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Americans certainly love their pickles, whether sliced on burgers, diced into relish or as a stand-alone snack. More than 67 percent of U.S. households eat pickles, according to Pickle Packers International.
That number is likely higher in St. Joe, population 460, where Sechler’s Pickles has been pickling crunch-worthy snacks since 1921.
“We’re the only family-owned pickle company in the state of Indiana,” says Max Troyer, company president. Producing varieties ranging from spicy to sweet, Sechler’s Pickles also sells relishes, salsas, pickled cauliflower, jalapeños and pepperoncinis – a total of 54 varieties of pickled products.
How Sechler’s Makes Pickles
The history of Sechler’s dates back more than 90 years. “They [the Sechler family] started working out of the many railroad stations in the area,” Troyer says. “They would grade the pickles and put them into brine tanks to store and sell them to other processors.”
When the Depression caused many pickle companies to go bankrupt, Sechler’s turned to the processing side of the business. Since then, little has changed. Automated machines speed some steps, but the basic formula has remained the same for decades.
The pickle process begins in neighboring Michigan – the nation’s largest pickle producer – where the cucumbers are grown and harvested via hand or machine. After the cucumbers leave the field, they arrive at Sechler’s, where a specialized sorting machine grades them into seven different categories. Sechler’s then uses two methods of preservation for the sorted cucumbers, fresh-pack or process pickles.
“Process pickles consist of our hamburger dill pickles, sweet pickles and sweet relish,” Troyer explains. These varieties undergo tank curing, where cucumbers soak outdoors in 1,000-bushel oak tanks, fermenting in a mixture of water, salt and calcium chloride.
SEE MORE: Easy Salt Pickles Recipe
“That takes about six weeks,” Troyer says. “But they can be in there a year or more if needed.” Cold Indiana temperatures do not thwart the outdoor pickling process because the brine solution prevents freezing.
With curing completed, the pickles are thoroughly rinsed, cleaned and possibly sweetened, depending on the final product.
“Our specialty is sweet pickles,” Troyer says. “We still use granulated sugar.” Sechler’s candied varieties – among the most popular of its products – undergo a second sweetening treatment using even more sugar. “Our top three sellers are candied sweet mixed pickles, candied dill strips and candied orange strips.”
The production of fresh-pack varieties – such as kosher dill gherkins or sweet bread and butter cucumber slices – is less involved than their process pickle cousins. After sorting, fresh-pack pickles are simply rinsed, sliced and cooked in the jar. They are then ready to eat. After rigorous inspection, the pickle products find their way into retail stores such as Kroger, Meijer, Marsh and various specialty food stores. Sechler’s has two outlet store locations, the on-site factory store in St. Joe and one at The Outlet Shoppes at Fremont, just off the turnpike (the convergence of interstates 69, 80 and 90) in the northeastern corner of Indiana.
While Sechler’s products can be found across the nation and ordered online, 80 percent of their retail sales are in the Great Lakes states. The glass jars are all made in the U.S., with Indiana companies producing some of the jars and metal pickle lids. Sechler’s employs about 35 people.
“A tremendous amount of people have held jobs here,” Troyer says. “The steel industry in this community is much, much larger than what we are, but the town of St. Joe is associated with pickles.”
St. Joe Pickle Festival
If sampling Sechler’s many pickle options isn’t enough for the pickle aficionado, take a road trip to St. Joe, located northeast of Fort Wayne. Sechler’s offers free factory tours from April 1 through Oct. 31 (call ahead for details and attire regulations). Tours take guests outdoors where workers dip nets into large vats, fishing out pickles. Conveyor belts and automated bottle machines give visitors an inside look at the assembly line process. And a store carries an extensive variety of products at discounted prices.
If travelers time their St. Joe visit for July 24-26, they can partake in the annual St. Joe Pickle Festival. For three days, people can eat and compete in all things pickled. Pickle car races, pickles dressed as people and pickle-pepper cook-offs reign. St. Joe residents started the quirky food festival in 1997 as a way to celebrate the town’s pickle heritage.
And with the Sechler’s centennial on the horizon, the festival will surely have a reason to continue celebrating the mighty pickle for years to come.
Visit St. Joe and a Pickle Recipe
Sechler’s Pickles is located at 5686 State Rt. 1 in St. Joe. To learn more about its free factory tours, offered April 1 through Oct. 31, call (800) 332-5461. For more information or to order Sechler’s products, visit familycuisine.net. To learn more about the St. Joe Pickle Festival in July, visit familycuisine.net.
And if you can’t make it to St. Joe, try your hand at homemade pickles – no canning involved – with our recipe for Easy Salt Pickles.