By Whitney Pipkin
Yi Wah and Caitlin Roberts didn’t grow up eating a lot of pickles. Their Chinese mother considered them a pricey treat in the same category as Oreos. “You don’t buy pickles,” she’d say, “because they’re cucumbers.”
But, over the past year, the Roberts siblings have built a business on the assumption that at least some people prefer to purchase their pickles.
After launching last year, their Number 1 Sons business sells pickles, along with sauerkraut and kimchi, at 14 farmers markets in the DC-metro area.
The business is named after the Chinese tradition of calling the oldest son the “No. 1 son,” to whom much is given and of whom much is expected.
“I think Yi Wah and I are usually in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Caitlin said, referencing their history of parking tickets. “But this was an instance of being in the right place at the right time.”
That’s partly because the Robertses aren’t selling just any pickles. Their products are created using fermentation, an age-old food preservation technique that has come into vogue for its infusion of healthful bacteria — and flavor — into foods.
“Do you have something in your life, that you thought was good and then you have a good version of it and you’re like, ‘Dang!’?” Yi Wah said, trying to explain the taste of a fermented pickle. “I was blown away by the layers of flavor in a pickle.”
With a background in restaurants and several friends ingrained in the local industry, the 30-something Yi Wah first began experimenting with fermentation in a chef friend’s kitchen.
They added what they thought was too much salt, but the end result was “fantastic.”
In their 1,000-square-foot factory in Clarendon, vegetables are prepped to begin their long liquid baths. Some of them will brew and change for three weeks before they’re ready for market.
They tell customers it’s the same process that turns wine into vinegar that turns cukes and cabbage into pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi. Yi Wah says the technique boils down to providing “a favorable environment for good bacteria to outcompete pathogenic bacteria.”
Most people making pickles at home would opt for the acidified version, which entails heating up a brine and dumping it over the vegetables to make “quick pickles,” ready to eat or set on a shelf within hours. Such acidified foods are also shelf-stable and easier to produce on a large scale.
When Number 1 Sons ships a container of half-sour pickles to a store or customer, there’s a chance they could become full-sours on the way there.
“They’re still alive,” Yi Wah said, noting that his customers welcome the concept that “food changes.”
The business sells its pickles out of recycled buckets built into their farmers market displays. Customers can crunch into them on the spot, or take the products home in plastic containers, which the company has found more environmentally responsible than glass.
Much of what’s used by their business is recycled, including “the crappiest van in the whole world” for carting products to market.
All in the family
In fact, Yi Wah attributes much of their success to what he calls “the cheap-Asian-mom philosophy,” which has taught them to think creatively and to put money into what matters most: the product.
Part of that investment means learning as much as they can about the process of fermentation, which has become their bread and butter (yes, that is a pickle pun).
Yi Wah recently took a pickle-making course at North Carolina State University, and came back with a brain-full on the science behind his craft.
The siblings taught themselves how to make kimchi, a fermented cabbage side dish that is traditionally Korean. It’s not a dish the siblings grew up making, though many people mistake them for Korean because they sell it. They also make sauerkraut, which, though linked to the German bratwurst, was first invented up to 2,000 years ago in China.
Kimchi is among the “funkier foods” the Robertses grew up eating, along with soybean and black bean curd. Every meal their mother made featured two vegetable sides, rice and meat. They finished each dinner with a big salad, which reflects their mother’s time at a boarding school in Europe after being born in Malaysia.
“The story I like to tell people is that our mom never made a cake out of a box,” Caitlin said. “I thought it was weird when I went to a friend’s house and made cake out of a box and thought, ‘This isn’t the way you eat.’”
Their mother went to college in Colorado, where she met Yi Wah and Caitlin’s father, “a big white Irish guy from Alaska,” while they both worked at a food co-op. Their mom studied nutrition and their dad managed the grocery section at the co-op.
In the daily breakdown of the business, Yi Wah is the pickles-making lead and Caitlin does much of the paperwork. The two have found they work well together — and they both work hard.
“Right now, we try to take a day off. But sometimes it turns into a half day or a quarter day,” said Caitlin, who called the challenge fun.
She graduated with a degree in government and a minor in biochemistry from the College of William and Mary just as Yi Wah was kicking off the business last spring. He had made his first batch of pickles by drawing friends to a commercial kitchen and giving them pizza to help.
“They didn’t have a pickle major or else I would have tried to pick that up,” said Caitlin, 22, who’s now a co-owner of the business.
Though pickles are a bit of a departure from the career on Capitol Hill she’d pictured, Caitlin said working with her brother — and for herself — has quickly become rewarding in its own right.