October 21, 2013 was the first night that Shamus Jones of Brooklyn Brine formally invited guests into The Pickle Shack – a restaurant that celebrates the culinary potential of Brooklyn Brine pickles, Dogfish Head beer and seasonal, vegetarian fare. Shamus often refers to occasions like these as a “game changer.” He said the same about the automated labeling machine for his pickle jars – anything that marks a turning point of significant value changes the game. And this night was no exception.
Shamus has asked me to arrive early and when I get there, he is carrying items up from the cellar and calling directions to the kitchen staff. Everyone has been working for hours, days, weeks, months to open the doors to The Pickle Shack and with only an hour until service, the hustle is tangible. Shamus is focused, but the light sweat beading on the curls of his red hair gave away his nervousness. He signals for me to follow him out back and on our way there he trades in his dirty black t-shirt for a classy, soft grey button-up that fits him perfectly. Only recently has Shamus decided to forgo the punk t, bleach-stained Levi’s and combat boots that he wore daily for more refined Parisian shirts and Italian shoes. When we get to the patio, Shamus takes a seat on one of the outdoor tables and lights up an American Spirit – a habit he’s trying to quit, but in the moment seems to be more like a meditation ritual than anything else. He is calm and collected but you can feel the vigor of his spirit. He knows this is going to be one hell of a night.
As we walk back into the shack, Shamus’ executive chef Neal Harden (formerly of M.O.B. and Pure Food and Wine) is dropping hop pickles into Dogfish Head glasses as a welcoming taste for guests to begin their night with an introduction to the pickle that started it all…
Back in March, 2012, while Shamus was reading Sam Caligone’s, book Brewing a Business, he serendipitously got an email from Sam to the tune of, “Hi. I’m Sam, owner of Dogfish Head Brewery. You probably don’t know me but I had this crazy idea to make a pickle using our 60 minute IPA. I make beer, you make pickles – want to see what we can come up with?” To say that Shamus was beside himself would be an understatement. That email marked the beginning of a flourishing bromance that would not only be responsible for the birth of the Hop Pickle, but also a fertile collaborative effort to create passion-driven, innovation ideas – including their second child, The Pickle Shack (which, by the way, has the largest selection of Dogfish Head beer in NYC).
Shamus has spent most of his life as a vegetarian and the dude loves a sandwich! So the concept of the shack was a no-brainer: delicious vegetarian sandwiches, fried pickles and beer. Duh. But don’t be fooled – this crew is serious about food. I was there the day that Shamus and longtime friend Neal sat down to discuss the future of The Pickle Shack, talk numbers, and seal a verbal contract that would put Neal at the helm of the restaurant. Besides food, a love of good beer has always united these two. Neal is a beer geek and phenomenal home brewer – he also makes one of the most drinkable IPA’s I’ve ever had. As Shamus and Neal got serious, there was nervousness, excitement, and eventually cheers and hugs as the deal was sealed.
Since then, Neal has been working like a mad man to create a solid menu of vegetable forward, seasonal plates that not only inspire the taste buds but also pay homage to the heart and soul of The Pickle Shack. Naturally, this includes a lot of ways to eat pickles, but more subtly, it means integrating things like Dogfish Head beer and pickling spices into a new line of Brooklyn Brine condiments and sauces that guests get to try first. In a sense, The Pickle Shack is more like a test kitchen that gets to push the boundaries of Brooklyn Brine’s already killer offerings.
It might be called The Pickle “Shack” but this is no hole-in-the-wall. From the former Root Hill Burger space to opening it’s doors, the metamorphosis is stunning. Aesthetically, it has the same rustic and minimalistic charm as the brinery, with it’s reclaimed yellow pine wrap-around bar, open kitchen, brushed metal two-tops and antique French school chairs. Shamus’ love for all things French is no coincidence. As many people in the food and restaurant industry do, Shamus worked long and grouling hours through much of his twenties. Once Brooklyn Brine got it’s footing, Shamus was finally able to travel and he immediately fell in love with Paris. His style is simple and symmetrical. All of the tables and chairs match. Except one. The Carmelita table.
Shamus caught his passion for food while working in Seattle at two renowned vegetarian restaurants: Cafe Flora and Carmelita. On a recent trip back to Seattle, he stopped by Carmelita and learned that after nearly seventeen years in business, they were closing. He knew he had to take a piece of that space with him so the owner gracefully sent him two tables: one that we hauled to his apartment, and one that now rests in The Pickle Shack. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat at the Carmelita table, you’ll know you’re sitting with not only a piece of Jones’ history, but also his heart.
The crowd for tonight is mostly close friends, colleagues and a few lucky cats who happened to buy tickets to the event. As service winds down, Shamus and Sam take a few moments to talk about their story. If there is one thing that these two have in common, it is undying and persevering passion for the things they believe in. In a sense, both Sam and Shamus embody the American Dream. Neither started with very much capital or know-how, but each were determined to create something they could stand by. As Shamus begins talking about what this night means to him, he pauses and holds back tears. When he is able to speak again, he says that this is the greatest night of his life.
When Sam takes the floor, he smiles, puts his hand on Shamus’ shoulder and says how much he reminds him of himself ten years ago. It’s obvious that this partnership is more about genuine connection, creativity and exploration than it ever has been about just business. And for anyone who has ever eaten a Hop Pickle or sipped a Dogfish, we are eternally grateful for that.
As things wrap up, I am still sitting at my table, enjoying the last of my caramel drenched pear and bourbon vanilla ice cream. When I take a sip of water I realize I’m drinking out of a pickle jar. I smile. Everything is perfect.
Today, The Pickle Shack opens it’s doors to the public. And I hope that as guests enjoy their beautiful food and atmosphere, that they are in some way able to feel the love and passion that exists in every detail of this space – from the drinking jars to the Carmelita table. Today is a game changer and Shamus can now call himself a restaurant owner – a title that is as prestigious as it is frightening.
He still wears black Levi’s, but now they tend to be without bleach remnants from running production in the brinery. But all it takes is for him to roll up his Parisian sleeves, exposing his fully tattooed arms, to remind everyone that he’s still just a punk who plays guitar in a grind core band, cuts cucumbers with santoku knives while listening to WuTang, and also happens to make damn fine pickles.