This all started more than 20 years ago, with a cheeseburger in a State Street bistro that no longer exists. A young art history student, dining at Stillwaters, took a bite of her burger, and it changed her life, though she wouldn’t know it for another decade.
At the time, all Jennifer Connor said was, “That’s the best mustard I’ve ever had.”
She didn’t know the mustard had a history, a story of how a venerable Madison clothing retailer, tired of that grind, decided to step aside and instead market the small-batch mustard he’d been making for friends and family.
Connor certainly didn’t know that she would eventually acquire the mustard recipes, change the name, have ups and downs — including a moment last year when she considered folding — only to emerge at least temporarily victorious, with a recent salute from The New York Times, and deals that will put her product — Mustard Girl All American Mustards — into Super Target stores and on Norwegian Cruise Line ships.
Connor, 41, who lives in Chicago but spends considerable time in Wisconsin, will take a mini-victory lap this week, back where it all started. She will have her Mustard Girl mustards at a Tuesday evening cocktail party at the Madison Central Library, in advance of a talk by food author Ruth Reichl. The following night, Connor will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Mallards game at Warner Park.
I first met Connor about a decade ago, when she’d just started marketing what were then called Rendall’s Gourmet Mustards.
She was impressive — energetic, engaging, maybe still a little unsure of what she’d gotten herself into. But she believed in the mustard, and she was beginning to believe in fate.
Dave Rendall closed his family’s women’s clothing store, Rendall’s, founded in Madison in 1936, in 1990, and began selling gourmet mustard that within two years was in 35 Madison area locations and 50 more around Wisconsin.
It was around that time that Connor, attending UW-Madison after growing up in northern Wisconsin, had her mustard epiphany at Stillwater’s.
Over the next decade, she did a few things — including a little acting in Hollywood — but in 2002, she was back in Madison, considering a move to Chicago to work in advertising, when she heard that Dave Rendall was moving to the state of Oregon and looking to sell his mustard business.
Connor got in touch. Rendall didn’t dodge her, exactly, but he wasn’t going to trust his recipes to just anyone. He said he wasn’t in a hurry to sell. He advised Connor to think about it and get back to him.
She did, with a partner and a business plan.
A deal was drawn.
At the last minute, Connor’s partner bailed out.
A few days later, Connor was at her family’s place in northern Wisconsin, torn between calling the deal off and going forward alone, when she attended a church service and the minister delivered a sermon in which he used the mustard seed as a metaphor. “It gave me chills,” Connor said.
She bought Rendall’s recipes.
Connor changed the name to Mustard Girl in 2006 — the bottle labels now include a likeness of Connor in a dirndl — and she has spent the past decade working pretty much nonstop to make her business go. The mustards — several varieties — are produced in Pleasant Prairie. Connor travels to fairs and festivals, and has honed her natural gift for promotion.
In 2013, when somebody stole Guido, the 7-foot Italian sausage that races during Brewers games at Miller Park, Connor jumped in with an offer of a year’s supply of mustard for anyone who produced the costume. Connor told the press, “We have to keep our sausage racers whole.” When the costume was returned under the cover of darkness to a bar in Cedarburg, Connor donated the mustard to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
By that time, Mustard Girl was in 750 grocery stores around the Midwest, and doing well enough that last year, according to Connor, a large competitor cut its prices in an effort to squeeze her out.
“I didn’t know if I could make it,” she said, when we got together recently in Madison for a chat. But she hung in, and this past January word arrived that Super Target was taking her mustards, along with Norwegian Cruise Line and Publix, a popular grocery chain in the South.
In April, The New York Times’ Wednesday food section featured a color photo of a Mustard Girl bottle, and a rave for the product: “The star is the original Sweet N’ Spicey Honey, which has more kick than the typical honey mustard.”
It’s all about having faith in the mustard seed, Connor said. When she produced her first batch more than a decade ago, she took some up north and gave it to the minister who delivered the mustard seed sermon when she was on the fence about proceeding.
The minister accepted the mustard, and said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Meanwhile, the Mustard Girl is a little nervous about throwing out that first pitch Wednesday night at the Duck Pond.
All she needs to do is pretend she’s pitching to a 7-foot Italian sausage named Guido.