Editor’s note: Made in Tarrant is an occasional Q&A series on small businesses started in Tarrant County. Submit your business here.
Jesse Otis and Mildred Dalton founded Best Maid Pickles in 1926 in Fort Worth. Since then, the company has grown and is still run by the Dalton family. Today it sells pickles, pickle juice and brine, salad dressing, sandwich spread, mayonnaise, barbecue and Worcestershire sauces. You can find their products online or at their emporium store located at 829 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth.
Contact information: 817-335-5494
Elizabeth Dalton, community outreach director and wife of CFO and President Brian Dalton — Jesse Otis’ great-grandson — shares how the Daltons got into pickle-making and details on the parts of the process done locally, from picking seeds to sealing the jars.
This interview has been edited for clarity, grammar and length.
SANDRA SADEK: Tell me about the company’s backstory.
ELIZABETH DALTON: Mildred was a baker. And we had the J.O. Dalton Grocery Store here in Fort Worth at 8th and Magnolia (avenues). This is like the early 1920s. There is no Target or Walmart — you just went to these little stores.
She was selling pies, and the pies did very well for the little grocery store. She had leftover egg yolks and she’s like, ‘Well, we can’t throw this away. What should I do?’ So she made mayonnaise. And then that did very well. This is like 1924-25ish. And mayonnaise did really well that they created Mrs. Dalton’s Salad Dressings. … They would go door to door to do sales for this mayonnaise plus (sell it) in the J.O. grocery store. … Then she created the salad dressing … that did very well. And then, this next product is what got us into pickles. She’s like, ‘Well, that’s doing really well. I’m going to create this thing,’ and she called it sandwich spread. We still call it … sandwich spread, and it’s mayonnaise-based with chili seasoning, that’s not spicy, and relish.
She was not growing her cucumbers or making pickles or relish at the time. She was using a supplier … and that went very well. Shortly before the Great Depression, her supplier raised the prices and she’s like, ‘We’re not going to pay that. We have land in Mansfield … I’m going to grow my own cucumbers. I’m going to pickle them and I’m going to make my relish,’ and she did.
But she grew way too many cucumbers for way too much relish. So, that’s how we got into the dill pickles. We’ve just grown over the years with more flavor profiles.
SADEK: How do you make your pickles?
DALTON: We’re a vertically integrated business. We control everything from the seed to the jar. … We start planting (in West Texas) at the end of June and … we start harvesting … usually the first week of October.
From there, they’re washed and sorted by size. Damaged ones are thrown away. Then they’re put on hopper trucks and they’re brought to Fort Worth or Mansfield.
So, when the cucumbers come from West Texas, they either go to Mansfield or our tanking yard. Those are for our process pickles (where) the cucumber actually turns into a pickle. It’s not flavored there. It’s just shrunk down with a salt brine plus other chemicals. … It takes about six weeks in the summer for a cucumber to turn into a pickle. And through that process, there’s tons of testing pH levels, adding water, adding more salt, adding more preservative chemicals (before it’s packed).
The other pickle we have is called a fresh pack. So, they come from West Texas, right to our packing facility here in Fort Worth. The fresh pack is a cucumber that turns into a pickle in the jar. So they’re fresher. They’re crispier. Some may have a little more cucumber to it than a hamburger slice that you may get, like McDonald’s or whatever. And we have to pack them pretty much within 24-48 hours.
SADEK: What makes what you do unique or different from other companies?
DALTON: Just to say that we’re family-owned wholly separates us. There are constant challenges because we don’t have big conglomerates around us or big financial backers. So it can be stressful because everything’s on the owner’s shoulders, because they don’t want anybody to not have a job, or to lose a job, because they make a bad decision. We do our best, and we do it with love and with great heart, and we’re really proud to say that we’re still 97-years alive and (with a) fourth generation now running it.
We’re thriving and we can’t even keep up with demand. People get frustrated they can’t find our pickles. Sometimes that hurts us because we want them to be able to find our pickles. But sometimes, we have limitations too, unlike the big companies that are owned by billions and billions of dollars.
SADEK: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned running this business?
DALTON: Communication is a big thing. It’s really sometimes difficult to work with family because people do not have the same opinion. They may have the same goal, but the way to get to that goal may be different. I think we’re very fortunate within our family that we’ve been able to talk and not have arguments or take things personally. We really hear each other out and we let people take the lead when they need to.
We also have some great and amazing employees from the corporate level all the way to our factory, and they all have everything to do with the company, just like the owners of it. So it’s not just three people making a decision. It’s really a family that we have — from people topping off the juice jar to the people deciding how much money we’re going to spend on marketing, or how much money we’re going to spend on donations, or how much money we’re going to invest to do a couple new lines in the plant to grow our supply to meet our demand. It’s really a very big team effort.
SADEK: Anything else you’d like to share?
DALTON: A good place for people to learn about the history of the company would be coming to the Best Maid Pickle Emporium, for sure. I mean, not just to buy stuff. We consider this like a tiny history museum and learning center so you can learn about … how we go through the process of getting a cucumber from the seed to the jar, about the history of the owners, the history — from pies to pickles. We have a lot of memorabilia. It’s not like the Smithsonian, but it’s something, and we’re really proud of it. And we have videos that (visitors) can watch of different operational sites. I’ll make sure to mention that it’s not a tour because we do not do tours.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.