Where Are They Now?
Travis Grillo '00 is CEO and Founder of Grillo's Pickles. With sales today in excess of $25 million in 10,000 stores nationwide and distribution plants up and down the east coast, the brand ranks second only behind Claussen in the fresh pickle market.
A self-proclaimed “art fanatic,” Grillo spent much of his time at NFA in the art room. A high school ceramics class led to art awards and public sale of his artwork. A degree from Central Connecticut State University in design followed.
He hoped to build a career in sneaker design, and right out of college, he landed an interview with Nike. Grillo interviewed for two months, traveling to the company headquarters in Portland, Oregon. He believed his goal was within reach, but ultimately he was passed over for the job for someone who already worked for the company.
Crestfallen by his first foray into the corporate world, Grillo returned to Norwich to figure out his next step. “I come from a hard-working family,” Grillo explains. “I learned the value of hard work and the benefits of working for yourself from my father, who sells batteries, and an uncle who is a contractor.” Sitting in the back yard of his family’s home, munching on a home-made pickle from a family recipe, he decided, “I can sell these.”
An inherently ironic marketing element did not escape him. “When you think of pickles,” he says, “the first thing that comes to your mind in the commercial space is not ‘Italian.’ In the marketplace, there was space for an Italian Pickle. Society sets us up to expect certain norms,” Grillo explains. “I realized immediately that an Italian pickle was going to be unique in the marketplace.”
Before Grillo’s brand, there were no other Italian Pickles commercially available. Today, Grillo’s Pickles occupy a singular niche in a competitive business. The company uses all-natural ingredients – cucumbers, garlic, dill, and peppers, but avoids chemicals, additives, and preservatives. The pickles are vegan, all-natural, gluten-free, paleo and kosher. “We buy more fresh dill than anyone else in the country,” he claims, adding that “last year we bought 90 million cucumbers.”
As the company grew, Grillo learned to follow weather patterns and understand agricultural trends, seasons and harvests to purchase ingredients, and he learned about trucking and shipping. The journey from idea to industry required reserves of creativity, passion and persistence. And, there was hard, hard work and lots of learning. Add a willingness to take risks with a genius for marketing, and Grillo forged a successful pathway and changed the marketplace.
Early on he sourced ingredients from his family’s garden, then Malerba’s. Voc’s Westside Pizza was an early customer and still carries the product. Seeking a larger market, Grillo moved his enterprise to Boston where he began selling from a cart on the Boston Common – two pickles for $1. “In the morning, Travis would bike to Boston Common and set up the cart with his buddies,” says the company website. “They’d hang out all day, urging people to try the simple Grillo family pickle. It was a small business, but Travis worked hard for it.”
That hard work was central to the growth of the brand. So too, was Grillo’s creativity, artistic ability, and a marketing talent which grew the company to 15 million dollars in sales without any professional marketing assistance. His artistic background took hold, and “we designed everything,” he says. “I learned from art -- how to think. At the end of the day, there are no rules in art. When I was in high school, and then later college, I would sacrifice a whole grade on an assignment just to do it my way,” he says proudly. “I cannot emphasize,” Grillo says, “how important marketing is to a brand. Low-cost marketing can have high results.”
Grillo started small and local. He was out around Norwich, selling Grillo’s Pickles out of his car – a 1985 Cutlass Supreme Classic. 22 nfaschool.org He designed the logo. He became known for his capers in public in a pickle suit worn on the Boston Common. The “pickle man” caught the public’s imagination and the media’s attention. The marketing efforts – and fresh, quality product – soon caught the attention of major outlets – Fenway and global Whole Foods. Grillo’s Pickles are found at both, and now at BJ’s, Costco, Wegmans, Stop & Shop, Shaws, and Publix. The next big retailers to stock the shelves with Grillo’s Pickles are Target and Walmart.
Throughout the expansion, Travis has remained true to his family’s recipe. Grillo travels to each plant to teach the workers himself how to make the pickles. Flavors include Classic Italian Dill, Hot Italian Dill, and Bread & Butter, in chips and spears. “I’ve always loved business,” Grillo says. He gives several pieces of advice to young entrepreneurs. “Don’t be afraid to be broke and don’t be afraid of failure,” he admonishes firmly. Like others who have traveled his path, he encourages risk-taking and “leaps of faith.”
And the company continues to expand. With the partnership with Target, Grillo found a platform to build and market his lifestyle brand. The company sells a variety of merchandise, including apparel, with the trademark Grillo’s Pickle logo. Recently, he designed a pickle-themed pair of sneakers in collaboration with Patrick Ewing’s sneaker company, an act which brought him full circle.
Today, Grillo’s Pickles has a Board of Directors and an executive team that manages the day to day operations of the company. It has a marketing team and operations, sales, and marketing are datadriven. Going corporate has not been easy because he’s an operational businessman, and focusing on strategy and planning are not as hands-on as “the pickle man” has been. With his vision, energy, and commitment to hard work, though, the growth seems limitless for Grillo’s Pickles. “But in my mind, I’m still in the street,” Grillo reflects.