For some people, retirement means spending a month in Italy whenever you feel like it. For others, it may be finally getting into that painting hobby you let go years ago. For Lee Theilen, it meant diving into a hobby that eventually became a brick-and-mortar storefront in East Dallas.
Pickletopia opened in early December, offering the smells of brines and barrels full of various vegetables pickled to perfection.
“Preserving became a hobby,” Theilen says. “I started with preserving sauerkraut. I knew that my grandfather had done it, so I tried it at home, and it actually turned out pretty good.”
One thing led to another, and Theilen kept reading and preserving.
“I started preserving cucumbers; that wasn’t so successful. I started reading up on it, then finally got a batch that worked,” he says. “That’s how I really started to get into it.”
When Theilen retired in 2016, he did a good amount of traveling, bringing a notebook with him to dining tables, taking tasting notes — and also noticing which countries were preserving vegetables.
“I’d get home and try to recreate it,” he says. “That’s fun, even if you have failures.”
That trial-and-error part of the process isn’t just something to endure.
“I like getting my hands in the food, making it and seeing what happens,” he says. “You understand brines, smells, acuity. Then you got to understand taste.”
Two years ago, he started getting more serious, looking at potential store locations and putting costs together.
“I had friends say you should go to a farmers market. I didn’t want to do that ... I decided I’d go full-fledged in on this," he says.
Theilen grew up in Pleasant Grove and has lived in Uptown since 1999. But he had one neighborhood in mind when he wanted to open his business.
“I told [the broker] I wanted to be in East Dallas,” he says, sitting in the store that's near North Fitzhugh Avenue and Bryan Street. “I felt this area has a groove to it. There’s something that’s just an old feel to it.”
Today, when you walk into this small store, you’ll find a simple setup: a counter in back, a photo of downtown Dallas from the 1920s pasted on one wall, branding on the other and lots of barrels lined up on the floor.
Whether you pickle things and submit them to the State Fair of Texas every year or don't even have a jar of bread-and-butter pickles in your fridge, you’re going to learn or appreciate a little something here.
Theilen — who was in sales before he retired — is a natural, walking people through the rows of barrels, explaining how one pickle recipe is his grandmother’s, how the pickled okra leans a little sweet and the sauerkraut-pickles are his favorite and would probably taste excellent on a corned beef sandwich.
“That’s the only experience to have in buying,” he says. “Who is going to try a turnip unless you ask them?”
And the pickled turnip really is worth trying, by the way.
“I think people are really wanting this,” he says. “We’ve lost touch with going to a store, looking at the food, smelling the food.”
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At the very least, you’ll get that here before going home with a pint or quart of preserved goods.
Theilen is in the process of getting a kosher rating, and he’ll soon also have a selection of olives.
“The main thing is to keep it fun. You don’t come out of retirement to do something not fun,” he says. “And I think we’ve nailed that.”
Pickletopia is at 4812 Bryan St. (East Dallas). Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.