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Meet the Makers: Charlie Stephenson & Jim Lawlor of Pickled Pink Foods

Meet the Makers: Charlie Stephenson & Jim Lawlor of Pickled Pink Foods

, by Emily Havener


A jar of pickled jalapeños by Pickled Pink Foods with jalapeños on wood

Pickled Pink Foods started with a handwritten recipe book and a homemade jar of sweet pickles. Northern Alabama native and cofounder Charlie Stephenson approached his friend Jim Lawlor about starting a food company. Stephenson’s wife, Candy, had made a few batches of a pickle recipe she’d found in the family cookbook. “I can’t stand pickles,” Stephenson told him, “and I think they’re damn good. If I like them, maybe other people will.” Lawlor was wearying of the punishing schedule of owning and running restaurants in the Atlanta area, and he agreed to take the leap.

Before they knew it, both men were involved in the hands-on research and development of a small food product producer. They worked with a chef to address scaling the recipe; enlisted the food science division at the University of Georgia to get the ratio of vinegar, water, and sugar to a food-safe level; partnered with a Buckhead design school to develop their labeling and branding down; and finally hired a small artisan packer to test recipes and bring their initial product to the market.

“We were playing much bigger than what we were, which had its positives and negatives,” Lawlor remembers. They signed up for their first trade show before they knew if they would actually have a product to display, and Lawlor remembers sticking labels on their very first jars of sweet gourmet pickles at the show.

A jar of pickled peaches by Pickled Pink Foods with dried peaches on wood

They spent the next years developing products, from sweet heat jalapeños to spiced watermelon rind pickles, all inspired by Stephenson’s family recipe book. “It’s all handwritten stuff, with a pinch of this and a stir of that,” says Lawlor. “Basically, I would find the next item, look at the recipe, fix it to the way I thought it should read, write, and process, and then I’d go down to our little artisan packer here in Atlanta who was kind of our test kitchen, and we’d spend three to four hours making a few batches and tweaking it, just like you would at your house—truly old school.”

As for many small producers, Covid was a trying time for Pickled Pink. The artisan co-packer they developed their products with went out of business, and larger packers struggled to find labor and as a result prioritized larger companies. But they persevered. “We know we have a great product, a good look, we’ve built something from nothing not knowing anything,” Lawlor says. “We’ve gone too far just to give up.”

A jar of pickled beets by Pickled Pink Foods with cinnamon sticks on wood

Now they have 9 pickled products, including their most popular pickled peaches, which contain a proprietary blend of spices. Their highly-in-demand sweet onion and peach relish was born out of that product when they accidentally received diced rather than sliced peaches in an order. With the addition of red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, chopped garlic, and celery salt, “it’s packed with a lot of flavors,” Lawlor says. He recommends the relish with grilled bratwurst or other sausages, on top of pork tenderloin, and as condiment on charcuterie platters. One restaurant they worked with added it to a version of the Cuban sandwich.

In keeping with their family recipe origins, Pickled Pink Foods products contain no additives. In addition, they prioritize keeping it local and sourcing ingredients first from Georgia and the Southeast. “There are certain times of the year that we just can’t get stuff,” Lawlor explains, “but we do everything we can to start the process with that in mind.”

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