How a veteran from Columbus built a pickle business

After suffering a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq, U.S. Army veteran James Alexander tried to keep himself financially afloat as a single father.

This story was originally published by the Ledger-Enquirer.

U.S. Army veteran James Alexander was trying to keep himself financially afloat as a single father in 2010.

But he was draining his 401(k), his truck was repossessed and he had to find a way to pay his son’s tuition at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School.

Alexander was watching his bank account decrease every month knowing there was no bailout coming for him, and his recently diagnosed traumatic brain injury limited his ability to work.

One day, he was at a small festival in Pine Mountain when he came across a woman selling pickles. Thinking the pickles looked good, Alexander asked her how much they were.

She said $10.

“That’s a lot of money for a jar of pickles,” he responded.

“They’ll be the best pickles you ever eat,” she told him.

Later that day, Alexander was home craving a snack while his teenage son, Bryan, played video games in his bedroom. Alexander went to the kitchen and opened up the cold jar.

He popped a pickle in his mouth. Three seconds later, he was spitting it out in the sink, drinking juice to get rid of the horrible taste. It was the worst pickle he’s ever eaten.

“I can make pickles better than this,” he told himself. A few months later, Alexander began creating his own recipe for what would become the first of the Real Deal Dill Pickles — a business that would help save him financially as he faced the challenges of having a traumatic brain injury.

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

The migraine that never ends

Alexander was hit by a car bomb in 2005 while serving in Iraq.

Five years later, he began suffering from a migraine. This condition typically lasts from 4 to 72 hours.

His lasted for 17 days.

The pain sent Alexander to a neurologist who ordered an MRI that showed damaged areas of his brain. Over the previous few years, cells in Alexander’s brain had been slowly deteriorating because of the car bomb.

Alexander’s headache never completely went away, he is at risk of having a seizure and he experiences some cognitive issues with his speech.

Watching his father suffer because of the injury was difficult as a teenager, Bryan said. Things that were once second nature were now difficult. Alexander began losing his train of thought and becoming confused more often.

There was also the nausea.

Father and son were taking a vacation up to the mountains. While driving, Alexander told Bryan he was going to be sick. Moments later, Alexander was projectile vomiting onto the windshield before he had a chance to pull the car over.

A determined Alexander made sure he and his son still made it to their vacation destination despite the setback.

“He’s the only parent I’ve ever trusted,” Bryan said. “There was definitely always that fear growing up that he might not be here. Somehow, he’s powered through a lot of stuff.”

Bryan knows there are things about his father’s condition that Alexander doesn’t share with him so he doesn’t “freak out.” But his father’s experiences inspire Bryan’s approach to taking on life.

After the diagnosis, doctors told Alexander his condition meant he could no longer work the job he’d been doing.

It took almost four years for Alexander to start receiving his benefits from Veterans Affairs. In the meantime, he needed to find a steady income to support Bryan.

‘I wanted somebody else to be the first sucker to try ‘em’

In August, a few months after trying the worst pickle he’s ever tasted, Alexander was home alone having a cold beer and a pity party. Bryan was with his grandparents in Savannah for the weekend.

Alexander grew up in a Christian home. He’s admittedly not perfect, but imperfections aside, in times of hardship Alexander looks to his faith for help.

That weekend while he was nursing a beer and stressing, he asked God what he needed to do.

“It hit me as hard as it could,” Alexander said. “You’re making pickles.”

He’d tried to make pickles before, right after tasting the terrible pickles he’d bought from the woman at the festival. They weren’t good, and he’d moved on over the last couple of months.

But this time, his mind couldn’t let the idea go.

He picked up items as they popped in his head. He knew he had to use this cucumber. He had to get that vinegar, this salt, that pepper and this mustard seed. And he needed to add some garlic too.

After collecting his supplies, he realized he didn’t know how much of each ingredient to use. But the measurements popped in his brain as he arrived home. He got one of his waterproof notebooks, and wrote the recipe down right then.

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

“I’m not going to have to change a thing,” he told himself. “I know this is it.”

When he was finished, the pickles smelled good, but he didn’t want to eat them.

“I wanted somebody else to be the first sucker to try them,” Alexander said.

The next weekend, he traveled to Buena Vista and bought bags of tomatoes and squash from a local woman to take to parties he was attending. Then Alexander placed some tan tape on a couple jars of his pickles and wrote $3.

This way, if anyone asked about the pickles, he could pretend he bought them at the same place he got the tomatoes from.

Alexander put the pickles on the table at the first event he was attending. He hadn’t tried them yet, but he was watching other people reacting.

“Holy crap,” someone told him. “You’ve got to go back down there and get some more.”

The pickles were a hit, and Alexander knew he’d figured the recipe out.

That Sunday, Deiondre, one of his friends, gave him a call.

“You didn’t buy those pickles,” Deiondre told him. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I made those myself,” Alexander admitted.

“You got to sell those,” Deiondre said.

After finding a mentor who helped him learn how to file patents and get recipes approved through the Food and Drug Administration, Alexander began his company the Real Deal Dill Pickles.

He now has over a hundred recipes he can make, and has expanded his line of products. Alexander sells his pickles at festivals and shows across the region, and helps design products that use his pickles for other companies as well.

Local restaurants, such as Vertigo Fusion Kitchen and 11th and Bay Southern Table, use his pickles in items on their menu. Alexander has also been able to sell his products in some grocery stores, and they will soon be available in Food Lion as the chain plans to expand its presence in Georgia.

Columbus residents can currently find the Real Deal Dill Pickles at the Chevron on Beaver Run Road in Midland and the B&R&R Corner Store.

“These are the best pickles you’ve ever tasted,” Alexander said.

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer


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