Dietitian Niki Toscani and Chef Mike Sicinski both pivoted from their individual careers toward their passion for pickles to create the Fishtown Pickle Project, coming to a market near you.

Niki Toscani and Mike Sicinski opted for a quiet City Hall elopement in 2018 but 6 months later decided to host a party for family and friends in Philadelphia. They wanted to keep it simple and informal and went with a barbecue theme over traditional wedding dinner fare. In keeping with the menu, they sent everyone home with a jar of the pickles Sicinski, a trained chef, loved to make, as a wedding favor.

They thought nothing of it beyond what it was meant to be—a personal token to commemorate the celebration. Five years later, the couple’s full-time business is the Fishtown Pickle Project, and their pickles are available in more than 100 stores across the greater Philadelphia region, various local farm markets, and online. Philadelphia magazine named their “brined with love” pickles the best in Philly, and spots at their Feast of the 7 Pickles dinners sell out annually. They’ve also used their business to raise money for causes near and dear to them, including the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration, a rare and devastating disease that Niki’s father developed at the age of 57.

It is nothing less than a pickle profusion. A brining bonanza. A jarring success story in a jar. Taking a minute to chat from her hectic but happy schedule, Toscani admits there are days—plenty of them, in fact—when she finds herself in her Frankfort warehouse, managing her online retail business, or just out talking to people and she wonders how in the world this all happened. “I ask myself that all the time,’’ she says. “But in 38 years of life, I also have learned that, with time and trust, there is a purpose and meaning to everything we do. Everything leads us down another meaningful path.’’

We’re about food and hunger causes, community, and wellness. We want to use our business value to harness the type of charitable initiatives we support.

—Niki Toscani

We landed here by accident. But there also is intention and experience that has helped us land here. It’s not a complete goof.

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Life in a Pickle

Toscani admits she wasn’t always a natural risk-taker but she long ago learned to trust her gut—in both the metaphorical and the food-tasting sense. Because that’s the interesting twist in all of this. On the surface her career path seems unintentional and almost sheer happenstance. But when she steps back and assesses it, really delves into her upbringing and passions, where she’s landed makes perfect sense.

Born in Abington, PA, and raised in Voorhees, NJ, Toscani is half Cuban and half Italian. Though her parents divorced when she was young, Toscani learned from both about the community of the family dinner table. Food and family always went hand in hand, where meals weren’t made just to be eaten, but intended to be savored, the food secondary to the company it brought together.

Yet her family’s dinner tables always leaned toward a healthy twist thanks to her mother, Maria, who Toscani likes to say, “beasted through life.’’ At various points, Maria was a bodybuilder, masseuse, personal trainer, and yoga instructor. Because all focused in one way or another on physical health, nutritional health was regularly served to Toscani, too. “It’s always been in me to really enjoy mealtime and eating but to also be conscious of what I’m putting in my body,’’ she says.

She attended Fordham University and graduated with a communications degree in 2007. It was the height of the recession and jobs were scarce. Toscani reluctantly left New York and returned to Philadelphia, trying to figure out a career that might be recession-proof. She initially eyed a degree in nursing and began taking classes. One of the first courses she took was a nutrition class. Thanks to her mother’s influence, the proverbial light bulb shone bright. “It was right, this makes sense to me,’’ Toscani says.

Toscani continued toward a career as a dietitian, taking time away from classes to volunteer at a local food bank. It was there that she met her future husband. Sicinski was working as a chef for Cooking Matters, a nonprofit that helps families find the resources to create healthy, affordable meals.

The two became friends and stayed in touch. After Toscani graduated with a degree in dietetics, she worked in both health care as a nutritionist and at a South Jersey food market as a retail nutritionist. Sicinski ended up at the same grocery chain, as the company’s food service director, as their relationship grew from friendship.

For years, the pair kept about their traditional career paths.  Sicinski, whose Polish and Jewish heritage gave him an affinity for pickles, still loved to cook and tinker on the side. He conjured up a recipe for small-batch pickles involving jarred Kirby cucumbers. He’d give them away to friends to rave reviews. Some went so far as to ask for extra jars to pass on to other friends.

No one thought much of it, and certainly not as a future career arc, until the wedding reception when everyone left with a jar of Sicinski’s pickles. Suddenly it wasn’t just friends asking how they could get their hands on more pickles; so was the wedding photographer.

Success in a Jar

By sheer good fortune, the reception timed up with the first Pickle Fest in Northern Liberties. Their friends encouraged the couple to bring their pickles to the festival. “We were two crazy newlyweds with no kids,’’ Toscani says. “So we said, ‘Let’s do it!” The festival required a tax ID, so they put together a quick LLC and Sicinski, who by then was working at a local school in food service, borrowed its kitchen to generate 100 jars of pickles. They set up their wares next to Sucker Punch Pickles, chatted up Preston Elliott from the local Preston and Steve Show, and expected absolutely nothing from it. “It was just for fun and totally on the fly,’’ Toscani says.

Instead, a local retailer expressed interest in selling their pickles, and the boondoggle slowly but steadily grew. At first Toscani and Sicinski viewed it as nothing more than a passion project, a fun little venture to make some additional money and feed their foodie fixation.

But by 2020 demand had grown so much, they had a hard time keeping up. “This is unsustainable. What are we doing?” Toscani remembers asking herself. It seemed outrageous to quit their jobs and double down on a pickle project, but it also seemed impossible to keep doing what they were doing.

Then the pandemic hit, Sicinski was laid off, Toscani was pregnant and the decision, in a lot of ways, was made for them. “We were terrified,’’ Toscani says. “I do not recommend starting a business while pregnant during a pandemic, but when Mike got laid off, we didn’t have a whole lot of options. We just did it.’’ Weirdly, the timing couldn’t have been better. People visited the grocery store less frequently during the pandemic, and when they went they searched for food that would keep for a while. Pickles, Toscani jokes, are the perfect apocalyptic food.

Branching into a small start-up business is, however, no easy task and one made more complicated when you toss marriage and new parenthood into the equation. Toscani held onto her full-time job while Sicinski made pickles his career.

As they began to slowly launch the business, the couple realized that, in a weirdly circuitous way, their lives had prepared them for this very sort of thing. As a chef, Sicinski had the creative juices to think outside of the traditional pickle jar and consider unique flavors and ingredients. Yet as a former food service employer, he also understood food laws, budgeting, and how to handle the logistics of an actual business. Toscani, meanwhile, had a combination of communication, nutrition, and retail background, making her ideal to handle marketing, merchandising, and wellness. Seamless would be overstating it because, like any small business, there were bumps to overcome, but it was not nearly as difficult as they originally feared.  “We landed here by accident,’’ she says. “But there also is intention and experience that has helped us land here. It’s not a complete goof.”

Though admittedly stunned at the success of the business, Toscani felt secure enough to quit her job in September 2021.

The company now includes three full-time staff and two part-time, an array of pickle varieties (from Philly Dilly to Dilly Bloody Mary to Everything Bagel), merchandise, fried-pickle kits, pickle party favors, and hosts several events. The Feast of the 7 Pickles is a spin on the Italian holiday tradition feast of the seven fishes, and the couple even hosts a pickle class, teaching some of their techniques to consumers. Though the business has grown exponentially, they show the same care and attention now as they did when they were simply crafting their pickles for friends. Each jar is handcrafted, and the Kirby cucumbers are sourced locally when possible. They pay special attention to wellness, to the environment, and to the community, as their mission statement—preserving wellness, tradition, and community with love—attests.

After many locations, the couple finally settled at their Global DyeWorks warehouse. The space, Toscani says, is incredibly communal—filled with art galleries and small businesses, and people who want nothing more than to help each other succeed. Not long ago, when a surge of online sales required more freezer space for Fishtown Pickle Project, their popsicle-making neighbors offered theirs.

Purpose for Pickles

It is that sort of community building that also inspired Toscani and Sicinski to use their company to help others. Because they met at a food bank, the idea of food as more than just physical nourishment always made sense to the couple. In 2022, they collaborated with Elliott, of the Preston and Steve Show, on a limited-batch jar of pickles. Proceeds went to the Camp Out for Hunger Campaign, which benefits Philabundance.

They also joined the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD) because of Toscani’s dad, Dominic. Around 2015, the family started to notice small things about Dominic—erratic behavior, confusion—but he was so young, just in his mid-50s. After ruling out several other causes, doctors finally settled on a diagnosis in 2017 of FTD. Often referred to as Pick’s disease, FTD slowly affects a person’s ability to communicate. It is neurodegenerative, meaning it gets worse over time. Bruce Willis has FTD.

Despite a long career in health care, Toscani, who is now her father’s primary caregiver, knew little about the disease. Inspired to help others and educate, Toscani found AFTD. By sheer coincidence, the associations’ grassroots fundraising and awareness is called #foodforthought. The goal is to ask hosts to share communal meals while telling people about FTD and their personal stories involving the disease.

It was an easy partnership for Toscani to get behind. Along with donating a portion of their proceeds to AFTD, Fishtown Pickle Project jars read FPP 4 FTD, and Toscani has added information about the disease to her company’s website and social media pages. Countless customers have reached out personally or via social media to thank the couple for helping to raise awareness. “It all just aligns so well with our values,’’ Toscani says. “We’re about food and hunger causes, community, and wellness. We want to use our business value to harness the type of charitable initiatives we support.’’

Asked what is next, Toscani chuckles. Along with running a business with her husband and taking care of her father, Toscani has a very active 2 ½-year-old. “We are tired,’’ she laughs. She has, however, learned not to question the universe. A few years ago, she handed out pickles to friends to thank them for coming to her wedding reception. Because of that simple gesture, she now has a thriving business that is more than a moneymaker; it’s representative of who she is and what she values. Though it has not made her quite a traditional risk-taker, Toscani has come to believe wholeheartedly in her navigation system.

“I’m leading with my heart,’’ she says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’

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