EAU CLAIRE — The American dream is alive and well, fizzing and gurgling in giant vats of pickles in rural Eau Claire.
Neat, tidy, quiet and unobtrusive, the Flamm Pickle and Packing Co., has been in existence since 1917. Every year, it ships more than 12 million pounds of pickle relish – primarily to producers of tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing – all over the country.
The company and its 20 employees are now under the leadership of Gina Flamm, granddaughter of the company’s founder, Joe Flamm.
Grandpa Joe was an entrepreneur of Russian/Polish descent who immigrated to the United States to escape the turmoil in Eastern Europe during the first World War. In search of distant relatives here, he purchased a small farm near Eau Claire on Hipps Hollow Road, and became one of the area’s first school bus drivers.
Family stories depict Joe as a movie-star handsome young man, who fancied a young woman in Benton Harbor who was employed at the movie theater. Anna, a city girl, would become his wife, move to the country and eventually raise their four children.
Pickles and other vegetables were grown on the farm, and Joe developed a trucking business that transported his and his neighbors’ produce to Chicago.
All the Flamm children were involved in the operation, and were taught by their parents to be responsible and resourceful.
Two of Joe’s sons, Seymour and Irv, once drove the big delivery truck to Chicago and back by themselves. At the time, Seymour was 12 years old, and Irv was 10.
Joe’s daughter, Harriet, lost her right hand in a peanut grinder at an early age, but learned to navigate life left-handed, eventually becoming one of the first women to graduate from Michigan State University with a degree in food technology, in addition to earning a pilot’s license.
Meanwhile, Seymour – Gina’s father – returned home from World War II as a decorated hero. Following his father’s death in the 1950s, Seymour took over the pickle business and, with Harriet, built a new pickle processing facility near the farm in 1962.
Pickles had become the name of the game, and the company. During the season (early July through mid-September) Seymour’s three daughters either worked in the fields, alongside the migrant workers, or in the pickle factory, where a machine sorted out all the different sizes of pickles for their customers.
Gina was the youngest of the three girls, and worked the longest with her father.
“During the season,” she said, “he would come to work, and we said he looked like Paul Newman, because he got so tan, putting in 15-20 hour days.”
Once she was able to drive, Gina would take the first available pickup truck into the fields each morning.
“It was my job to go to all the farmers growing pickles around here, Decatur, Dowagiac, find the crew leader out in the fields and ask how much they were going to bring in that day and what time they were going to bring it,” Gina said. “I’d write it down on my little pad and go on to the next one. Most farmers would get in by 3 p.m., and we would finish sorting by 2 a.m.”
Not an ideal summer situation for a teenager, but Gina was devoted to her family and its hard work ethic.
“I remember hearing about people going to the beach,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t really know what that was. But my cousins put in a pool at their house, and my dad would give me 25 minutes for a lunch break, and I’d zip down there and lay out.”
With competition on the rise, the decision was made to focus on pickle relish production.
“It got so hard to get help, and we started making relish for the industry, and realized that there was a niche that wasn’t being filled,” Gina said. “Back then, we found that we could do a really good job with the product and build a relationship with our customers, like we have with our employees, and the customers appreciated it.”
An equal opportunity pickler, they could now use the oversized, crooked, misshapen pickles that were previously discarded, because they all get chopped up for the relish. This meant that parts of the business became easier, because all the different sized pickles were no longer needed, and didn’t have to be sorted and shipped.
Gina went to college and took a job in advertising in Alaska. In 1985, her father asked her if she would come home and work with him in the business, and she said yes.
The following year he became ill with lung cancer, and died in 1991.
Her respect for her father as a person, businessman and neighbor is tangible.
“He took over the business from his own father and had to support everybody, including his mother, his sister and his own family,” Gina said. “Plus all his own employees (15-20 year round), and up to 80 migrant workers during the season, that were like our family.”
So who picks all those pickles now?
General Manager Dorothy Munao said the company no longer grows any of the pickles, but they are trucked in from growers in the region, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Two-hundred semitrucks arrived in the Flamm tank yard this year – the last one arriving Sept. 17.
The 225-tank yard is a sight – and smell – to behold. Each tank is sunk 12 feet into the ground, and holds 1,000 bushels, or 50,000 pounds, of pickles. The pickles are put in salt water, which starts the 6-week fermentation process.
The tanks create a foam, like a mug of beer, as the pickles become part of a lactic acid dance where good bacteria eventually flourishes and gives the pickles their distinctive taste. The aroma in the tank yard is a salty, briny, not unpleasant reminder that food is being prepared.
Once fermentation is complete, the pickles are rinsed free of their salt bath in 100-year-old giant cypress water vats, pass visual inspection, and then file through a cutting machine with blades that cut the pickles into tiny cubes. After a big squeeze to remove excess water, and a pass through a metal detector, it’s on to the flavor department.
The mixing team takes over, adding spices, sweeteners and vinegars according to the customers’ specifications.
“We have about 50 formulas, and each of our relishes is designed to go into salad dressing, primarily tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing,” Munao said.
Some staffers have been on board for nearly 25 years, so they have “trained tongues” that are able to taste and decipher flavors and spices.
Fiber drums holding 500 pounds each of shelf stable relish are stored on pallets in the ambient warehouse awaiting shipment, typically within two weeks.
Munao said the business has grown over the last 10 years, and the volume through the facility has almost doubled.
Production doesn’t stop after the growing season either. It remains consistent year-round.
Munao joined the company while Seymour was still at the helm.
“I came from large corporations that had big engineering departments that came up with production lines,” she said. “And I came here and you had Seymour and Harriet and a couple people that worked for them, and they designed this process that is straightforward and easy. They made most of the equipment themselves. How did they do it all? I’m amazed.”
The end product, as well as its preparation, must meet strict company guidelines and policies, and also those of several food inspection agencies that perform routine audits.
A small, stable, dedicated workforce of 20 people – with one or two additional seasonal workers – produces a food that is eaten by thousands of people each day.
“If you walk down the dressing aisle of a grocery store,” Munao said, “other than one or two that are not ours, everybody else is purchasing their relish for their product from us.
“We are proud of the fact that Gina has maintained her father’s and grandfather’s legacy,” she said, “and that although Flamm’s Pickles is not known to most people in the community, it is a respected and reliable supplier of pickle relish in the salad dressing and sauce industry. We are extremely proud that the majority of national salad dressings contain our pickle relish that is made right here in Eau Claire. We are lucky to have a dedicated team that works together to make the finest pickle relish.”