Entrepreneurial ventures can take a while to get off the ground. But when Melissa and Andy Peck launched Peck’s Pickled Peppers at last month’s Gardiner Day, they sold a case of their product before the event even began. The sale was made to a fellow vendor, who stopped by their booth and sampled the peppers, first buying a jar, then after sharing them with his workers, a case. A hot dog vendor, he even christened the dogs he topped with the peppers that day as Peck’s Pepper Dogs. “I was astonished by that,” says Andy. “It was a sign that maybe we did something right.”
Peck’s Pickled Peppers are made with multi-colored Hungarian hot wax peppers. Packed into a 16-ounce jar, the sliced peppers are pickled with garlic and oregano in a brine that nudges the flavor profile toward Italian. Labeled “mild with a kick,” the peppers generate a heat similar to that of banana peppers, according to the Pecks; spicy from the jar, but tangy and sweet when cooked.
Hungarian hot wax peppers are in the 5,000-10,000-unit range on the Scoville heat scale, the standard for measuring the level of capsaicin that gives peppers their heat. By way of comparison — keeping in mind the Scoville charts found online vary somewhat and that individual peppers can be milder or hotter than expected — a green bell pepper is at zero on the scale with jalapeños at 2,500-8,000. Cayenne comes in at 30,000-50,000 units of capsaicin and habanero peppers at 200,000-350,000. (The famously hot “ghost” pepper tops the one million mark.)
Peck’s Pickled Peppers can be eaten straight from the jar or used as a marinade or ingredient in a favorite dish. With the garlic and oregano in the brine, the product can even fill in for salad dressing. Andy recommends chopping a few tablespoons of the peppers and adding them to eggs, or using a spoonful or two with the brine to make spicy Bloody Marys. His favorite recipe, he says, is a Thanksgiving turkey made with the peppers under the bird’s skin and in the cavity. A marinade of the peppers and India Pale Ale will tenderize grilled pork, and Andy makes his own summer sausage incorporating the peppers into venison, which calms the spiciness enough that the couple’s three-year-old daughter Kaelyn enjoys it. “When you cook with these peppers, the heat dissipates,” he notes. “It’s not ‘set your mouth on fire,’ it’s a subtle flavor, and unique.”
Andy and Melissa Peck have a long history with each other, having met as children on a school bus in central Pennsylvania decades ago. “He used to pull my hair and take my book bag!” she says with a smile. “We lived a mile from each other, and we’ve been friends forever.” At one point the two attended the same college, but over the years went their own ways. They stayed in touch, though, and when Andy threw a big party to celebrate finishing his PhD in environmental science, he invited Melissa. “Nothing happened then,” she says, “but we kept talking, with the phone conversations becoming more frequent, and eight months later we were engaged.”
Melissa was working in New York at the time, and when Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, the couple had to be evacuated from her apartment, landing in Pennsylvania at Andy’s friend’s house. And that’s where the pickled peppers enter the story; Andy and his friend had a longtime tradition of making pickled peppers in their backyards. It was just for fun, and Melissa got her first taste of it the hard way that year, getting pepper burn that lasted for days after handling the peppers without gloves. “I tried every remedy on the Internet and nothing worked!” she says now, but it didn’t deter her from pickling peppers again.
By 2012, having married and moved together to New York, the Pecks began hosting pepper-pickling parties in their backyard over Labor Day weekend. “The first Peck’s Pickled Pepper party was seven or eight people,” says Andy, “growing to 12 the next year. After we moved to where we live now, it was 20, then 35, and last year it was 50 people and we pickled 350 pints in one day!” The parties were fun, say the couple, but between the prep, the cleaning, the processing of the peppers and then the cleanup afterward — not to mention sorting out who took their bottled peppers home with them and who didn’t — it became a four-day event.
“After last year’s party, we said to each other, ‘That’s it, it’s too much,’” says Andy. “It wasn’t a picnic party where everybody comes to just hang out; this was active work that started at 1 p.m. when the first stems were cut off, and we wouldn’t stop until the last jar was boiled. And we fed everybody five different kinds of meat from my five-rack smoker. By 10 o’clock you’re done and you have an end product, and everybody is happy and felt like they did something — that part we’ll miss — but it was a lot of work.”
“We like to entertain,” adds Melissa, “but with a newborn and a new business this year, it was too much.” (Lexi joined the family three months ago.)
The Highland-based couple have day jobs in New Paltz. Melissa is a compliance officer for a Fortune 500 company and Andy an ecologist for a major nonprofit. They’re not sure at this point where they see the business going in the future, but with a longstanding interest in starting their own business, they’re excited to just see where this goes. “We’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but never really honed in on something before,” says Melissa. “And we both feel passionate about our product and about cultivating a business together.”
“We’re confident,” Andy adds. “We know it’s a good product, and we know people will enjoy it.”
Now that the peppers are a real business, the couple is bottling the product at a co-packing facility in Connecticut that works with small start-ups on small orders. The peppers are sourced locally from Tantillo’s Farm in Gardiner, who have already been supplying the peppers for the pickling parties these past years, even growing rows of peppers specifically for the Pecks. (And yes, that really is the family name.)
“We like the idea of working with other family businesses,” says Andy. “And we’re going local as much as possible, from our accountant to the people who did the nutritional analysis for the labels.” The website and promotional materials were developed with Gilday Creative in New Paltz, who came up with the playful “pepper avatars” on the label that represent the couple. “They’ve been so helpful to work with and came up with some good ideas. We only get one chance to make a good first impression, so we’re going full tilt; we don’t have to have bar codes or nutrition labels at this point, but we did it anyway so that if we do grow, we won’t have to re-do it all.”
Peck’s Pickled Peppers are currently available at Tantillo’s Farm market. The Pecks will also ship from their website, and plan to continue participating in local festivals, with the next one being this weekend; the annual Heart of the Hudson Valley Bounty Festival at Cluett Schantz Park in Milton on Saturday, October 5 (rain date October 6) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. “We like going to festivals,” says Melissa. “We’re both ‘foodies,’ and social, and we like interacting with people and getting feedback; the conversations you get into are fun.”
Starting a business together “has brought us closer,” says Andy. “We’re equal partners, 50/50. It’s both of us or none of us! It’s been rewarding, challenging, frustrating and scary sometimes, when the bills start coming in.”
“But there’s nobody else I’d want to be doing this with,” adds Melissa. “There’s trust already, and we’re raising daughters together, so we have that experience to draw from.”
“We’ve put our own money into this,” reflects Andy, “so if we fall flat on our faces, we have only ourselves to blame. But it’s a ‘toe-in-the-water,’ manageable level of risk. And we see the reward from a family business, something we can take pride in. Part of why we did this, too, is having a bit of a legacy. It started as us doing something together, but we also like the idea of having that example for our kids, of being entrepreneurs and not being afraid to try things.”
The Pecks will also participate for the first time in the Rosendale International Pickle Festival at the Rosendale Recreation Center on Sunday, November 24. (FYI, for followers of local lore, Andy Peck is not related to longtime volunteer Anita Peck, to whom the festival is being dedicated along with festival co-founder, Cathy Brooks.)