From street cart to national brand: Norwich native Travis Grillo has developed a booming pickle business
Norwich native Travis Grillo studied art at Norwich Free Academy and Central Connecticut State University, and he was dreaming of getting a job designing sneakers for Nike — but then the company turned him down. Disappointed? You bet. Down for the count? Nah.
Instead, he took a sharp left turn. And we mean sharp. Grillo developed his own business — a pickle business, based on a family recipe. Over the past decade, it has grown into a thriving national brand that is sold at such venerable stores as Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, and BJ’s and at that Boston institution of Fenway Park.
Now, Grillo’s Pickles is making another significant move. It’s available in Target stores around the country.
“To know that I started it from a cart on the street to Target in pretty much nine years is huge,” says Grillo, who is now 37.
Let’s return to that original epiphany, just after Grillo didn’t get his coveted sneaker-design job.
Grillo was noshing a pickle spear from his family’s fourth-generation recipe — it’s an all-natural recipe that dates back to their time in Italy — and he had a brainstorm.
“I basically was eating that pickle in Norwich, Connecticut, and the ol’ lightbulb kind of went off in my head, where I was, like, you know what? I didn’t get a job I wanted, I’m going to start selling this pickle,” he recalls. “ … I was kind of bent out about (not getting the Nike gig), so I wanted to prove I could do my own thing.”
It sounds like quite a leap, and it was. But it was no idle thought for Grillo. He quickly developed a plan and hit the road. He started driving around Norwich — in his Cutlass Supreme classic, custom-painted blue — and would pull up to baseball fields and basketball courts and hawk the pickles out of his car. He isn’t, he says, timid about approaching people and has an outgoing personality.
“The way I did it was very in your face. I’d jump out of the car … and I’d have a jar already open. I’d say, ‘Hey, yo, my name’s Travis, I’m starting to sell these pickles. They’re made fresh and natural, try some.’ I’d let them try them, and then if they wanted a jar, I had them for $7. So I was already selling $7 pickles. I was already selling a premium pickle, compared to what you’d see out in the marketplace, per se, at the time.
“I think the first initial people were open to it because it was different. It was super different.”
Indeed, he is quick to go into salesman-pitch mode and explain one of the things that’s special about Grillo’s. It’s a completely earth-made product, he notes — no chemicals, additives, preservatives.
“It’s as natural as you can get,” he says, adding that, when he was starting his company, there really weren’t natural pickles on the market.
Grillo moved to Boston and began selling the pickles from carts in Boston Common. From there, it’s been a pretty incredible tale of growth and success. The company is expecting to sell almost 90 million pickles by the end of 2018 and is trending toward $21 million in sales for 2019.
As for the Target connection, it’s not just selling his pickles at the store that’s vital; it’s also the outlet Target can give him to sell his merchandise — clothing, sneakers (yes, sneakers, including a new, limited-release sneaker coming out with former pro basketball star Patrick Ewing) and other items that correlate with the brand and help market the actual pickle.
His vision, Grillo says, “is to have a summer program where we’re selling lunch boxes for the kids, summer beach towels, all of this merchandise (from) Grillo’s. Target is able to give me the platform to do that.”
From artist to businessman
Growing up, Grillo was very much focused on art, particularly sculpture. He has used his art and design background in his branding of Grillo’s Pickles.
“A lot of Grillo’s success has been through my marketing of the pickle, the pickle merchandise,” says Grillo, who now lives in Cambridge, Mass. “Everything I’ve done to really roll out Grillo’s pickles was always kind of like fashion first. When we had a cart in the Boston Common, we all wore custom pickle stuff.”
He learned lessons about more than art while living in Norwich. He worked at Voc’s Westside Pizza and says he discovered a lot about responsibility and holding a job from that, and a little about cooking as well.
Grillo was 16 or 17 when he was at Voc’s, working for Josh Vocatura, who was 21 at the time. Even back in those early days, Vocatura recalls, Grillo “knew that if he wanted to do something with his life, he had to work hard … He had the work ethic a lot of kids don’t have.”
They still keep in touch regularly. Voc’s sells Grillo’s Pickles and is running a promotion this week where customers can get free pickles on their grinders.
Vocatura says that, as a person, Grillo is “easygoing, nice ... His character is friendly and helpful. I think that has a lot do with how he was brought up.”
‘I just never stopped working’
Discussing how he made that difficult-to-imagine transition from street cart to national brand, Grillo attributes it to this: “I just never stopped working.
“Truth be told, I sold pickle by pickle on the street until my feet were numb some nights, and then I would have to make more pickles that night.”
He’d be out in Boston Common, pitching pickles, offering two spears for $1 and telling people they can enjoy the snack while walking around the park. It has garlic, he’d say; it’s good for your skin, it’s hydrating, it’s good after running, it’s a healthy snack and it’s just 5 calories.
He saw early on that he had something big, but he says the question was what he was willing to forgo.
“I had to sacrifice a lot. I had to sacrifice time, I had to sacrifice all kinds of stuff. That’s hard, right? You have to sacrifice certain things you don’t want to,” he says.
Developing his business knowledge was a lot of trial and error. He learned a significant amount, though, from watching his father, an entrepreneur of his own, selling car batteries; the father’s family from Italy built car batteries. (Travis’ parents, Dennis and Sharon Grillo, still live in the Norwich area, as does his sister Tiffany.)
“I think my dad being a strict Italian taught me the right ways to not give up,” Grillo says, recalling that he had to play a lot of sports and started working early on.
In addition to that, Travis has always loved selling things — he sold sneakers in his younger years — and he still sells on eBay. “I love any type of quick hustle,” he says of, for instance, buying something for $300 and being able to sell it for $900.
“I think that helped me not being afraid to invest into something you think people are going to want to buy,” he says.
Asked if, when he was starting Grillo’s Pickles, he had to contend with people’s perception of pickles as being an afterthought, as a side feature to a main dish, Grillo says, “My main goal with Grillo’s was to have a snacking product that was ready to eat on the go and you could enjoy it. So it was almost like I was reinventing the pickle. Which I did. Ask around. Grillo’s is number two in the country. I definitely reinvented the whole category.”
Editor's Note: This version updates the projected sales for 2019.