There are barrels, buckets, plastic bags and containers all over the Lyon Park headquarters of No. 1 Sons, a company that sells fermented pickles, kimchi and other products at farmer’s markets and stores around the D.C. area.
No. 1 One Sons has occupied a tiny space underneath the 2720 Washington Blvd shopping center — which houses the new Mocha Cafe & Pastry – since 2012. That’s when No. 1 Sons was founded after owner Yi Wah Roberts, drinking with a friend, decided to make pickles on a whim. Later, he built the “factory” himself with a group of friends.
Roberts decided to ferment the pickles rather than soak them in vinegar, the common method for mass-produced pickles. The result was so good, Roberts said, that he decided to try selling them at a farmer’s market.
“I did it kind of on a lark,” Roberts told ARLnow.com yesterday. “People really liked it, so I rented a kitchen in Alexandria and started making them. When the winter rolled around, I decided I’d give [the company] a shot.”
By last summer, No. 1 Sons was in more than half a dozen farmer’s markets in the D.C. area and, Roberts said, they made a profit by the end of the year. He roped in his sister, Caitlin, to be co-owner and they’ve grown steadily since.
The company expanded its product line, and it now makes four different kinds of pickles — dill, half-sour, super sour and “Kicky Kosher” a spicy pickle that’s the company’s best-seller — as well as four types of sauerkraut, kimchi, “kale-chi,” fermented beets, onions, salsa verde and a ginger and cauliflower concoction called Ginger Giardiniera.
“The common thread of everything is fermentation,” Roberts said. “There are microbes everywhere, and they make things delicious.”
Roberts gets cucumbers and other produce from local farmers and this season will be selling his products at the Crystal City Tuesday markets and the Westover, Courthouse and Columbia Pike farmer’s markets on the weekends. No. 1 Sons is also selling pickles at the Clarendon Whole Foods and some “mom and pop” grocery stores in the area.
No. 1 Sons produces about five, roughly 2,000-pickle barrels per week, and its small space is bursting both in and out of the hand-built refrigeration system with bright blue barrels sealed with garbage bags.
Roberts has a small full-time team but hires lots of part-time help on the weekends — “and I’m always looking,” he adds . The former food-service industry worker said he likes “to keep quiet,” not seeking too much attention for his homemade pickle factory. He was characteristically understated when talking about niche company’s growth.
“We have a bunch of crappy minivans,” he said, looking over his fleet of a handful of beat-up vehicles. “I guess we’ve made it.”