Pickle panic as rival Guss cukes duke in sour fight
Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Patricia Fairhurst at her pickled pepper barrels last week at the original Guss’ location at 85 Orchard St.
By Audrey Tempelsman
On July 16, Andrew Leibowitz, principal of the United Pickle empire, and Patricia Fairhurst, owner of Orchard St.’s tiny Guss’ Pickles, return to court to battle over the city’s most controversial cucumbers. Both claim legal ownership of the world-renowned Guss’ Pickles brand.
But what may seem like a simple tale of brawn versus brine is, in reality, a murky affair.
Guss’ Pickles was established by Izzy Guss, a Russian immigrant, who arrived in the U.S. in 1910. Like many Eastern European newcomers, Guss lived in the Lower East Side’s tenements and sold pickles from a rented pushcart.
The briny bites were popular among New York’s burgeoning immigrant population: The taste reminded many of the homes they’d left behind. And the cheap rate of pushcart rentals made pickle peddling an affordable first business.
Eventually, Guss saved up enough money to open his own store on Hester St., where he sold his wares from storefront barrels.
He also developed a business relationship with the Leibowitz family of United Pickle, buying his pickles from them. United Pickle is now the largest pickle wholesaler on the Eastern seaboard, according to self-described “Chairperson Pickle Maven” Stephen Leibowitz.
When Guss’ first opened, it was one of 80 pickle purveyors in the neighborhood. Now it’s the only one of the original Lower East Side pickle stores left.
“This is a traditional store,” said Fairhurst, who mans her barrels in front of 85 Orchard St. six days a week. “We’re a small business and we work very hard. We’re outside selling the pickles in all types of weather: In wintertime when it’s snowing, in summertime when it’s sweltering. We keep up the tradition, like it used to be.”
When Guss died in 1975, his family sold the business to Harry Baker, who then passed it down to his son, Tim. In 2004, Tim sold the store at 85 Orchard St. to Fairhurst.
And that’s when things began to go sour.
Stephen Leibowitz claims that his son, Andrew, purchased the Guss’ trademark from Baker in 2002. When Fairhurst acquired the store at 85 Orchard St. two years later, she “bought a lease, not a business,” he says.
Like the Bakers before her, Fairhurst continued to buy her pickles from United Pickle, but she says she improved them by using Guss’ signature recipes.
But Fairhurst discovered that Leibowitz had opened up a Gus’s Pickles store in Cedarhurst, in Nassau County, and charges he was using her business to promote it. When she informed Leibowitz that she was going to switch suppliers, she received a letter informing her that she could no longer use the Guss’ label.
“He figured because I’m a woman and it’s just me and my son, I wouldn’t know the law. He figured that I couldn’t afford a lawyer,” said Fairhurst. “But I’m the only Guss’ Pickles.”
She sued Andrew Leibowitz and his Crossing Delancey Pickle Enterprises Corporation in October 2006, and was countersued.
“We’ve been selling the original Guss’ Pickles for almost 90 years,” said Stephen Liebowitz. “My son bought the trademark five years ago she’s been infringing on us.”
The two parties are scheduled to return to court this Monday.
Though Baker could not be reached for comment by press time, he has denied selling Guss’ trademark to Leibowitz in the past: “No money was exchanged; he did not purchase anything. If I sold it, it was done under false pretenses,’’ he told The New York Times last November.
But Leibowitz insists that he and his son have nothing to hide.
“You don’t stay in business 110 years unless you’re an honest business,” he said. “We’re an honest business.”
But that’s not the bottom of the barrel of the Guss’ pickle predicament: Recently, Fairhurst challenged the neighborhood’s new Whole Foods at E. Houston and Chrystie Sts., after customer complaints alerted her to the Gus’s Pickles brand the store was selling a variation on the original Guss’ spelling.
Her inquiries revealed that the supplier of what she calls these counterfeit cukes is none other than United Pickle.
According to Fairhurst, the difference in taste is far greater than the difference in punctuation: “Gus’s Pickles,” she said, “don’t meet my quality standards at all.
“They buy them from a company that has inferior pickles and they slap my name on them, which isn’t right,” Fairhurst continued. Though she has spoken to a Whole Foods representative, there’s no sign the chain plans to stop selling the Gus’s pickles from the Bronx, much less switch to selling her own.
Without a doubt, the conflict between Fairhurst and the Leibowitzes has had Lower East Side loyalties in a pickle. But with the court date coming up, Nancy Ralph of The Food Museum in Soho, feels there’s still hope for a peaceful Lower East Side Picklefest on Sept. 16.
In the past, Whole Foods has co-sponsored the event on Fairhurst’s block. This year, Ralph said, celebrants can sample varieties from all over the world.
“We have Lebanese, Indian, kimchi pickles,” she said, “and we hope to have some Spanish and Chinese, some African, Russian and Haitian pickles too.”
If this jarring controversy isn’t settled soon, one can only hope the festival will put a lid on it.