A long strange trip to the perfect pickle

Patricia Fairhurst and her pickles

Patricia Fairhurst at her post

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.

87 Orchard St

The previous location is now a cigar store.

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”?

Clinton Hill Pickles storefront

Clinton Hill Pickles storefront

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.

Full sours from Clinton Hill Pickles

Full sours from Clinton Hill Pickles

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”.

My pickle order from Clinton Hill Pickles

My pickle order (note absence of labels)

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.

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7 Responses to A long strange trip to the perfect pickle

  1. ADAM C says:

    The real Guss Pickles and recipes and store etc… belongs to the Leibowitz Family. I went to Andrew’s store many times in Cedarhurst and he stuck his hand in the barrels many times. He runs a clean sucessful business and ships his gourmet products nationwide. Ms Fairhurst doesn’t even make her own pickles and buys them from and inferior company (not mentioning names) The Leibowitz family have been in business since 1897 and there must be a reason why they still run a successful business. It’s because they have a delicious product. I have tried MS Fairhurst’s pickles and its not Guss, and never will be GUSS. That is why she doesn’t have the name GUSS because she sells an inferior product. Whole foods, Shoprite, and Fairway all carry Guss so it’s obvious they have a good product !

  2. Burnt My Fingers says:

    Thank you Adam for a dissenting point of view. I will make a better effort to seek out Andrew on my next trip and make sure he dips me a pickle!

  3. Hmm. that Cityroom blog post references a different Times story. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/11/nyr… The original story differs in many key points from the blog post. It also states that Tim Baker sold the original Lower East Side store and RECIPES to Pat Fairhurst and her son Roger Janin. Roger had worked in the store for years so even though Pat was a newcomer to the business in 2004, the lineage is preserved through her son Roger. The story also states that they used to buy CUCUMBERS (not pickles) from United Pickle (the Leibowitz’s company). Personally I’m with Ms. Fairhurst, but I’d love to do a side by side by side blind tasting of Guss’ vs. Clinton Hill vs. Pickle Guys sometime. As for Adam C.: What store in Cedarhurst? I don’t believe that the Leibowitz’s ever wanted to run a Guss’ Pickle store. The Cedarhurst store was just a sneaky way to lay claim to the name. Once that was secured, hey presto: no more store.

  4. Sorry the link to the original Times story that I posted is broken. Here is a functioning link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/11/nyregion/11pickles.html?ref=nyregion

  5. Burnt My Fingers says:

    Thanks Corgi. I will go back and review the source articles for inconsistency and hope readers will do the same. As to the Cedarhurst issue, I’m definitely planning to get to that store at some point soon and ask for a pickle so if there’s no pickle or no store I’m going to be pretty disappointed….

  6. Adam says:

    The Cedarhurst store moved into Gourmet Glatt supermarket. Due to high rents in Cedarhurst alot of area stores moved in there. Such as: Schwartz, Zomicks and Chap A nosh. It seems the last person doesn’t have there facts straight at all. I used to buy Guss when they had there own storefront, and now I buy in Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst, and they are just as good. The reason why the Leibowitz’s won the lawsuit in 2007 is because they are the true owners of the Guss name and recipes. You can’t believe everything newspapers, blogs, and people say. Pat doesn’t even make her own pickles. Clinton hill pickles buys from Mr Pickle in Brooklyn. I honestly dont think there pickles are any good. It’s doesn’t taste like a true Guss pickle does! I will stick with Guss’ Pat lost the name because she wasn’t buying genuine guss product case closed !

  7. Burnt My Fingers says:

    Thanks for commenting again, Adam. I had felt guilty not getting to Cedarhurst but now am glad for my procrastination because now I know where to look, Gourmet Glatt supermarket. Does Liebowitz have his own counter in there, or are his pickles simply sold through the deli?

    Corgi, I finally did go back and re-reference all those articles. One problem is that the NY Times and the Village Voice seem to feel the words “pickle” and “cucumber” are interchangeable and I made the same mistake at least once in my article, the phrase “Patricia Fairhurst would resume buying her pickles from Liebowitz and would not ‘interfere with or disparage the pickles’ from United.” I believe that should be “cucumber” in context. I believe that while Izzy Guss bought finished PICKLES from Liebowitz long ago, what Pat Fairchild was buying from the current Liebowitz were CUCUMBERS. Unless, of course, she doesn’t make the pickles at all as Adam is suggesting. You will notice I am not taking any position on that.

    And as for getting the recipe as well as the store, you’re right the original 2006 New York Times article specified that while the 2007 blog post did not. I’m not sure how much that changes things; I don’t know that there was ever contention that she could not make the recipe but rather that she couldn’t use the name.

    And, I am always up for a blind tasting as you know. But I don’t know how meaningful that is in the case of pickles, since there is so much variability from one pickle to another and one cucumber to another.

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