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Purveyors of The Mustard

Building Strong Relationships

I visited the Little Italy Farmers Market (The Mercato) last Saturday to pick up some fruit and vegetables as well as to say hi to some of our old friends from our farmers market days. With the risk of sounding presumptuous, I feel like a celebrity when I walk through the market. I can’t make it two tents before I run into another vendor I know and stopping to chat for 5 or 10 minutes. And beyond that, people still give me discounted and or free produce. Look at this bounty I came home with!

And I spent only $5! Seriously people! I guess once you’re part of the club, it’s a lifetime membership. It is a testament to the strong relationships we built while selling at the farmers markets.

It goes beyond us just having been a vendor at the market – there’s definitely a piece that has to do with us all having dug the same ditch before, but there’s a bigger piece. We didn’t see the other folks as just fellow vendors, they became our friends; we’re all members of the same community. Some people view the other vendors as competition, however the majority of people recognize we are all, in a way, working together to make something happen.

Beyond the free/heavily discounted produce, I most enjoy seeing my friends. Not only can I see their arduous efforts, I know how much work it is to set up and breakdown each day to sell your wares in the middle of the street. I’ve felt the emotional ups and downs of busy markets and slow markets, the disrespectful customers, and the occasionally difficult market manager. This is the most basic level of small business – most of these folks do not have actual brick and mortar stores.

Though it always feels nice to get the hook up, I much prefer to actually pay these people – my friends – for the products of their hard work.

 

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Cooking with Mustard, Episode 1

I just realized that I never posted this video here. We’ll hopefully be making more of these in the new year, with some special guests to boot!

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Artisanal LA, take 4

This past Sunday we participated in yet another of the well attended Artisanal LA food shows in Los Angeles. This one took place at the Pasadena Armory Center for the Arts. We sold quite a bit of mustard (including selling out of the Champagne Garlic!) and talked to some very cool folks. But hands down my favorite part of doing these shows is reconnecting/connection with all our incredible friends and fellow vendors.

I love seeing Rashida (Cast Iron Gourmet), JD and John (All Spice Cafe), Joseph (Institute of Domestic Technology) and all the other wonderful folks. Rashida even cooked us an unexpected and delicious dinner Saturday night! You must believe me when I tell you these people are awesome. We were also lucky enough to be set up next to Nichole and her heavenly chocolates (Nicobella) and the super amazing Jessica (SQIRL jams and preserves). Every time we do these shows, after we’re set up but before the doors open, I always leave the booth saying to James, “I’m gonna go make some friends.”

The spoils of this line of work could be worse. We were set up between a chocolate vendor and a bacon vendor. For serious. And then I end up coming home with this bounty of artisan food.

This is a strong artisan food community, and we’re honored to be a part of it.

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Old email

I found this in an old email I wrote a local food writer a while back. I think it expresses the philosophy James and I have towards business. [Note: For a while we had planned to open a deli, but scrapped those plans when we decided that we did not want to go in that direction. And yes, we did serve homemade chai tea for a short time - what does this have to do with mustard? Good question...]

When we started, we had grandiose plans to do everything ideally, but reality is that we cannot be perfect. So we decided not to strive for perfection. Our goal instead has been to always do better and continually improve the way we do things, always looking for innovative solutions. We quickly realized that if we tried to do everything the exact way we wanted to from the start, our business would never have gotten off the ground. And in conversations with other like-minded restaurant owners in town we were reassured that this was the way to go, as long as our guiding principles were set and we fervently stuck to them. (ie. Rome wasn’t built in a day.)

Do you remember the scene in Food Inc when they were interviewing Joel Salatin while they were having a barbecue on their farm? Did you notice that he was eating off a paper plate and drinking from a styrofoam cup? My initial reaction when I saw this was surprise, that someone like him would use disposable plates/etc (including styrofoam!). But I realized one, that’s not the point of the film, and two, that he’s not perfect either. So sometimes, in fact often, James and I are left doing things in a way that is less than ideal. But as long as we do not violate our principles and keep in mind the ultimate goal, we can always improve.

An example of this is our goal to minimize our waste stream. Observing the other prepared food vendors at the market, we were astounded at the amount of waste created each day. So we set out a goal to hand out zero trash at the market. Everything we give out is edible, compostable, or recyclable. We take back and recycle the foil in which we wrap our sandwiches, as well as compost the napkins. WE are responsible for this waste that we created, not our customers, though not many people think this way as it is much easier to pass the buck when it comes to trash. When we were making chai during the colder months at the market, we brought ceramic mugs and charged people a $1 deposit on the mug, and returned the dollar upon the return of our mug. This was much more work than just handing out paper cups (as we had to take the racks of used mugs back and wash them each day, including the shot glasses in which we sampled the chai). But to us, this just made more sense than handing out a never ending stream of paper waste. And even if the cups were compostable, I don’t believe that many people actually compost them (and it’s still a one-way stream of waste, even if it is getting composted – ie. “single use”). Again, this waste is our responsibility, not someone else’s.

But the reality is that we still do create waste. Our cheese comes wrapped in plastic. We were continually buying ice until we bought refreezable ice packs that fit our coolers. The pretzels we use to sample the mustards come in plastic bags (though we use those bags to hold the compost and recycling). Our truck runs on gasoline. We are far from perfect. But we do our best. When we open our deli, we plan to charge people extra to use a paper cup. This extra charge will go to paying for the cup in addition to contributing to environmental organizations. Unfortunately, the end use cost of producing disposable items is rarely included in the economics, so we must factor this in ourselves. Is this the most efficient way to do this? Of course not, but is is the best way we can figure to do it at this time. It’s not about limiting options; it’s about being responsible for both the options we provide and for the decisions we make.

The larger conversation we are trying to have is not just about responsibility of resource use and waste stream, but of shifting paradigms. We don’t want to give someone a discount for bringing his or her own mug- this should be standard practice. Instead we will charge you extra for not doing this. We understand this is different, and may possibly turn some people off. So be it. If we were to buy our meat, dairy, and produce from Costco, Sysco, or Restaurant Depot, then we would probably be making a lot more money (and definitely have a much inferior product). But since our business is a reflection of our own ideals, we choose to do things differently. Not in order to be different, but because it makes more sense to us to get our meat from the people who raise it, to get the cheese from another vendor at the farmer’s market (or directly from the creamery), to get our produce from the the farms/farmers we know and see each and every week. This takes more time, energy, and especially a lot more money. But we don’t know another way to do it.

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What Makes Our Products Different? (part 3)

#3: Quality of ingredients.

We source amazing ingredients.

Mustard Seeds: Our ORGANIC MUSTARD SEEDS come from Saskatchewan, Canada, one of the largest mustard growing regions in the world. We’ve tasted dozens of samples of mustard seeds and we can for certain tell you these seeds are superior.

Vinegars: Our vinegars are impeccable. Our CHAMPAGNE VINEGAR, used in our Champagne Garlic Mustard, comes from Sonoma, California, a region long known for it’s wine making. Vinegar is made by re-fermenting alcohol (like when an old bottle of wine starts to turn). In this case, wine is made from the same grapes champagne is made from and then turned into a wonderful vinegar. We kindly refer to this vinegar as “liquid gold” in reference to its color, superior flavor, and price.

The vinegar we use in the Hong Kong Habanero Mustard is CANE VINEGAR (also known as Sukang-Maasim), a staple in Filipino cooking. It has a much milder flavor and produces a subtle background to the upfront heat of the Hong Kong Habanero Mustard. Many commercial mustards use distilled vinegar. I don’t know the last time you took a whiff of distilled vinegar, but it is not very pleasing. Though distilled vinegar does not have a very nice flavor, it’s great for washing your windows. That’s what I use it for, which I learned from my Grandma Katy.

Salt: No iodized salt here. We use sea salt. Yes, it is more expensive, but again we don’t see the need to add crap to our mustards. The idea of “organic salt” is a bit of misnomer, as salt is a mineral, therefore completely inorganic. However, other countries have rating systems for naturally and traditionally produced salts.

Sugar: We use certified organic cane sugar, grown in the USA. There is a lot of shit talk on sugar these days, much of it warranted. But it is not sugar itself that is inherently bad for us; it is our mass consumption of the delicious stuff that causes problems. Thankfully, mustard is generally used in small quantities. And since our mustards are so flavorful not as much is needed.

Other spices: We like to use certified organic spices, but it is not a requirement. FLAVOR is the most important factor for us. FOOD SHOULD TASTE GOOD. We could make food from the most sustainable, organic, grass-fed, free-range, pastured, non-GMO ingredients, but if it tastes like crap, then 1) we don’t want to present that as our product, and 2) no one is going to want to eat it anyways.

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What Makes Our Mustards Different? (part 2)

#2: We do not use additives of any kind.

Much of the packaged food industry uses additives – both artificial and “natural” – for a variety of reasons. Sometimes to preserve, sometimes to “stretch” the ingredients, and sometimes to influence color and/or texture. Xanthan gum, calcium disodium EDTA, sodium metabisulfite (E223), citric acid (E330), “natural flavors” (whatever those are). We don’t think any of those things need to be in mustard (or food for that matter), and we don’t have a desire to put them into our bodies. Our grandmothers never cooked with them, so why would we?

To preserve our mustard we use vinegar (our vinegars also add flavor). Even the “natural” additives – including xanthan gum and citric acid – are often derived from GMO corn and soy, when not manufactured artificially.

All of these additives have been deemed “safe” for consumption by the FDA (the FDA’s term is GRASGenerally Regarded As Safe). But so has diacetyl, the chemical additive used in artificial butter flavoring in popcorn, which both NIOSH and the CDC have deemed “associated with severe obstructive lung disease” (this is for the workers in the plant who are exposed to it at high levels, but does it make sense that we are putting this stuff in food at all?)

We will never put anything into our products that we would not normally use in our own kitchens, cooking for ourselves, our families, and our friends.

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What Makes Our Mustards Different?

A couple weeks ago on the plane I got to talking with my seat mate. When I told this person what I did for a living, the two inevitable questions came out: “Why mustard?” and “What makes your mustard different?” We always get asked these questions and I always have an answer, but I wanted to think more in depth about it. Really, what does make us different? So once we took off, I wrote out a couple pages of how we are different. To spare you the length, I’ll post it in pieces over the next couple of weeks. Your comments and thoughts are always appreciated!

#1: We make mustard.

Many mustards on the shelf buy already prepared mustard and mix in other ingredients – the ingredient list will read something like this: Ingredients: mustard (distilled vinegar, water, mustard seed, salt, tumeric), garlic, spices. That first ingredient, mustard, with the parenthesis after it means they are buying prepared mustard and those are the ingredients in the prepared mustard. Essentially there is a company who makes a few different types of mustard (yellow, dijon, etc) in huge quantities and then many brands purchase that mustard as a base and add stuff to it. Instead of doing this, we have sourced the BEST QUALITY MUSTARD SEED we could find. We grind it ourselves, which allows us to capture the pureset and freshest mustard flavor and retain it for as long as possible.

 

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My Barry Sanders Moment

A couple years ago my good friend Joe made a commitment not to drink alcohol for 1 year. I sat with him and in fact wrote out a contract – which he signed – when he made this decision. When his year was coming to an end, he asked me what I would do if I were him to signify this momentous occasion. Would I go out and do shots at the bar? What about drinking an expensive bottle of wine? Maybe a glass of fine scotch in the comfort of my own home? Instead of recommending a specific celebration, I asked him if he remembered what Barry Sanders did when he scored a touchdown. DO YOU REMEMBER? I’ll never forget.

He’d run to the referee and hand him the ball. Nothing more. He acted like he had been there before. He acted like would be there again. A true professional.

So what was my Barry Sanders moment? This week we received our first order from Wholefoods – a seminal moment indeed. Getting our mustards into Wholefoods not only gives us more credibility but also has potential to bring in significant revenue, both quite amazing opportunities.

So this morning I drove up to La Jolla and made our first ever delivery to a Wholefoods Market. Shortly after I talked to Joe. He asked me how I felt, if I had been super excited. I said, “Do you remember what I asked you when you were finishing up your year of sobriety?” He responded, “Barry Sanders. I love it.”

I walked in, dropped off the cases of mustard, said thank you and walked out. I acted like I had been there before. I acted like I would be there again.

 

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Stop polishing the rims

Sometimes I feel like running a business is akin to building a car from the ground up. There are a lot of pieces that must work together for the thing to run smoothly. And it’s always going to need adjustments as things settle and break in. To even get it up and running, there are many pieces that need to be built and tasks to be done, the main piece being the engine. And though there are many other important pieces, this really is the main feature that drives the vehicle.

But it’s also the most challenging.

It’s waaaay easier (and less stressful) to work on some of the other more defined and simpler tasks, such as polishing the rims. When the car is ready for the road, you definitely want those rims shiny. But is it really the best use of your time when the engine has yet to be built?

I sometimes find myself polishing the rims on this business if you will (all salacious jokes aside). Sometimes it’s in avoidance of more daunting tasks, and sometimes just because it’s damn enjoyable to see shiny rims. But when I take a step back, it’s almost worthless if there is still a big hole where the engine is supposed to be.

I had a good conversation with my friend Henry (who started Enjuba – a company working with Ugandan craftspeople) about this. And he made a good point. When you’re stuck on a more important problem, or at 2 in the morning when you’re brain may not be functioning at it’s highest level, then it’s probably fine to go work on some lower priority, simpler tasks, if for nothing than to feel productive. But when you find yourself spending not just your time, but your MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME on the tasks that are not paramount, then something needs to change.

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No additives, no kidding

Wow – I just realized it’s been over a month since I’ve written – my bad yo (not that anyone reads this). I guess that means I’ve been busy selling mustard, right? In fact that is what’s been happening, and we are now in 16 stores in SD and LA, plus one restaurant (Solace and the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas). Though that hasn’t come without some negative responses. Once you start to put yourself out there, people will definitely tell you what they think.

The feedback – both positive and negative – has been good to get, especially from food professionals. And for the most part, everything has been communicated in an extremely tactful and generous manner. To be completely honest, it definitely hurts a little when I hear negative comments about my mustard as I am (obviously) emotionally invested in this. But I am also aware enough that a) everyone has his or her opinion, and b) our products are not for everyone.

One piece of feedback we got was about the color of the Champagne Garlic Mustard. It’s not yellow. The professional who commented on this suggested we add citric acid to our mustard to preserve the color. However, we keep our products additive free. Much of the food manufacturing world uses ingredients such as citric acid, xanthum gum, as well as other unnatural ingredients to help preserve and/or influence texture. But again, we have no interest in using such ingredients. Our philosophy is to have a product that you could conceivably make in your kitchen, that is, if your kitchen is stocked with the highest quality ingredients.

-Zach

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