WisBiz In-Depth: Mustard Museum to Celebrate 20th Anniversary
By Gregg Hoffmann
MOUNT HOREB – Barry Levenson can tell you exactly where he was on Oct. 28, 1986.
“I was wandering through Woodman’s on the east side of Madison, at 2:30 in the morning, depressed because the Red Sox had just lost the seventh game of the World Series (the infamous Bill Buckner Series),” explained Levenson, the owner, with his wife, Patti, of The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum.
Levenson, then a state attorney, decided he had to do something to snap out of his funk. He would collect whatever was in front of him at that moment. It turned out to be mustard.
Now, 20 years later, The Mustard Museum will celebrate its 20th anniversary – at 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 28, with an event that is still in the planning stages.
The museum itself claims to have the largest collection of mustard memorabilia in the world. Few have disputed the claim. It includes jars and other containers, advertising, and interesting tidbits about mustard from all 50 states and more than 60 countries.
Mustards from all over the world are sold through the store part of the museum. About half are sold at the store itself, and half via mail order and the internet, with the percentage of the latter growing each year.
You also can find mustards made at the museum. They include Champage Honey Mustard, Sweet-Hot Stoneground Mustard, Spicy Beer Mustard, Creamy Dill Mustard, Hot Jalapeno Mustard, Smoky Garlic Mustard and others. In fact, the Levensons will even personalize your mustard, with a label that includes your photo and name, or your business or alma mater.
Levenson is a promotion machine, usually using humor to sell mustard. “I’m not selling paper clips,” he says. “You make paper clips. You sell paper clips. Either people need them or not. In this business, we need something that people will respond to. People who are serious about their mustard can still have a sense of humor. One of my biggest satisfactions is that when people walk through the door they often are smiling.”
You can learn about the history of mustard at the MustardPiece Theatre in the museum. On the first Saturday of each August, you can attend National Mustard Day, which has turned into a big street festival.
Levenson has sponsored a $5,000 writing contest. The author of two books himself – one on baseball and the other on food law, called Habeas Cod Fish – Levenson writes the first chapter, and contestants write the second. The winner and Levenson finish the book and get it published. The first contest, recently concluded, was called “Murder At The Mustard Museum.”
The museum mustards have names like Mucky Ducky Honey & Hot, Slim & Nunne, Mucho Macho Mustard, Bite Me! Lime-Cilantro Hot Sauce, Bone Suckin’ Sauce.
Perhaps Levenson’s premier promo is Poupon University, which is shortened to Poupon U. You can get degrees – a DDS degree being the tops and standing for Doctor of Diddley-Squat, or a JD degree standing for Juris Dufus.
Poupon U has its own hats and sweatshirts, pennants and other collectibles. It has a cheer:
Who needs Harvard, who needs Yale?
At Poupon U, you’ll never fail.
Stanford, Princeton? Big mistake!
Poupon U’s a piece of cake.
Poupon U also has Wisconsin and South Bend versions of fight songs. The second was added after the protests of a Notre Dame grad.
A Serious Side?
While Levenson uses humor to promote his business, he also is a serious businessman, although even when he talks about that he throws in a few laughs.
“It started as a hobby,” said Levenson, who quite his job as a state attorney in 1991 and formally started the museum in 1992. The 20th anniversary will be for the start of his mustard collection.
“The Red Sox drove me to it. They’ve driven a lot of people to a lot of things over the years. As the collection grew, people asked to see it more often. I asked myself, ‘who needs a secure, high-paying job, with paid benefits, great health insurance.’ I left the Attorney General job. It took me six months to crystallize my thoughts.”
Patti met Barry through a person who had been at the museum. “She said there was this mustard museum which was kind of cute, and the guy there was pretty funny. Maybe he would make a good speaker for a fund raiser we were doing in Milwaukee,” said Patti, who now is listed as the director of marketing and tours at the museum.
“We talked on the phone and decided to have a mustard tasting event. That’s how we met.”
“It was love at first squeeze,” Barry adds.
When asked about the museum’s success, Levenson responds, “What do you mean immediate success? You’re assuming that we’ve ever had success.
“Running a small business is an exercise in stubbornness more than anything. It’s always been a struggle. When you’re a small business, you take nothing for granted. You just work it to death and hope there is some left over.”
But, Levenson now employs up to eight people during peak seasons and has a steady, loyal customer base around the country and world.
“We’ve had customers for years and years who have been very loyal,” he said. “I guess we are the definition of a niche. I don’t think you can be too conservative in this business. You swing for the fences, to use the baseball analogy. If you strike out, you strike out.
“I always thought of Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson for this business. I don’t care about the singles hitters. Babe Ruth struck out a lot, but he got more people excited about baseball. We’ve struck out on some things, but also have a few home runs.
“I think it is important for a small business to remember it is a small business. If you try to get too big, I think it can be a big mistake. You lose the emotion and connection with your customers. People don’t have loyalty to Walmart. Why should you?”
Levenson admits nobody has come to offer a buyout. “Maybe they know something I don’t know,” he quickly adds.
So, he plans on continuing in the mustard business, and is looking forward to celebrating the 20th anniversary.
“It will be highlighted by a cake and everything at 2:30 a.m., right here at the museum,” Levenson says of the big night … or early morning to be more accurate. “My wife insists nobody will come. But, we’re going to have all kinds of fun.”