It's quite possible Nisswa's municipal liquor establishment has the most unique name among city-owned liquor operations in the state.
Ye Old Pickle Factory – more often simply called “The Pickle” - will celebrate its 70th year in 2020.
“I’ve heard – and it's not very exciting – there was a day, I think it was a Labor Day back in the mid-70s, when it was busier than heck in there and the phone kept ringing. The person who answered said, 'Pickle Factory,' so the person would hang up thinking it was a wrong number,” said Wayne Van Vliet, 28-year manager of The Pickle, from 1981-2009.
Terry Wallin, Pickle manager for the past 10 years and a full-time employee since 1991, has heard other stories as well regarding how The Pickle got its name. One story says a grandpa told his grandkids he was going to The Pickle Factory, and they thought he was going to buy pickles. Yet another story says the bar was busy and someone said, “We're putting 'em in here like putting pickles in a jar.”
“We avoided using 'Nisswa Municipal Liquor Store.' We used 'The Pickle.' It was catchy and people knew it. It was a fun place,” Van Vliet said, noting municipals once had a connotation of being expensive and not fun. Their purpose was to control the sale of alcohol, and making a profit for the city was supposed to be secondary.
Regardless of how it got its widely known name, The Pickle has been good to Nisswa and its taxpaying residents.
“The Pickle has been a tremendous asset to the Nisswa community, not only for its great atmosphere and wonderful staff, but also because each year the profits are used to reduce the city’s general fund levy,” City Administrator Jenny Max said in an email, noting that in 2019, The Pickle had gross receipts of $1.1 million.
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From “Centennial History of Nisswa,” by Earl C. Leslie, 1986:
- Nisswa's population in 1950, when Ye Old Pickle Factory was founded, was 578.
- The frame municipal liquor store dubbed “The Pickle” was the old Murray chicken coop that was directly west of the new city hall built in 1964.
- In June 1971, Marvin Zimmerman purchased the old frame municipal liquor store and moved it southwest of town. A new building was erected in its place, this one made of stone, concrete and steel.
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In a nutshell, The Pickle and the city's other municipal liquor store - Spirits of Nisswa – help keep taxes lower for Nisswa residents and businesses.
“In the past four years, The Pickle has contributed $140,000 ($35,000 per year), which helps to offset the costs for services and related equipment that our taxpayers need. Our liquor fund is a resource to our taxpayers by providing a revenue stream which most communities don’t have. Out of the 853 cities in Minnesota, only 190 cities have a municipal, Max wrote.
Compare that number to the 1950s, when Wallin said almost every Minnesota town had a municipal liquor establishment to help generate income for cities.
For 2020, the Nisswa City Council approved an increase in the liquor fund contribution to $40,000 from The Pickle (up from $35,000 in 2019) and $220,000 from Spirits of Nisswa (up from $200,000 in 2019) to help keep the general fund levy to a 5.22% increase (down from the preliminary levy increase of 9%). Total contribution from the liquor fund (Pickle and Spirits combined) is $260,000 in 2020.
Liquor funds also help pay for the current city hall, which was built in 2005. The bond was refinanced in 2013 and will be paid off in 2025. Profits from the Pickle and Spirits are used in part to help offset the cost of this debt payment from the city hall bond.
Besides Wallin and Van Vliet, the late John (or Johnny) Lindbom was a longtime Pickle Factory manager, holding that position for more than 20 years, until 1981.
Van Vliet is most proud of the staff he hired during his tenure as manager, many of whom still work there. They include Lani Thomsen, 35 years; Wallin, 29 years; Terry Fischer, 22 years; Tim Crimmins, 20 years; and Shannon Webster, 16 years.
“That’s just not seen in the bar business very often. There’s usually turnover,” Van Vliet said, noting the city has treated them well.
The customers are the reason Thomsen has worked as a bartender at The Pickle for so many years.
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From a June 15, 2000, Lake Country Echo story on The Pickle Factory's 50th anniversary:
- The Spotlite was a combination Nisswa city-run liquor store and lounge, and a dance hall. The municipal operation was in the front, and the dance hall in the back was operated separately but cooperatively by Larry Bond.
- Pickle profits bought a squad car and land for the city park department. Money was earmarked for city sewer operations and the city’s general fund to provide direct tax relief to property owners.
- “Anything Pickle” was the theme of the June 2000 parade.
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“I thought this was going to be a summer job at (age) 19. I don't know where the time has gone,” she said, noting she jokingly tells customers that someday she's going to write a book about her years at The Pickle.
Wallin said the city built the current Pickle Factory building in summer 1971. His dad was an umpire and Wallin remembers watching his uncles and cousins play baseball games from the grandstands outside The Pickle when the ballfields faced the opposite direction as now.
“We were never allowed to come inside,” he said. “Kids weren't allowed in bars then.”
The Pickle doesn't employ bouncers as it did in the past. Bouncers were needed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when fights occurred on weekends, Wallin said. Other changes include opening the bar on Sundays starting about 10 years ago, and the bar is smoke-free since the statewide smoking ban was enacted in 2007.
Thomsen said changes she's noticed in clientele include that the younger generation now wants to be highly entertained.
“We are a first stop for them to get their night going. We don't keep the crowd. And this generation knows nothing but shuttles,” she said, referring to people taking safe rides home.
The building has undergone remodeling over the years. Van Vliet said he tried to class it up with lighting improvements and bathrooms were remodeled several times. A major project involved taking out booths and putting in knotty pine walls.
Around 2010, a patio was built overlooking the ballfield and an “up north” look was incorporated with the beam on the front of the building, Wallin said. The Pickle has the original bartop from the building's construction in 1971.
Van Vliet shared how famous The Pickle is. He and his family once were at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota waiting for a program to start and people were asked where they were from.
“We stood up and said we were from Nisswa, Minnesota. A lady up front turned to ask if we'd ever been to The Pickle Factory,” Van Vliet said, adding he opened his jacket to show that he was wearing a Pickle Factory sweatshirt.
The Pickle's busiest time of year is during the Fall Festival/Smokin' Hot BBQ Challenge on a Saturday in mid-September each year, Wallin said. Other busy times are during the Nisswa City of Lights event, held the Friday after Thanksgiving; the Winter Jubilee held annually in mid-February; and Freedom Days held each July 3.
Van Vliet fondly recalls his days at The Pickle, including a June 2000 parade to celebrate The Pickle's 50th year. A highlight was the Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) Clydesdales horse team and wagon that was in the anniversary parade.
Of course, he remembers the customers as well.
“We’ve had some real characters. I think of them a lot. Most of them have passed on. It was a place where people would go and have fun and tell stories that carry on today,” he said.