A collection of North Carolina companies is cashing in on the lucrative exporting market, selling products that capture the flavor of life in the South.
According to the USDA, North Carolina’s agriculture exports exceeded $4.1 million in 2013, an increase of 211 percent since 2005. Several North Carolina agribusinesses – including Miss Jenny’s Pickles, Ford’s Gourmet Foods, Jimbo’s Jumbos, Mt. Olive Pickles and Texas Pete Hot Sauce – are boosting their bottom line by grabbing a piece of the exporting pie.
“My main incentive for exporting is that 95 percent of the world lives outside the U.S.,” says Jenny Fulton, co-owner of Miss Jenny’s Pickles. “I want to share our North Carolina goodness in a jar of Miss Jenny’s Pickles around the world.”
The success of Miss Jenny’s Pickles is an example of what happens when perseverance overrides misfortune. Fulton and Ashlee Furr were working as stockbrokers when they lost their jobs due to the recession. They decided to rebuild their fortunes by making pickles. The women started with cucumbers grown near Fulton’s home in Belews Creek, N.C., and turned to Fulton’s grandmother for family recipes. Before long, Fulton and Furr were known as “the pickle ladies.”
“For the first two years, we grew every cucumber in the field next to my MawMaw’s house,” Fulton says. “The first summer we had 3,500 pounds of cucumbers come in. The only way to pick them out of the field was by using a 5-gallon bucket.”
She adds, “I grew up right here in Forsyth County on free lunch and had to work hard for everything. I think that is why I work hard now – it’s all I’ve ever known.”
Fulton and Furr attended N.C. State to learn about the requirements of selling pickles commercially. They enrolled in a three-and-a-half-day course that covered the principles of thermal process control, acidification and container closure evaluation. The affable Fulton says the most valuable lesson she learned was “how to produce a safe product for the masses and not kill anyone.”
The two women began selling locally in Kernersville, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, and built a niche through festivals and independent mom-and-pop stores. In just over a year, Miss Jenny’s Pickles was on shelves in seven Harris Teeter stores. They attended the Fancy Food Show in New York to grow their business and began exporting in 2011.
Fulton says, “It has been a lot of 24/7 promoting, selling and demos to make Miss Jenny’s Pickles a success.”
In 2014, the company sold over 120,000 jars of Miss Jenny’s Pickles in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and China.
Peter Thorton, the assistant director of international marketing for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), says agribusiness exports is a growing industry. “Ninety-five percent of the world’s markets are outside the U.S.,” he says. “Food demand will double by 2050. North Carolina, with its sought-after quality goods, will be in high demand by the world’s growing middle class.”
Pickles are traditionally a big business in North Carolina. Mt. Olive Pickle Co., based in Mt. Olive, is the No. 2 best-selling brand of pickles, relishes and peppers in the world. The company began in 1926 with a $19,500 investment and 37 shareholders, and is now the largest privately held pickle company in the nation. Mt. Olive celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2016.
For Miss Jenny’s Pickles, Fulton says exporting wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of the NCDA&CS. “The N.C. agriculture department has the best exporting department,” she says. “They held my hand through the process. We are so lucky to have such a wonderful agriculture department.”
Ford’s Gourmet Foods is a fourth-generation family business based in Raleigh that has also found international success. The company is best known for its Bone Suckin’ Sauce line, which has been applauded by Health, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.
The company’s history is intricate. Connie Mac, A.J. and Carl Ford, who began delivering fruits and vegetables to local grocery stores, founded Ford’s Produce in 1946. They soon opened a storefront, and in 1973, Lynn Ford and his wife, Sandi, joined the company. In 1986, Sandi began making fruit baskets, which were sold at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
In 1992, Lynn’s brother Phil began creating Bone Suckin’ Sauce in an effort to recreate their mother’s recipe of western North Carolina style barbecue sauce. Response was positive, and he began bottling and selling it. Sandi and Lynn Ford encouraged Phil to become partners, and the sauce launched in November 1992. They traveled the Carolinas, doing in-store samplings, and before long, the sauce won the N.C. Battle of the Sauces in March 1994.
Ford’s Gourmet Foods began to consider exporting in 1994. At the International Fancy Food Show in New York, the company landed an order from Walt Disney World and garnered customers in London and Toronto. Today, they export to over 70 countries, and exports account for an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the company’s sales.
“Good food is a universal language, and North Carolina has some of the best,” says Sandi Ford, now president of Ford’s Gourmet Foods. “We love sending our taste of North Carolina around the world.”