The Birth of Divine Brine

By Robert Schaefer

Much to my father’s consternation, I left Hunter College after realizing that the philosophy degree I was pursuing was probably not going to have any practical use in the real world. I spoke to a guidance counselor to find out how one figures out what to do with your life. She asked me, what do you enjoy doing? What are you passionate about? I had spent the summer cooking for 20 people at a retreat center and really loved it. She said, “Perfect! I know the VP of “The 21 Club” is looking for a couple of apprentices for their operation. Go there tomorrow and apply!”

After picking up an interview suit, I traveled to West 52nd Street and found out that I was one of a hundred people applying for the position. But the gods must have favored me that day because I was one of the chosen few. It was an incredible education. I spent a month in every facet of the operation soups/sauces, prep, pastry, wine, dining, Garde-Manger, etc. This experience solidified my desire to become a chef and I went on to get a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

For the next ten years, I opened restaurants all over the country. I worked for the Hilton chain and the Playboy Hotels and eventually I opened a restaurant in the Hamptons and a very busy catering business in Tribeca called, The Next Supper. Our clients included Studio 54, Limelight, Woody Allen, The Cosby Show and many others. We were busy practically 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Then one day I just burned out and couldn’t do it anymore. I swore I wouldn’t be in the food business again and instead I spent the next 18 years with a Wall Street firm (another nice low stress job!!).

Despite not cooking professionally anymore, I liked to keep a small garden in my backyard. It wasn’t always possible but when we could do it, it provided my wife and I a special place to spend some quality time. I loved composting and having a big variety of fresh herbs and veggies at my fingertips.

One year I got a little overenthusiastic and bought a full tray of Kirby cucumber sprouts and planted them early in the season. To my delight, they flourished and we had quite a harvest. However, when I started bringing bushels of them into the house, my wife said “What the hell are we going to do with all these Kirbies? How much cucumber salad and soup can a person eat?”

Seeking to salvage the situation, I immediately said “Don’t worry, honey… I’ll pickle them and we’ll give them out to our neighbors, family and friends as a cool, crafty gift from the both of us.” By the time I had finished our “little” harvest, I had made 90 jars!! We promptly distributed them to all our friends and family and I figured that was that.

About a week later we started getting phone calls from people asking how they could get more of them. “We’re having a birthday party next week and we could use about 5 more jars. Is there a store that carries these?”, they said. I thought to myself that maybe I had something here.

I made some larger batches and decided to try my luck at a little farmers’ market in Deerpark; we would sell out every weekend! We submitted our products into various competitions and would usually take first or second prize. Soon we went from 3 products to 7, then to 15 and eventually to 21 products! All of a sudden, I was back in the food business with a line of all natural pickles called, Divine Brine.

As we expanded, we found a co-packer in upstate New York and I traveled around meeting with farmers that I could source local produce from. Then Stonybrook University opened a brand new business incubator in Calverton, NY (near Riverhead) which allowed us to produce our line by ourselves, make any size batch we wanted and be closer to many of the farms that we were sourcing from. Being in charge of our production allowed us to ensure our continued focus on making great preserved products from local produce without any chemical preservatives, colors or anything artificial.

Today, we are in 200 stores in the metro New York region and five Greenmarket locations every weekend, all year round. The Greenmarket experience of selling directly to consumers has helped our company grow and evolve in so many ways. Every market day we get exposure to thousands of potential customers walking through the streets of New York City. We also constantly sample our products thus creating a great direct forum between the consumer and manufacturer. So many of our products have come into being because of Greenmarket patrons telling us what they really want.

We have also become a part of each neighborhood that we sell in. Over the years we’ve watched babies turn into kids and then into young adults….eating pickles all the way through! We are also lucky to have made so many friends that are also very loyal customers. The Greenmarket is the heart of our business and hopefully will be for years to come.

For more information on the full line of Divine Brine products please visit: www.divinebrinefoods.com.

Want to learn more about GrowNYC and our $40 for 40 campaign? Visit http://www.grownyc.org/blog/greenmarket-40-40.