In a somewhat out-of-the-way location in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Patricia Fairhurst scoops into a pickle barrel and comes up with as good a full sour as I’ve had in my lifetime. Clinton Hill Pickles is across the street from a housing project and a public park yet on this partly cloudy April afternoon the setting seems peaceful, even idyllic, albeit with some police action nearby. A row of pickle barrels is her storefront and neighbors stop by for their favorites on their way home, much as commuters in other areas might pause for a beer.
Not that long ago, Ms. Fairhurst was the proprietor of the legendary Guss’ Pickles on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Some tour books still point to the iconic location near the Tenement Museum at 87 Orchard Street, which today houses a cigar store. What happened? And why does the website for Guss’ Pickles emphasize “Others claim to be Guss’ Pickles or affiliated with Guss Pickles but that is not true! Guss’ Pickles is a registered trademark of Crossing Delancey Pickle Enterprises CORP. West End, New Jersey 07740”?
The roots of the story are not in dispute. In the early 1900s, a young Russian immigrant named Izzy Guss sold pickles from a pushcart, then opened a store on Hester Street. Eventually the shop ended up at the Orchard Street location, where it remained till after Izzy Guss died in 1975. According to a detailed article in a local blog, 4 years later the family sold the business to Harold Baker (not the ex-senator) whose son Tim eventually took over the store. And it’s about this time that the pickle brine begins to get murky.
Could it be that an interloper named Andrew Liebowitz saw the movie “Crossing Delancey”, fell in love with the idea of Lower East Side pickles, discovered that the original owners had never trademarked the name Guss’, and usurped it so successfully that the “real” Guss’ had to give up the name with the dispensation that they were allowed to continue operating as Guss’ but only from the Orchard Street location? An enthusiastic fan on Chowhound.com had me believing this version for awhile, pointing out that the home page copy at gusspickles.com never exactly says they are the same as the family that started Guss’. But it seemed strange that somebody could just hijack a recognized brand name like that, no?
Patricia Fairhurst told me she moved from the LES because of the changing nature of the neighborhood including a parking meter installed in front of her door; rents were rising, traffic enforcement was increasing, and patrons could no longer double park and dart in for a pickle. She initially relocated to 15th Ave and 39th in Brooklyn where she named the store Ess-A-Pickle; she had some “problems with neighbors” including a practice of parking on the sidewalk right in front of her store so one day she could not even open her gate; she’s moved again to Classen Avenue in Clinton Hill which is right up the street from her home.
I asked her why she isn’t called Guss’ Pickles and told her I knew about the controversy. I wasn’t taking notes, this was a casual conversation, so don’t quote us. She said Liebowitz was implying he owned her shop and she sued to retain her right to the name. But it wasn’t a big deal because her phone number (212) 334-3616 has remained the same through all her moves so her loyal customers know where to find her.
Fairhurst implies that the legal result ended the dispute but the big problem is that the original owners never trademarked the name. Being an ad guy, I noticed the pickles are dispensed into unlabeled containers; was it always that way? Yes. We agree that a label would have helped to establish ownership of the brand. However, she still has the original Guss’ sign, tucked away somewhere in her store, even though gusspickle.com features it on their website.
I bought an assortment of her pickles and can tell you they are as good as a pure and simple kosher dill can get. This is like hitting a high note where you make it or you don’t. The balance of crunch, salt and garlic is just perfect and she sells at exactly the point where the pickle is ready to devour. My teenager bought some “spicy” dills and I’m sure you could do interesting things with smoked peppers, fennel and various herbs and seeds but that’s an embellishment, not the core product.
Armed with my tub of pickles and a fully charged laptop, I attempted to get to the bottom of this. Fairhurst’s attorney, Ronald Coleman (not the actor), presents the case as a success story on his website and includes the full text of the complaint, the adversaries wonderfully identified as “World Famous Pickle Corp. vs Crossing Delancey Pickle Enterprises”.
Coleman cites this story in the NY Times cityroom blog which is an excellent history and includes links to the complaint (same as above), a response by defendant, a counterclaim by plaintiff but unfortunately not the final settlement which was confidential.
The reader quickly discovers that Andrew Liebowitz was not an out-of-the-blue opportunist. His family had sold cucumbers to Guss’ for many years and continued to do so to Patricia Fairhust. The defendant’s response goes beyond this to allege that they actually made some or, at times, all of the pickles sold by Guss’. Under the name United Pickle they supplied up to 20% of the pickles sold by the original Izzy Guss when demand exceeded his ability to make his own pickles. After the sale to Harold Baker they “perfected the proprietary recipe” and the pickles sold as Guss’ were in fact Liebowitz pickles.
The Liebowitz response also alleges that Tim Baker had signed over any right to the Guss’ name as collateral for a loan; he did not repay the loan and the name became theirs. Baker, who departed to Florida after selling the shop, has said that “no money changed hands” when Liebowitz acquired the name which certainly sounds disingenuous if the above is true.
After she bought the store, Patricia Fairhurst switched to another cucumber supplier; this may have been the catalyst for Liebowitz allegations that she was not the real Guss’ and Fairhurst’s subsequent suit to protect her business. After the initial salvos, Liebowitz made a settlement offer that was reported in the Village Voice. Patricia Fairhurst would resume buying her pickles from Liebowitz and would not “interfere with or disparage the pickles” from United. She would withdraw her claim to the Guss’ trademark. Fairhurst’s response: “They have nerve to even show this to us.”
And then… the confidential settlement described as a victory by Fairhurst’s attorney. Did she agree that she could continue operating as Guss’ but only as long as she stayed at the Orchard Street location? Nobody’s saying. So where does this leave us?
Patricia Fairhurst refuses to present herself as a martyr, but it would appear that she got the short end of the stirring paddle. She purchased a business in 2004 whose trademark Tim Baker had apparently given up in 2002; it’s hard to believe she would have spent so much legal energy (and probably a good amount of money) asserting her right to the name if she did not believe it was legitimately hers.
I haven’t mentioned the reason I originally got curious about Guss’ pickles. Knowing none of this history, I wanted to order some from the gusspickles.com website but preferred to pick them up locally so I could see how they were made. The person on the other end of the line was very evasive, said he’d call me back but never did.
Even though he’s the scion of a cucumber dynasty, there’s no evidence that Andrew Leibowitz ever had his hand in a pickle barrel. Of Patricia Fairhurst at her old location, the New York Times said “she may be found there six days a week, wrapped in an apron, topped by a newsboy cap and spouting Brooklynese, selling the briny little cucumbers and other pickled delights from bright orange barrels that line the sidewalk and lace the air with salt.”
The bottom line is that Patricia Fairhurst was willing to dip me a pickle when Andrew Liebowitz wouldn’t. Legal schmegal aside, she’s paid her dues at the pickle barrel on the sidewalk. Patricia Fairhurst, you’ve got my business.
Clinton Hill Pickles is at 431 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205. The actual storefront is around the corner on Classon–look for the pickle barrels out front. Closed Saturday.