2018-03-28

Acclaimed author finds himself in a pickle

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Best-selling, award-winning William (Bill) Kowalski of Mahone Bay is a founder of Kowalski&#8217;s Pickles.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Kowalski&#8217;s Pickles are sold in specialty food stores across the South Shore and beginning to make their way into Ontario with the recent distribution deal with Toronto&#8217;s iconic Harbord Bakery.</p>

While it may be unusual for a celebrated writer to wax lyrical about the lowly dill pickle, the best-selling, award-winning author William (Bill) Kowalski is happy to do just that.

"I love the idea of taking a little piece of summer and saving it for the winter," says the renowned American author who now resides in Mahone Bay.

Kowalski is the creator of the increasingly popular preserves, Kowalski's Pickles.

And his passion for pickles may be on par with his penchant for putting pen to paper.

"I'm having an immense amount of fun being a pickle man," Kowalski told LighthouseNOW.

Kowalski is the author of seven novels and seven Rapid Reads (shorter works for beginning adult readers of English).

His first novel, Eddie's Bastard, won the 1999 Rosenstein Award, the 2001 Ama-Boeke Prize, and occupied the fifth spot on the Times of London bestseller list.

His fifth novel, The Hundred Hearts, earned him the 2014 Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, and he is a three-time nominee for the Ontario Library Association's Golden Oak Award.

His books have been translated into 15 languages.

He is also the founder of My Writing Network, an organization dedicated to providing free websites and community support to emerging authors of all types and backgrounds.

With a background in writing, education and web design, for the past three years he's been working on a contract in Halifax building training simulators for military pilots.

The pickles are what he calls an "insane hobby.

"But I would love to develop it into a full-fledged business," he says.

It would appear he's well on his way.

Kowalski's predilection toward pickles started not long after he and his wife moved to Mahone Bay from Toronto in 2002, having fallen in love with Nova Scotia on a summer vacation.

His neighbour, Jack McNealy, gave him a sample of his home-made pickles.

"I tasted them and I thought they were fantastic," recalls Kowalski. "I have to give him credit for getting me started on the pickling path."

McNealy gave Kowalski his recipe and he started growing his own cucumbers and making his own pickles at home, with slight modifications to McNealy's recipe.

Later, when doing research for his book, The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo, he realized that the recipe he settled on was very similar to one used by his grandmother, who migrated to the U.S. more than 100 years ago.

He determined that pickling technique did not vary that much from recipe to recipe, and decided "it's not about the recipe, it's about the freshness of the ingredients."

For about the next 10 years or so, Kowalski would grow his own cucumbers and make limited batches of pickles, giving them to friends, who all encouraged him to begin selling them.

But it wouldn't be until friends Philip Slayton and Cynthia Wine, themselves accomplished writers who divide their time between Port Medway and Toronto, joined Kowalski and his wife for dinner that the idea of selling the pickles really began to ferment.

"They were crazy about my pickles. And Philip was one of the biggest offenders of saying, 'You really ought to be selling these,"" explained Kowalski.

"And finally I said ,'Why don't you go into business with me?''"

A lawyer by trade who has written best-selling books about the legal industry, and who co-founded the popular Port Medway Readers' Festival with Ware, Slayton was up to the challenge.

So Kowalski started out with a small batch of home grown pickles in 2015 - about 50 cases of 12 jars - with Slayton acting as an investor and promoter. They were sold largely to friends.

With the second batch they started getting stores on board, so Kowalski doubled the production to about 100 cases.

Soon growing his own cukes became impractical.

"There's no way I could grow enough now. I processed over a ton of them last year."

Turning up his nose at imported hot-house cucumbers and imported garlic found in the supermarkets, he began sourcing his vegetables from local farmers in July and August, determined to only buy fresh field cucumbers and Nova Scotia garlic.

Eventually, to ease his work load and comply with government regulations, he turned to a certified processing facility- Acadian Maple Products in Tantallon.

"Exact same recipe, exact same ingredients. Nothing has changed."

By 2017, they had almost quadrupled production as they started landing increasingly larger accounts, including both the Halifax and Bedford Pete's stores.

A couple of months ago they started shipping Kowalski's pickles to Toronto, where Slayton, who handles marketing in Ontario, has managed to get them into the iconic Harbord Bakery.

"I want to become known in Toronto as the Nova Scotia dill pickle. Because I really think there's something unique about it."

He insists Nova Scotia field cucumbers have a distinctive flavor.

"I swear you can taste the ocean in them. It's just a different kind of flavour and the garlic is just fantastic."

Kowalski suggests Nova Scotia's soil and climate are ideally suited to produce great garlic.

"I don't know why we don't grow more of it. We should have massive garlic farms in Nova Scotia."

Closer to home, Kowalski's Pickles are now in "seven or eight" stores along the South Shore from Port Medway to Halifax, including The Port Grocer, at Port Medway, The Fisherman's Picnic in Lunenburg, and The Barn in Mahone Bay.

"We get a lot of support from people who buy them just because they're made in Nova Scotia," says Kowalski.

He's always on the look-out for "the right kind of stores" - high-end specialty shops - since Kowalski pickles are more expensive than those on the shelves of the supermarket chains.

"These are hand cut; they're not processed by machines. And they're hand packed."

Kowalski's Pickles have been featured on the menu at Mahone Bay's Mateus Bistro and Kowalski says he would be happy to develop arrangements with other restaurants.

And is there a pretty profit in pickles?

"I'll just say that I wouldn't want to be trying to pay for my kid's braces quite yet, and the mortgage and all that," replies Kowalski.

Still, the author seems to be writing a future for himself in the pickle business.

"Our philosophy is just to keep it really simple and really fresh. Do just one thing, and do it really well. And so far that has been working for us very, very well," says Kowalski.

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