One of the reasons I started my website, is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a stockbroker and her assistant who lost their jobs when the stock market went south. But rather than accept defeat, they launched a new career – in pickles! – Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
There was a time, not long ago, that if you walked by Jenny Fulton’s office more than once in a day, you might have noticed that something had changed: her outfit. It wasn’t unusual for this North Carolina stockbroker to jump into her Lexus, drive over to the town square and buy something new -- simply because she was bored with what she was wearing.
But today, you’re much more likely to find "Miss Jenny" wearing a pair of shorts and a green shirt that she picked up at Goodwill. She has lots of green shirts. Green is her favorite color. But it has nothing to do with the color of the money she once managed.
"When you see me, I want you to think of pickles," Jenny laughed. "I want everyone to be thinking about pickles. I’m pretty sure not long from now, Beyonce will be changing the lyrics of her song from ‘All the Single Ladies’ to ‘All the Pickle Ladies!’"
Jenny Fulton and her former assistant Ashlee Furr have left the market and gone out into the garden -- in an attempt to prove that money really does grow on trees. Well, not exactly on trees, but on a half-acre of land next door to Jenny’s childhood home, where they’re planting the seeds to become the next big thing in pickles. It’s a far cry from the future they once bet on, but one that grew out of necessity.
"I was on vacation," Jenny remembered, "and Ashlee called to say she’d been laid off. It was the fall of 2009 and the stock market was volatile. I could see the writing on the wall; I spent the next two days in bed crying. I just knew they were going to close down our office and it wouldn’t be long before I was gone, too."
But Jenny Fulton is not one to drown in her sorrows. Raised by her grandmother, whom she refers to as MawMaw, Jenny grew up on free school lunches and dinners that often came from her grandmother’s garden. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school and worked her way up from being a secretary to managing $40 million dollars of other people’s money. So it didn’t take long for this self-made woman to choose her next step.
"My husband Bo and I were out on the front porch, where we solve the world’s problems, and he said, 'You make great pickles and you’ve got some land out at MawMaw’s, you should just start a pickle company.’ And I knew right then that, with my grandmother’s recipe, Ashlee and I could be America’s First Ladies of Pickles."
Jenny was going back to her roots -- and taking Ashlee with her.
"I’d never picked a cucumber in my life!" Ashlee said with a grin. "I grew up in the heart of Atlanta. There were no gardens or fields anywhere. But when Jenny called, I was in her kitchen the next morning!"
But all the enthusiasm in the world couldn’t have prepared Ashlee for what would come next: "Jenny wanted to take me out to a cucumber farm so I could see how they grow. So I put on a little brown ruffled shirt, a white skirt and flip-flops. I thought I was looking pretty cute until Jenny drove up and burst out laughing. She said 'Didn’t you hear me when I said we were going to the farm?' Well, I didn’t know we’d be walking through the fields!"
Jenny wasn’t the only one laughing. The farmers in their community were as well, but not at Ashlee’s wardrobe. They couldn’t imagine how two women who had never grown anything but money were going to harvest a crop.
"One guy told us he was going to come up with an umbrella and a 12-pack and watch us pick cucumbers," Jenny recalled. "He said, 'That’s going to be a sight -- these two girls, stockbrokers -- thinking they’re really going to do this.'"
But do this they did. The two women kicked off their heels, got down on their hands and knees and planted enough seeds to grow 3,500 pounds of cucumbers. They spent three days in "pickle school" at North Carolina State University, where they learned everything they needed to know about canning and preserving. And not long after they returned, they were reaping the benefits of their investment -- a half-acre filled with five-inch long cucumbers.
"We’d cart them over to my church and prepare the pickles in its commercial kitchen," Jenny said. "You couldn’t walk into the chapel and not smell the vinegar. Then we’d take them over to Smitty’s, our local bar and grill, and ask people to taste them and tell us what they thought."
It wasn’t long before Jenny and Ashley had perfected three pickle varieties: the perfect salt-and-pepper, a traditional bread-and-butter version and a pickle with a little kick -- a jalapeno salt-and-pepper. Now all they needed was the perfect name.
"We wanted to name the company after my grandmother," Jenny sighed, "but we found out that a wafer company already had the trademark. So I called the owner -- since our products are so different-- and asked if she’d mind if we used the name for our pickles. She didn’t just say no, she said, 'Hell, no! We’re in Williams –Sonoma!' So I said, 'Well, we’ll see you there!' We went ahead and named the company Miss Jenny’s Pickles, and that day, we made it our mission to be right there on those same shelves."
With that matter settled, the pickle ladies were ready to start selling and they weren’t starting small. Well, Jenny wasn’t. She’d set her sights on the Fancy Food Show in New York -- the largest specialty food and beverage event in North America. But Ashlee wasn’t so sure. She thought maybe they were biting off more than they could chew. It would be the first of many times the former stockbroker and assistant had to figure out how to work as partners.
"We both wanted Miss Jenny’s Pickles to be a household name," Jenny said. "There’s no question about that. But we realized at that moment that we had different ideas of what that meant. Ashlee wanted to be in every home in the South and I wanted to be in every refrigerator on earth. And my vision required us to get moving."
It wasn’t long before Jenny convinced her partner that the two of them could take on the world and that they were on their way to the big city. And there, amid the million-dollar displays, they set up a four-foot table and offered up Miss Jenny’s pickles to buyers from the most important grocery and gourmet stores in the country.
"We walked out with hundreds of business cards," Jenny said with delight, "including Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca!"
"Jenny stayed for the whole show, but I flew home early," Ashlee added. "I’d seen enough. I knew one of us better get back home and start making pickles."
That week, the partners began stocking the shelves at their local Harris Teeter stores and calls started pouring in. In fact, their sales multiplied so quickly that they had to begin buying cucumbers from other farmers and partner with a manufacturer to co-pack their pickles.
Now, only two years from the time they planted their first seed, Miss Jenny’s Pickles has already extended its line of products. The ladies have added an award-winning habanero bread-and-butter recipe and a fried pickle which they recently launched on QVC. By this fall, their items will be in 600 stores throughout the United States and China and just down the aisle from that little wafer company that gave them the big fight -- at Williams-Sonoma.
"Growing up, MawMaw always told me to stick in there and good things will happen," Jenny said, reaching for her friend’s hand. "I just know she’s watching over us and grinning from ear to ear.
"That, and telling all her friends, 'You know, my pickles have made it all the way to China!'"
For more information on Miss Jenny’s pickles, you can visit MissJennysPickles.com.
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