10/19/09 — Workin' it - Packing pickles ... poorly

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Workin' it - Packing pickles ... poorly

By Laura Collins
Published in News on October 19, 2009 1:47 PM

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Laura Collins, left, shows Sarah Kornegay the pickle spears she has packed in the jar while she works on the jar packing line at the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

The Company: Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

The Job: Hand line packer

The Location: Mount Olive

It's possible the most intimidating person in Wayne County works at the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

She fooled me with her seemingly soft appearance, looking like someone who hands out hugs like Halloween candy. However, Brenda Pemberton, 54, turned from Sweet Pickle Lady into The Scariest Person Ever when I tried my hand at the topper line.

"Don't mess around. If I'm going to put you in the front of the line, you better not mess around," she said before I could even blink.

"I'm sorry," I said, even though I wasn't exactly sure what I was apologizing for since I hadn't started working yet.

"If you're going to do this job, you better do it right. We can't have you messing up in the front of this line."

"I'm so sorry." I started sweating and slowly inched my way to the line.

Working the topper line consists of using a mallet to hammer down whole pickles poking out the top of the gallon jars before the machine puts the lid on. Even without Mrs. Pemberton, the job seemed rather intimidating. The jars fly by at about 114 miles per hour -- that number has been grossly exaggerated for the sake of my pride -- headed straight for the part of the machine that slaps the lids on.

In the short amount of time the jars are in front me, I'm supposed to hammer the ones sticking out hard enough to go down into the jar, but not so hard that it damages the pickles. If there's leftover room at the top of the jar, I'm supposed to add a pickle, and if there's not enough room, I'm supposed to take out a pickle. That's a lot to do at 114 miles per hour.

So I step up to the line, mallet in hand, and I'm briefly reminded of one of those whack-a-mole games, except unlike the game, I know exactly where I'm supposed to hit. That should have made it easier, but no. I swing my mallet and miss the first jar. About two more go by before I can swing at another jar, which turns out to be my average, hitting one out of every three jars.

I was quickly taken off the topper line and put with the hand line, filling the 16-ounce jars with pickle spears. Sarah Kornegay, who has more than 50 years experience with the company, showed me the ropes. It was fascinating watching her and several of the other women work. Their hands moved so quickly, it looked like one solid motion.

After a couple of jars, I felt like a pro.

"OK, time this next jar I do," I said.

"Trust me, you don't want to know," Mrs. Kornegay said.

"You don't have to name each pickle you put in," someone else said.

Apparently I was not moving as fast as I thought.

I clocked myself at about two minutes per jar. I thought it sounded quick until I went around and timed some of the others. Sisters Antonia and Maria Loa Nunez both can fill a jar in about 11 seconds and Janet Quiles finished in about nine seconds. But it was Denise Carlton who I think slightly hypnotized me while I was watching her. Not only can she pack a jar in about eight seconds, but she does it to a rhythm that makes me feel like "The Hand Line Pickle Packer" will be the next big dance. I've tried it out a couple places, it hasn't caught on yet.

Although the workers on the hand line are paid based on the number of units they have completed, they are still indicative of the prowess and attitude of just about every employee at the plant. Every line I was on seemed to be full of people who are not only very good at their jobs, but extremely happy to be at work.

Mrs. Kornegay for instance, retired after working for 46 years at the plant, but she can't seem to stay away and returns summer after summer to help with the rush.

And Mrs. Pemberton, although she put me through the wringer at first, said she was glad I was getting a first-hand look at the work going on there. The 17-year-veteran, who calls Dr Pepper her "strong drink" that keeps her going, considers herself a hard worker and said she likes to keep other people motivated at work.

"I think people really take pride in what they're doing here," she said. "I tell them to think about their family and remember that they're eating our product, too. We act like every jar we sell is our only jar, and we have to make it perfect."

The camaraderie among employees is evident even to an outsider. It's not unlikely to hear a variety of nicknames throughout the day including: "Mr. Good Lookin', Little Ugly, Alligator Head, The Rev and Barrel."

Randy Sweigart, plant manager, laughed as he was thinking about some of the different nicknames they all have for each other.

"I wish I would have found this place earlier," he said. "It's the best place I've ever worked. People care about people here and the management team has true concern about the health and well-being of the employees."

And that includes making even the pokiest of pickle packers feel like part of the team -- even if just for one day.