Pickling vegetables is one of many secrets from grandmother’s kitchen. It keeps food fresh longer and makes it taste even more delicious. Founder of the Danish startups Syltet, Rie Schimmell, has fallen in love with the taste and dusted off the old recipes. In the interview she tells us how she did this and what makes her products so special.
First of all, please introduce yourself and your startup!
Hallo, I’m Rie Schimmell, I’m 31 years old and I founded Syltet three years ago. Syltet means ‘pickled’ in Danish and we produce pickled vegetables and vinegars.
What was the reason for you to found Syltet?
I founded Syltet, because I was missing more delicious and crisp pickled vegetables on the shelves. My greatest passion is food and I often ate at various restaurants where you could get all sorts of vegetables that were pickled. I started wondering why the shelves with pickled vegetables looked the same as it did 30 years ago. So I thought that if it’s something I’m missing, maybe I won’t be the only one. My goal is to make the most delicious pickled vegetables and vinegars from local produce which we get from some of the best farmers in Denmark.
Pickling vegetables is a trend that has found its way back into our kitchens in the last few years. How did you find out about it?
In Denmark we have a few traditional dishes, where you’d eat pickled vegetables. Like red cabbage for Christmas. To be honest, I never really liked pickled vegetables growing up. I thought they were too soft and either too sour or too sweet. But the restaurants really opened my mind to it.
I think people are really starting to discover that adding something pickled even to a salad gives the dish a new level of flavour.
Why do you think pickled vegetables are making such a big comeback?
I think there are a few reasons – firstly because pickled vegetables can be so many different things. It’s a really wide scope, and I feel like I keep adding things to the list of things to pickle. Therefore, you can make it taste so different of course depending on the item you pickle and the way you pickle them. I love when I have people who dislike pickled vegetables taste the ones from Syltet and then change their minds.
But also because of the environment. Eating what’s in season is becoming a huge trend which is hopefully here to stay, and by pickling the veggies when you harvest them and preserving them, you make sure that you can get the taste of summer even in December without buying strawberries that has been half way around the world first. And then of couse because of foodwaste. We throw so much food out for no reason when you could just pickle most of your leftover vegetables instead.
How did your friends and family react, when you told them about your idea to make money with pickled vegetables?
No one believed in the pickling idea. I think they thought I was crazy. Because it’s such an old school thing to do, which was exactly what I wanted to change and make pickled vegetables modern again. My father, who is always very supportive, admitted that he did not get it at all when Syltet was just on a story board. But as soon as he tasted the first few samples, he started getting it and now he loves them. I think most of my friends and family felt the same way as he did.
Honestly, I don’t think many people still understand what I hope Syltet will become. We have 18 products in the assortment now, but I have 150 ideas for products I wanna launch. So I don’t blame them for not understanding – I’ll just show them instead.
Syltet has been working with the star chef Rasmus Bundgaard. How did you meet and how did you work together?
I met Rasmus at a big food fair we have in Denmark every second year, Food Expo. I told him about the idea with making pickled vegetables and he thought it sounded interesting. So I packed my car with jars, vegetables and vinegar and drove from Copenhagen to Aarhus where Rasmus lives. We spent Sunday and Monday in the kitchen, where the Michelin restaurant was closed. We pickled five vegetables four different ways each. Then I brought them all home, tasted every two weeks to see the changes in colour, texture etc. I chose the best base-recipe and then spent days perfecting it until it was where I wanted it to be. Rasmus is still on speed-dial if I am in doubt about something.
I have a university degree in Communication and finance, so I felt like I needed a food-professional to teach me something about how a chef would think food. I learned so much from that. But now, after pickling tons of vegetables, I feel like I’m getting there.
What are your secret tips on how everyone can pickle vegetables at home?
- Start with the “grandma-brine”. It’s equal parts of vinegar, water and sugar. Add a bit of spices (you can’t go wrong with whole black pepper and bay leaves). Heat it up and poor it over vegetables like onions, red beets and carrots. Then when you have that in place, you can experiment with other types of vinegar like elderflower for the carrots or different ways of cutting the vegetables.
- Keep the jars and tools clean. Put boiling water in the jar before you put anything in there and make sure you don’t touch the inside. Bacteria is your worst enemy when you pickle.
- Try, fail and try again. Don’t be too sad if it didn’t turn out the way you thought it would Just try again – practice makes perfect also when you pickle.
What makes your product so special and what does Syltet stand for?
In Syltet we pickle the vegetables slightly different than you would normally. We want the vegetables to stay crisp and firm which is a really big deal to me.
We also spend a lot of time on finding the best producers. I believe if we have the best possible starting point, then the end result will also be better. So we find the best farmers and use primarily Danish and organic raw materials.
Why did you choose Germany as a new market?
I think there are many reasons why Germany is the perfect place to start with as the first new market outside Denmark. First of all, we are neighbors and I have travelled a lot in Germany. You also have a strong tradition for pickling and fermenting (sauerkraut etc). So I think that your tastebuds are ready for Syltet, but I also think we will be adding something new to the market, which is very important to me. I don’t just wanna come with something that already exists in the exact same form.
The startup life in Germany and Denmark differs in some points. What do you think about this?
To be honest, I am not very familiar with the German startup scene, but I know that Germany and especially places like Berlin and Hamburg have a fast pace startup culture and that the German food market is very developed so German consumers have access to so many products we haven’t even heard of in Denmark. I think that’s very inspiring and would love to explore that further. In Denmark, the food startup scene is very friendly, and everyone is very helpful and I would hope to find the same in Germane.
Which difficulties did you have to overcome on Syltets way?
So many on a daily basis. On the bigger scale it’s getting the consumers to try the products cause when they try them, most of the people really like them. There is a mission about getting people to understand that pickled vegetables in fact are super delicious and I think that might take years to come.
It’s challenges like many other startups where funding is a big one for most. 6 months after I first started selling Syltet’s products, I knew I had to find a place to produce, so it wouldn’t just be me and my dad peeling onions for 16 hours a day at times. It took me 1,5 years to find a place that could help me scale up. And 6 months after that I meet an investor, Nils, who owns Denmarks oldest vinegar factory. Nils bought a part of my company, so we are now able to get much further than I was able to on my own.
But I have also experienced many smaller challenges that seem big at the time. It could be getting 125,000 lids that were wrong which we of course found out 2 days before we needed to use them. Or the time when I first started producing golden beets and it turned out they had just gotten off season, so no farmer in Denmark had any left. That meant we had to wait 5 months before we could launch the golden beets. But I learned that you really have to know your season so in a way I’m glad it happened then, because it made me more aware of the vegetable seasons and how crucial they are. We can’t just make more like they can with shampoo.
Side note on how I met Nils, the investor.
I had been looking for an investor for a while but wanted smart money, which proved to be difficult to find, cause now many people know about pickling in larger scale in Denmark.
In November, my new boyfriend invited me to his Uncle’s 50 birthday party. Randomly, I was seated next to a man, and when I told him that I was pickling vegetables for a living, he said “my best friend owns a vinegar factory”. I thought he was just joking, but we talked about it and the next day he sent me the number to this friend of his, Nils. I called Nils up a week later, and the same day Nils and I had our first meeting. 1.5 months after that we signed the contract.
I think it’s so cool that an old removed company believes in a small startup like Syltet. With this new setup, we really have the team to grow in the current market, expand to other markets and make some of the products I’ve wanted to make since the beginning. Now it’s not just me but a whole team of experienced people who’s been in the food industry for many years. On a weekly basis, I still pinch my arm to see if it’s all just a dream. Not only was that birthday party great fun, it also changed my life!
Which goals or plans do you have with Syltet for the future?
On the shorter term it’s getting a good start in Germany and to continue to grow in Denmark. On the longer term it’s launching in more market and developing some of the products I have in mind. But my strategy has always been to not rush things. I’d rather do it right and in a pace where we can keep the high quality in all aspects.
Thank you for the interview, dear Rie!
Featured picture: Syltet