BY FRANK DOMPE
After four years of operation on 19th Street in midtown Sacramento, Preservation & Co. was burglarized in May. The list of items taken included cash, the register and electronics, as well as a few jars of the company's wares. They came for the valuables, and that included some of the good stuff: what was on the shelves.
If mere imitation is a form of flattery, larceny must be a higher form of underhanded praise. Preservation's founder Jason Poole reflected on the bumpy road to such recognition during a visit on November 14—National Pickle Day.
Fruits and vegetables in season are well regarded, but keeping that produce tasty and healthful beyond its harvest requires skill, as well as a bit of daring. Sealing food in a bottle isn't too daunting, but getting people to actually crave that vessel's contents months later requires significant work, and Preservation has labored hard to earn a loyal following.
Several years ago, Poole began exploring the craft that would become his livelihood while working in the restaurant industry as a bartender.
"I started making pickles as a hobby, but my wife got tired of the vinegar smell," Poole remembers. He then started a company called Bar in a Jar, making preserves based on cocktail recipes such as a strawberry margarita mix with plenty of tequila in its base recipe. "It was all cooked off, but it had the flavor of the reposado. I just did it as a hobby for a while, going to farmers markets and selling jams, jellies and pickles."
During his time as general manager of the Midtown restaurant Pour House, Poole developed the recipe that would be his springboard to success: a craveable bloody mary mix. Preservation was founded in 2011 with a focus on this product as well as pickling, and acclaim for the new venture swiftly followed.
In 2012, the firm's signature bloody mary mix won silver in Absolut Vodka's national Bloody Mary Search. Its Hefeweizen Bread & Butter pickles have made the list of 2016 Good Food Awards finalists. Shops as far away as Tokyo are giving shelf space to the taste of our region labeled Preservation & Co. That's something to crow about, but so is the nature of what Poole and his team are doing: preserving produce.
Even in this temperate climate, many of the tastes we love best fade out of season too soon. Truly ripe tomatoes are replaced by pale imposters, berries in abundance give way to scant plastic clamshells of airlifted fruit and thick spears of local asparagus are quietly replaced by skinny B-listers grown far away. We can't preserve our local flavors as is, but we can enhance them in brine.
That salty splash makes its way into a good deal of Preservation's products, including the bloody mary mix, which comes in spicy and mild versions. It's their best seller, accounting for as much as 40% of their output. Much of what the firm makes is a reflection of Poole's expertise behind the bar, including margarita mixes in blackberry and jalapeño flavors, as well as salts blended with ingredients like rosemary, citrus and spicy peppers. Many of their pickled vegetables—carrot sticks, green beans and asparagus— round out the picture in the role of cocktail garnishes.
While the bulk of the flavors on its shelves tend toward the savory, its sweeter offerings reflect some of Poole's earlier efforts. Jams and jellies still have a place there. Local preserve company The Good Stuff leases time in Preservation's kitchen to produce marmalades and jams that are featured out front.
Merchandise from other companies helps round out the selection. Bottles of kimchi, sauces, kraut, nut butters, olive oil and balsamic vinegar rub glass shoulders in a cellar-like setting. Sharing the wealth with other foodmakers helps Preservation maintain a focus on what it does best.
"It was our goal to give people a chance to see us as well as support some other companies that are similar to mine," says Poole. "A lot of the companies that you'll see up there are local, they're small, many of them don't even have distributors, so we buy direct from them. I wanted to have a nice variety of all things that are preserved."
Presenting a fresh take on jarred produce is at the heart of what distinguishes the flavors Preservation creates. "Every single product is different," he says. Rather than try for a single variety of sriracha that would stand out, the company developed a trio of the sauces that each took a unique direction. But some recipes hew closer to the familiar and have local connections.
"Chef Adam Pechal at one of the Saturday Midtown markets was doing a demonstration on sautéed bacon and Brussels sprouts. I love that flavor combination, so I found a way to turn that into a pickle," Poole says of his Hickory Brussels Sprouts. "I thought it was just going to be a small production, but it ended up being one of our most popular items."
Inspiration came in unexpected places.. "The reason we have our Hefeweizen Bread & Butter pickles is that we had enough people who came in and said 'Hey, do you have any sweet pickles?'" Poole recalls. "We took a tour of Drake's Brewing Company down in San Leandro and tried their hefeweizen and decided that would be perfect to make a sweet pickle, because I really don't like syrupy pickles. But it had enough sweetness that I could add it and get something that I would find satisfactory."
A longtime employee, Gabriel Aiello, works on production as well as research and development. Stocking the pantry of recipes held in reserve is a big part of the fun for him. "Pickling is what we do for a living, but experimentation and the art of it is what keeps us doing it. It's what we live for," he Aiello says. "I grew up in a house where pickling and canning and preserving was not out of the ordinary. It was something we would just do every now and then."
"We ran a batch of hefeweizen bread and butter carrots that turned out magnificently," he says. "We just happened to have a couple of cases of carrots that we'd prepped out but we ran out of brine, and we had some bread and butter brine, so we threw that in there and they were just these sweet sticks of joy."
New directions don't just come from the kitchen. Customers come in with lots of ideas, too. "Pickled watermelon rinds," notes Reid Brown, who primarily works the register. "People suggest that a lot."
"That's the problem with having great produce and being around everything: When you get to 20 products and try to stay on top of things, it's ridiculous," Poole says. "It's one of those things where I have to weed out a few before I start adding more."
Maintaining Preservation's focus requires cautious enthusiasm. But Poole and his crew keep the feedback on file. Since day one, connecting with like-minded palates has been integral to Preservation's story. Rather than relying on widespread marketing, the business has been built on a network of personal ties—in the store, online and in the field. When asked what he wishes people knew more about his company, Poole has a ready answer.
"I want 'em to know we're here!"