We’ve Reached Peak Pickle (Slushies! Popcorn!): Inside 2018's Hottest Food Trend

Imagine slurping ice-cold, blended dill pickle juice through a straw. That vision will soon become a reality, because Sonic Drive-In recently announced it is introducing a pickle juice slush for a limited time starting in June. Many people, even die-hard pickle lovers, had a hard time wrapping their heads around that announcement. Pickles are in their own category of mouth-puckering: Pickle juice is sour, but not in the same way that, say, blue raspberry flavoring is sour. It’s sour in the way that vinegar is sour. And just thinking about pickle juice (whether you're a pickle lover or hater) is enough to induce that familiar saliva-producing mouthfeel.
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Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Around this time last summer, I couldn’t keep count of all the texts I got from my friends proposing we go out to drink a beverage that's the exact opposite of frozen pickle juice: frosé. At the time, frosé had become a staple on bar menus, it was chic, and people all across the country absolutely couldn’t get enough. But the pickle-inspired slushie drink poised to trend for summer 2018 isn't sweet, cutesy, or millennial pink. It’s more difficult to envision texts from my friends begging me to join them to go sip this particular concoction. Unlike a green apple Jolly Rancher-flavored slush, the idea of chugging 44-ounces of neon-green, partially frozen pickle juice out of a Sonic Route 44 styrofoam cup is almost too much to process. Just imagine getting a pickle juice brain freeze.
But Sonic’s seemingly bizarre pickle slush didn’t come out of nowhere. Pickle-flavored foods have been popping up in restaurants and on store shelves for quite some time. A couple years back, Refinery29 reported on the then-revolutionary discovery that pickle juice could be purchased by the can. A few months later, we were horrified to learn that a pickle-flavored candy cane had come to haunt our holidays. Then, next thing we knew, we were covering pickle popsicles, pickle-flavored chips and popcorn, pickle-flavored vodka, and so many more pickle-flavored products.
This is all part of a larger trend: America is experiencing a pickle boom. According to data compiled by Statista from the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey, 239.17 million Americans consumed pickles in 2017, and the figure is projected to increase to 245.56 million by 2020. A 2016 report by Technavio entitled "Global Pickles Market 2016-2020," states that the global pickle market was valued at $11.02 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach a value of $12.74 billion by 2020. In America, the 2015 pickle market was valued at $5.36 billion, and is expected to reach $6.70 billion by 2020. This increase is also reflected by data from Pinterest revealing that saves for pickle recipes in 2018 are up 114% year over year. With the current saturation of pickle-flavored products and those monumental consumption stats, I feel comfortable calling it: We have officially reached peak pickle.
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Illustration by Louisa Cannell
We've seen this before with other food trends, especially those that involve potent flavors. Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends & marketing at food and beverage product development agency CCD Innovation Inc, tells Refinery29 that companies look for "button-pushing, eyebrow raising flavors" to sell products. Pickles are just the most recent addition to "that family of potent flavors — like a sriracha, like a bacon — that gets people’s attention," she says. We can see this exact pattern play out by looking at several specific products. One is the aforementioned pickle candy cane, which in 2016 joined the ranks of bacon-flavored candy canes and sriracha-flavored candy canes. The same phenomenon occured with Lay’s potato chips: Sriracha Lay’s became one of three finalists in 2013’s Do Us A Flavor contest, and in recent years, bacon has come into play with a few limited edition Lay’s flavors like BLT and Cheddar Bacon Mac & Cheese. Now, Dill Pickle Lay’s are all the rage. Pickle-flavored potato chips actually had a cult following for sometime, but Lay’s has found success with among a larger consumer base. The same sequence was followed by beermaker Rogue Ales. In 2014, Rogue Ales released Sriracha Hot Stout not long after it introduced Maple Bacon Ale. Then, guess what? In 2016, Rogue started serving Pickled Piper Cucumber Gose at one of its brewhouses in Issaquah, WA.
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After making their way through the niche product market, outside-the-box pickle concoctions are now hitting the mainstream by way of fast food menus, and Sonic is the trailblazer with its big summer 2018 novelty product. "Quite simply, pickle juice is fun...only Sonic can bring a completely on-trend beverage flavor into 3,500 restaurants." Scott Uehlein, Sonic's vice president of product innovation and development, tells Refinery29. This is a certainly a bold new step. We never saw fast food giants introducing sriracha or bacon slushies all across the nation. It’s true that smaller chains have put these strong flavors into drinks before. For instance, the Canadian chain Union Burger offered a sriracha milkshake for a limited time in 2016 and at Five Guys, customers can mix bacon into their milkshakes. However, Sonic’s forthcoming pickle slush seems to be the first instance of a big fast food chain offering a trendy bold-flavored beverage on such a large scale. In theory, putting pickle juice, which contains electrolytes and is said to be especially hydrating, into an icy summertime drink makes logical, if wacky, sense. But that still doesn’t explain how we got here: How did we reach peak pickle?
To figure that out, we have to go back a bit. Not all the way to 2400 B.C. when archaeologists and anthropologists believe pickling was first practiced by the ancient Mesopotamians, but to the early 1990s. According to a Washington Post article published in May 1990, American pickle consumption had doubled since 1965. The Washington Post credited this rise to the fact that the pickle was increasingly regarded as a standalone snack, rather than just an addition to a sandwich or burger.
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From there, the prominence of pickles continued to increase in the early 2000s with the rise of the farm-to-table movement. "This interest in preserving is very much tied to the local food movement and the spread of farmers markets that we saw in the pre-recession period," Nielsen explains. During this time, more people began cultivating relationships with farmers and buying high-quality, fresh produce, which they then wanted to preserve for later. That’s where pickling came into play.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
The farm-to-table movement didn’t just lead to more people pickling in their kitchens at home. It was also followed closely by a boom of artisanal pickle producers. In 2005, The New York Times profiled Rick Field, founder of New York-based Rick’s Picks. The piece explained that cucumbers at Grand Army Plaza’s farmers market in Brooklyn first inspired Field to reach out to his mom for her pickle recipe. From there, he became obsessed with the craft; after being laid off from his job as a producer on NOW With Bill Moyers a few years later, Field decided to try pickling professionally.
In addition to the availability of fresh produce, the Rick’s Picks business was built off Field’s own penchant for preservation — The New York Times notes that he is "adept at maintaining ties to his past" and even throws an annual three-day-long party for 80 of his childhood and college friends. Connecting with the past is another factor that CCD’s trend manager, Melina Romero, believes has contributed to the recent pickle boom. "This ancient art of preserving food started thousands of years ago, and it really had a resurgence a few years ago from these artisan producers and independent chefs...I think part of the appeal was kind of this draw in reverence to times from long ago," she says.
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When Fields decided to start Rick’s Picks, he "assumed that the artisanal food movement, having refashioned cheese, bacon, tofu, and peanut butter, would be ready to embrace his ambitious rarefying of the pickle," The New York Times reported. He was right. Not only did Rick’s Picks find distribution in artisanal food stores all over New York City, other successful artisanal pickle brands, like McClure’s and Brooklyn Brine, emerged in following years. Craft pickle shops even popped up within select Whole Foods locations, and the many high-end artisanal options becoming available — from jars of maple bourbon pickles to spicy pickled green beans — were a significant departure from the mass-produced Vlasic classic dills and Heinz bread and butter pickle chips that previously lined store shelves.
Even more recently than the pivot to local and artisanal food, the superfood movement and a newfound interest in wellness took hold in America. "Part of the drive is not only this reverence for our past but also the benefits nutritionally that come from pickled and fermented foods. For example, gut health and probiotics are included in that," says Romero. As strange as it is to say, gut health is a hot topic.
At first glance, Sonic’s new pickle-flavored slush seems like just another marketing gimmick, and while that may be true, it becomes clear upon further analysis that’s not the only factor. "If you think of potato chips, there’s the salt and vinegar flavor that’s very extreme. It’s got that sour flavor plus salt. We saw a riff on that when a peperoncini flavor came out just a few years ago in some kettle chips. So, now this pickle flavor is another riff on that new acidic flavor profile," says CCD's Romero. The pickle flavor might be a fad, but it also appeals to the modern consumer’s palate.
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Laura Brooks, director of marketing for Angie’s BoomChickaPop, says that the pickle’s bold flavor inspired the brand to release its limited-distribution Dill Pickle popcorn in May 2016. "We wanted to go bold when we launched this flavor in the summer of 2016...to align with the flavors of summer that you find at backyard BBQs, picnics in the park, and snack-filled road trips," Brooks tells Refinery29. BoomChickaPop used company and fan research to come up with pickle-flavored popcorn, and it paid off. "Our fans are always telling us how much they love our Dill Pickle flavor and since it is only in a select number of stores they really go out of their way to find it!" Brooks says. Similarly, Jenna Layden, global executive coordinator of merchandising operations for Whole Foods, explains to Refinery29 that the 365 Dill Pickle Almonds were recently made available year round because of the item’s popularity.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
To some extent, the assumption that pickles are being used as bait to attract customers and generate buzz is true. Thanks to past successes, marketers know that foods with bold and unexpected flavor combinations generate attention, even if it’s just a tweet expressing disgust or confusion over the product. But pickle love – and its link to older agricultural traditions and a more holistic approach to food – has a more profound appeal that can’t be discredited. Knowing that use of the pickle flavor has so far paid of for many food companies and consumers, who’s to say that Sonic’s pickle juice slush won’t be delicious? Come June, I’ll be lining up to try the concoction right along with the rest of America. From Sonic’s perspective, I’d venture to say that can only be viewed as a win.
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