area.

Abe, on the other hand, became more closely involved with the Ferry Building Farmers Market through her previous work with CUESA, the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. Through CUESA, she put on events at the Ferry Building, and she and Murphy first met at one of them.

“It feels crazy to actually be at the farmers market there, at such a special place. … It really feels like we’re now contributing to this fabric of San Francisco history in a cool way,” says Abe.

With unique names and powerful flavors, these products work to satisfy not just the planet, but the palates of a wide range of customers, from the tough-to-please pickle community to those completely unfamiliar with sustainable eating.

That current contribution is Ugly Pickle Co. Using cosmetically irregular crops, surplus produce and vegetable offcuts from local farmers, Ugly Pickle Co. creates pickles and spreads that promote environmentally friendly and sustainable food practices. When I visited the market, there were five products on display: Bread ‘N Buttah Pickles, Spicy Bread ‘N Buttah Pickles, Carrot Top Chimichurri, Dilly Carrots and Roasted Root Hummus. With unique names and powerful flavors, these products work to satisfy not just the planet, but the palates of a wide range of customers, from the tough-to-please pickle community to those completely unfamiliar with sustainable eating.

“I tend to go for more aggressive flavor profiles, because I think you can always have something that’s bland and boring,” says Murphy. “Give me some things that are new. Not even new, just a little bit more interesting, things that have our generation’s twist on them.”

Getting to this point of creating a successful small business was no easy feat for Abe and Murphy. From decisions on how to finance the project to the paperwork required to start a business in the food industry, the duo has worked to overcome many pitfalls — ones that often kill small businesses.

Even on a smaller scale, the amount of work that goes into each product is immense; the classic Bread ‘N Buttah Pickles alone went through more than 30 different versions. Additionally, each vegetable reacts differently to any given brine, so products like the Dilly Carrots required a different brine from the Bread ‘N Buttah Pickles. Each product undergoes its own multitude of iterations. But, the pair agrees on two things: one, spreading a message of sustainable eating is too important to give up on, and two, neither one of them could sustain Ugly Pickle Co. alone.

“I wouldn’t do it with anybody else. She’s perfect. I might not be. I’m not …” Murphy trails off. “But I think you are,” Abe interjects.

Before Ugly Pickle Co.’s inception and their business partnership, Abe and Murphy’s relationship often featured collaborative discussion. Brainstorming together was and is a large part of their work as a couple, and their ability to feed off of each other’s ideas and evolve from concepts to action quickly seems to play a large role in their successful partnership, both business and personal. Without such a solid business partner or partners, it can be incredibly difficult to create and maintain a small business.

Another form of partnership that heavily impacts Ugly Pickle Co. as a whole is its relationship with local farmers. Often, such farmers are the main supplier of the company’s raw materials, whether they have extra produce they haven’t sold or produce that is safe for consumption but does not meet traditional cosmetic standards. The Carrot Top Chimichurri, for example, uses the leafy tops of carrots that would otherwise become waste. By targeting otherwise unwanted produce, Ugly Pickle Co. prioritizes its environmental impact by both saving fresh ingredients from being thrown away and by not adding to the market demand for perfect produce. This helps decrease the amount of greenhouse gases needed to make such produce.

By targeting otherwise unwanted produce, Ugly Pickle Co. prioritizes its environmental impact by both saving fresh ingredients from being thrown away and by not adding to the market demand for perfect produce.

More than that, these farmers share a special bond with Ugly Pickle Co. and other vendors at the Ferry Building Farmers Market.

“Week in week out, but also year in year out, nothing changes at that market. You have the fluctuations of the seasons, but really, it’s pretty much the same people. They’re all happy to be there,” says Abe. Even when the weather is cold and rainy, those who sell at the Ferry Building Farmers Market are consistently committed to their craft and produce. “It’s a really special funky family that we have,” Abe adds.

As I photographed the couple and their grub that Saturday, a frequent visitor stopped by the booth. As customers sampled pickles and hummus, this visitor highlighted how crazy it was that Abe and Murphy found love at a farmers market, and how anything can happen there.

Yes, anything can happen at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, and through their work with Ugly Pickle Co., Abe and Murphy are part of that innovative and sustainable fabric. Hell, they even got me to like pickles.

 

Contact Erin Haar at [email protected].