Roger Janin has been working at Lower East Side institution Guss’ Pickles for six years. “I used to hang out here,” says Janin. “The mother of one of my friends was working here. She asked if I wanted to push some pickles around and I said, ‘Sure, I got nothing better to do.’” These days Janin works at the stand with Pat Fairhurst, his mother and the current owner of the eightysomething-year-old establishment. We asked him what it’s like persevering through frostbite, two-hour lines, a budding lawsuit, 500-pound pickle barrels, and the very stinky train ride home.
You moved from Essex Street four years ago. Orchard Street has changed a lot since then.
We still get old customers that have followed us around since we moved. They like their sour pickles. The newer college crowd likes the more daring spicy pickles.
What’s the difference between a sour and half-sour, etc.?
New pickles, the cucumber-y kind, shouldn’t be more than a week old. After a week and a half or two weeks in a water, salt, garlic, and spice brine, they get darker and yellowish; they’re half-sour. Once they get dark, dark green after a month and a half, they’re three-quarter sour. After three months, that’s when they’re most sour.
How closely guarded is the secret recipe for the sours?
My old boss said that when he was on Essex Street, there were a couple of workers that tried writing it down. He took their book, ripped it up and fired them. I say, share the pickles, don’t share the recipe. For allergic reasons, I do tell what spices are in the pickles coriander, bay leaf, mustard seed
Do customers ever gripe?
People ask me if I have bread-and-butter pickles, which have vinegar, sugar, and onion in them. I answer like a robot, in monotone: “That’s not my specialty. My specialty is sour pickles.”
Do people ever get grossed-out?
This one customer buys big buckets for her mother; she’s always griping, “Oh, God, I gotta get pickles, let me get out of here.”
When are the lines worst?
On Sundays. Two weeks before Passover, the old-timers come in. You can spend two hours and 45 minutes waiting for your pickles.
How many people buy the pickled garlic cloves?
Not too many. Some people get a little scared: “I gotta go out somewhere tonight.” I give them a little try, and they see that after it’s pickled, it has a walnut aftertaste.
How do you smell at the end of your shift?
I’m the sloppiest, splashing juice all over the place. I don’t mind getting wet and smelly. At the end of the day, I reek of garlic and I get dirty looks on the train. To me that’s the smell of money. A little pickle pride helps. I take it as a compliment when people say I can smell you from a block away.
What’s it like working with your mom?
I live with her; I don’t mind working with her. We go home and go in our separate rooms and go to sleep. Then it’s time to make the donuts again the next day.
What are the perils of working outside in the winter?
When we moved here, my old boss took off all the radiators so it wouldn’t affect the pickles it’s better to have them in a cooler environment so they ferment naturally. I already got frostbite in my right hand. Sometimes I get the hook-claw in my hand. First the pinky curls up … That’s when I know it’s time to go home.
How many pickles do you sell in a day?
Thursday and Friday, maybe a third of a barrel. On a Sunday alone, I can sell a whole 500-pound barrel of sour, a half-barrel of half-sours, a third of a barrel of new pickles and a big tub of spicy pickles.
What other injuries come with the job?
I’ve gotten blinded in one eye while serving a customer. People feel so bad they give me a couple-dollar tip. I’m like, “It’s all part of the job” while my eye is closed. Half an hour later after a couple of rinsings, I’ll still have a red eye because it still has spice in it.
Any famous people visit?
Susan Sarandon was shopping for lingerie and bought a couple pickles. David Lee Roth didn’t say who he was. He said, “I’m supporting the scene, I’m an artist too.”
How many pickles do you eat yourself?
Maybe a quart in a day. Already [at 11 a.m.] I must’ve had six pickles.
The Guss’ Pickles in Long Island, which has filed a lawsuit against you, claims you’re a fake.
We bought it from the guy who bought it from the old men, and I do it the way the old men do it: Get the cucumbers, brine it, let it sour. How could I be the fake if I do it the way the old men taught my previous boss? They figure because we’re a small business they can just steal it out from under us. Daniel Maurer