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It’s a sunny weekday afternoon and Manny McCall has just sat down to eat some tacos at East Oakland taqueria El Paisa@.com after a full day driving around to deliver his now Instagram-famous spicy garlic pickles.
McCall hasn’t always been in the pickle business. Before the pandemic hit, he was a server at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. But like many workers in the restaurant industry, McCall was laid off from his job. With unemployment benefits not being sufficient to cover his expenses, he had to think of creative ways to make ends meet. He turned to cooking, a skill he first learned from his mom.
“I got started with cooking through my mom at a very young age,” McCall said. “It was a way that she and I bonded. I was always involved in everything that she made.”
At age 19, McCall decided to pursue cooking professionally. He moved to the Bay Area from Southern California to attend culinary school, but he quickly learned it wasn’t the hands-on experience he wanted; he ended up dropping out. While working at restaurants, McCall, who now lives in West Oakland, said he was encouraged by the chefs he met to try a different way into the industry. “All the chefs said: If you have a passion for cooking, don’t go to culinary school, work yourself from the bottom up.”
While McCall never cooked professionally in restaurant kitchens, his inquisitive nature, combined with his mom’s teachings, inspired him to move forward with his passion, refining his cooking skills and learning new recipes along the way.
In the early days of the lockdown, McCall and one of his friends teamed up to make and sell prepared meals. Unfortunately, the logistics didn’t work out. The amount of money they were spending on ingredients plus the labor they were putting into cooking all of the food was neither sustainable nor profitable. “It was too much work for the amount of money that we were making,” he said. He was back to square one.
Next, he tried experimenting with making beef jerky, but that too was a short-lived venture, as the price of beef escalated.
After this second attempt, McCall’s girlfriend suggested that he try making pickles, a food he’s always loved eating. He liked the idea, and in June, he got to work. He did the math to see if he could actually make a profit. The numbers didn’t look too promising, but McCall wasn’t discouraged. “The next day, I called [my girlfriend] and said, ‘What if I just sold one jar per person and sold them, donation-based?’” That’s when Pickle Pana was born.
“I’ve always had a very strange obsession with pickles from a very young age,” he said. “I’d stick my hand in the pickle jar to eat them all at once.” A photo of McCall as a toddler holding onto a jar of pickles in front of an open refrigerator is the label on Pickle Pana jars.
McCall sells his pickles for $9 a jar, donating a portion of proceeds to a local nonprofit. Over the summer, he made his first donation of $2,500 to Black Earth Farms, a grassroots farming collective that grows, harvests, and delivers nutrient-dense and chemical-free food to low-income, houseless, and food-desert communities in the East Bay.
“I realized that I really enjoy doing this,” he said of not only making the pickles, but helping communities in need. The next organization he supported—with a donation of $1,300—was UndocuFund SF, which supports undocumented workers and families affected by COVID-19 who cannot receive any federal aid. And his latest efforts provided $1 a jar, a total of $450, to San Francisco-based Collective Action for Laborers, Migrants, and Asylum Seekers (CALMA).
On average, McCall prepares 40 pounds of cucumbers at a time, which gives him roughly 65 to 82 jars of pickles. The process itself, although laborious, isn’t an issue. The problem he often encounters is being able to find Mason jars. “I have a network of friends who keep an eye for me whenever they run into reasonably priced cases of jars,” he said.
McCall hasn’t set up a database to count how many clients he has accrued since he started Pickle Pana last year, but he says he has customers all over the country. “I ship a lot, about 70%,” he said.
McCall relies entirely on Instagram to get the word out about his business. He uses the social media platform, under the handle @tacosandbanchan, to send messages to chefs, brands, musicians, and other influential people he believes would like to try out his pickles.
“I have been reaching out to anyone who I think could be helpful in my journey,” he said. Among those supporters is Angela Tsay, CEO of Oaklandish. In November, the Oaklandish Instagram account, which currently boasts 98,000 followers, posted about McCall. “She’s been a big cheerleader. She’s bought a lot of pickles,” he said of Tsay. “I’m very thankful for her.”
Tsay isn’t McCall’s only famous client. It was psychedelic-folk singer Devendra Banhart who gave him the name “Pickle Pana,” a Venezuelan slang word for “buddy.” Horn Barbecue pitmaster Matt Horn; electronic musician Scott Hansen, aka Tycho; and most recently, chef Chris Cosentino are all on McCall’s growing list of clients. McCall asks his famous fans to spread the word of his pickles on social media, and often, they do.
“I probably got 40 orders through Matt Horn,” McCall said. “It’s fun to see the evolution of this.”
In addition to pickles, McCall has added bacon to his current offerings. He teamed up with his friend Phillipe Flores, a sous chef at Zuni Cafe to make the smoked pork product. Making the bacon is a 10-day process, which involves curing, air drying, and smoking the meat for nine hours using almond and cherry wood. McCall uses Llano Seco pork belly, which he gets at Clove & Hoof in Temescal. Flores makes the bacon, but they both package it, and McCall does the deliveries.
Now that he’s started his own food business, McCall doesn’t see returning to a full-time restaurant job any time soon.
“People are in survival mode. That’s why new business ventures are popping up,” he said. “During this pandemic, we have seen people come together. I don’t think a lot of this camaraderie would’ve happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
Keep an eye on Manny McCall’s Instagram account, @tacosandbanchan, where he posts when his next batches are available for purchase.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Phillipe Flores’ first name and Chris Cosentino’s last name. McCall sources the pork belly from Llano Seco, a pork farm in Chico, which is delivered to Clove & Hoof.