Clad in his signature cowboy hat and chili-patterned shirt, Crazy Steve has the Princeton Whole Foods buzzing as he sets up for yet another tasting.
Customers and Whole Foods employees high five him as they walk by, shouting “Hey! There’s Crazy Steve!”
A line forms, full of shoppers eager to try some of Crazy Steve’s 16 different salsas and pickles. One customer takes a bite of a pickle and instantly approves.
“That’s on the money,” the customer said.
Crazy Steve, also known as Steve Zielinski, Sr., works the crowd, offering up recipes and chatting with his customers.
“That’s the mango raspberry salsa,” he said to tasters, before turning to one. “I’ll put that on pork chops or tilapia.”
“Now do you like spicy?” he added, talking about his Let the Insane Sunshine Pickles. “It’s got a kick.”
Clearly well-practiced, Zielinski does several demonstrations a week in grocery stores throughout New Jersey, New York City and Philadelphia where he works the crowd, hoping to get as many shoppers as possible interested in his products.
In the summer, he can often be found outside grocery stores grilling chicken marinated in his salsas. He encourages people to visit his recipe website and think outside the box when it comes to cooking.
“So people know it’s not just for salsa and chips,” he says.
The salsas and pickles are not only vegan and gluten free, but also low sodium and sugar free.
He seems to really know what he’s doing for someone who got into the business as a joke.
In the summer of 2009, Zielinski’s backyard garden overflowed with cucumbers and tomatoes. After giving a lot away to friends and the local food bank, he decided to use the leftovers for salsa.
“I was looking for some recipes and just started playing around with it,” he said. “I like salsa, so that was the thing I started looking to do.”
At the time, Zielinski was working at Lowe’s. He would often leave his salsa in the company break room for co-workers to try.
Within hours, it would be gone.
His co-workers would critique him, suggesting the salsa be chunkier, which led to his jars being packed with bite-sized vegetables.
“People started saying ‘you might want to sell this, it’s halfway decent,’” he said.
He sketched a cartoon character likeness for the jar label, and Crazy Steve’s Pickles and Salsa was born. It’s been almost two years now since Crazy Steve sold his first jar.
The business began to pick up after Zielinski started going to weekend craft shows. He ran out of salsa the first at his very first weekend craft shot outside New Brunswick. He had to rush home to make more for the next day.
An employee from Whole Earth Center of Princeton tasted the salsa at one of those shows, bought 10 cases, and has maintained a relationship with Crazy Steve’s ever since.
Crazy Steve’s Pickles are now sold in 39 Whole Food stores, as well as about 50 different grocery stores, like Marrazzo’s of Ewing, Pennington Quality Market and even two stores in Manhattan. He finds that stores like to support his local business.
The originality of the product from the name to the labeling and presentation is what made Pennington Quality Market carry his products.
“[What’s] also special is the fact he uses local ingredients. At PQM we support and carry many local products. Steve is a good guy with a good personality. That’s why we gave him a shot in the store. Plus the Sunshine Pickles are really good.” said Brian Williams, Grocery Manager at Pennington Quality Market.
Zielinksi started off in his own kitchen, but his business has grown so much that he now has his products bottled at a bigger location in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Beyond his successful business, Zielinski said he has always been about giving back to the community. He calls this “condiments on a mission.”
He will soon be auctioning off large jars of pickles on eBay that were autographed by top people in the food industry like Mario Batali and Ted Allen. The proceeds will go to WhyHunger.org, an organization devoted to ending hunger and poverty by connecting people to affordable food.
This year will also launch Crazy Steve’s campaign called “One jar, One Meal, One solution.” For every jar sold, Zielinski will donate 15–25 cents to a local food bank, which is the cost of a meal.
“I want to figure out a way to really promote the giving back,” he said. “I want people to realize that for every jar they buy they are giving a meal to someone else, which to me is huge.”
The success of Zielinski’s business comes down to his passion for his product, his willingness to get out and meet the people and, in his mind, the fact that he’s a real guy.
“The reason why Ben & Jerry’s makes it is because they are human beings,” he said. “It’s different than a product with a fictitious character.”
For more information, or to find out where you can buy Crazy Steve’s Pickles, go online to crazystevespickles.com.