On Tuesdays, artisan pickle assembly line workers Sonya Taylor, 25, and Patrick O’Rourke, 27, on average piece together and seal up about 48 jars of Knock Out Pickles, and on a really productive shift, even more.
Under the supervision of Joe Hart, culinary director at Opportunity Knocks (O.K), neither of these young adults living with a developmental disability mind the repetitiveness of their part-time job…or in Taylor’s case, being up-to-her-elbows in these farm-to-jar cucumbers — washing, slicing and spicing them, for starters.
“Sonya and Patrick are strictly here to work,” says Hart at the end of a recent shift. “And, they work the whole time. It is hard to stay focused and stay on their feet for 3 hours. But Sonya and Patrick tough it out.”
Hart says that Taylor is in charge of washing all the cucumbers, slicing them and inserting them into the jars, whereas Patrick is responsible for setting up all the jars to be filled with all the pickling ingredients.
Taylor also measures the peppercorns and dill seed, as all three varieties contain peppercorns, dill seed and garlic. But the type of vinegar and extra dash of red pepper flakes are based on the variety of the refrigerator pickles being produced.
Phil Carmody, O.K.’s president and chief administrator, says it was Hart who came up with the “big idea” for this in-house social enterprise. He test-kitchened the recipes at home, then piloted the vocational aspects of marketing, production, sales and distribution of the artisan pickle brands with the “Warriors” enrolled in O.K.’s “Life Shop” and “After Opps” programming.
Currently, buckets of Knock Out Pickles are being sold in bulk to Kinderhook Tap and Old School Tavern and Grill, and off the shelf at Sugar Beet Co-op, Carnivore and Alpine Sub Shop.
“The purpose of any enterprise at Opportunity Knocks is to create jobs and revenue that will help support all of our other programs,” Carmody said on a mid-September tour of the group’s new urban farm. “And now Knock Out Pickles is turning a profit for us.”
Last spring, farm director Joe O’Meara was hired to till and cultivate a 1/4 acre of “farm land,” with the help of the O.K. Warriors. ReUse Depot in Maywood donated their side yard to house the farm, and the repurposed materials to build the garden boxes, O’Meara said.
“We do have several accessible raised beds and wider walkways to accommodate wheelchairs, so not all of the yard is used for farming,” he said, adding they also grow other cool and warm season veggies, as well as most of the pickling ingredients.
In peak season this summer, O’Meara said he saw yields of 75 to 80 pounds a week, with the cucumbers being harvested by the program participants of Opportunity Knocks because “the Warriors have been part of every step of this process,” he said.
Still, says Hart, the smell of pickle production can be sour, but it is the sweet smell of success for him, the nonprofit itself, and his two hard-working employees.
“I was very excited when I got the job. I get a pay check every other week, and I like to go out to dinner with my friends,” Sonja says. “But I don’t eat pickles when I go out to eat. I don’t like them much.”