By Lorrie Baumann
Jennifer Connor isn’t one of those little girls who grew up always knowing exactly what she wanted to do for the rest of her life, and whatever her passing dreams were, they didn’t include becoming the Founder, President and Chief Mustard Officer of Mustard Girl All-American Mustards. “I never thought I would ever get into mustard. Nevertheless, when I was little, I always loved the color yellow. I also always loved cooking and loved mustard, growing up and so the seeds were planted,” she says. “I knew there was something out there for me. I always knew that if you follow your heart and believe in it, you’ll end up somewhere.”
Then she tasted Mr. Rendall’s mustard while she was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s not too much to say she fell in love with it. At the time, she was an art history major thinking about pursuing a career in advertising. She graduated from college, and she did that for a while, but then she heard that Rendall was planning to retire, taking his recipes with him.
Connor tracked him down and begged him to sell her his recipes as she couldn’t imagine the world without them. “I asked him if I could help him grow his company. He said no, you’re just an art history major. They’ll eat you alive out there; it’s too competitive,” she says. She asked him for a week to gather her resources and figure out how to run a mustard company before he made his final decision. Then she drove up to her family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin to think. “I was looking for a sign, if this was the right thing to do- so asked my higher power for a rainbow or a shooting star,” she says. “But to my dismay, It rained all weekend.”
On Sunday morning, she attended the little countryside church nearby still looking for a final sign. “I thought to myself if the father says yellow during the sermon, than that would be my sign. If not, then maybe this mustard journey was not meant to be.” The father didn’t mention the color yellow; however, he did say that we all have times of doubt in our lives, and when we doubt, we just have to remember the parable about the faith of the mustard seed. “I almost fell off my pew,” Connor says. “I’d never heard the parable. There was a nice lady in church who held my hand and told me the story of the mustard seed. I cried and hugged her, and everyone left the church, and I thanked my Higher Power for the best sign I could ever get, and at that moment made a promise to spread ‘mustard sunshine’ across America and inspire and help others along the way too.”
Connor called Rendall immediately and told him the story. “He said that, ‘I don’t want to be struck by lightning,’ but he was just waiting for someone who’d have enough love to stick with it, and I did. He told me that I’d probably lose my shirt three times, which I did, but I never gave up,” she says. “It changed my whole life. It’s all about believing in yourself. I wanted the whole world to have the opportunity to have that goodness.”
Rendell agreed to spend five days with Connor teaching her everything he could about the business in that length of time. The two met in a Starbucks coffee shop from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, and finally, Rendell turned over the yellow pieces of paper that contained his mustard recipes and his sales records for the customers who’d been buying from him. “He gave me the building blocks to help me get started to where I am today,” she says.
That was in 2006, and Connor spent the next two years trying to practice everything Rendell had taught her while she improved the recipes and found a co-packer who could attend to production while she made the sales. When she moved production to the co-packer in 2008, just in time for the American economy to take a nosedive, she decided to change the name of her company to Mustard Girl. “I decided that since I had evolved the recipes and made them my own, we could have a real-life mascot who could be a role model for girls,” she says. “People were calling me Mustard Girl, so I had someone draw a picture of me for the labels and decided to call the mustard, Mustard Girl.”
She put every dime she had into the business, and in the absence of anyone else to advise her about the mustard business, she thought back to what Rendell had told her about how competitive the business was. There were weeks when she didn’t eat much besides rice, beans and mustard. She called on family and friends to help out, a humbling experience that she says has brought her closer to them too. “Going into this, I was very naive. I didn’t know how hard it was going to be and how fierce it was going to be. I got into this at a time when people weren’t spending money on new products, banks weren’t lending and little did I know I was competing in one of the toughest food categories. I was chewed up a lot, but I always knew that my destiny in life was to have faith in the mustard seed. I really needed to believe that. I’m a big fan of Vince Lombardi, and I’ve always remembered what he said about what it takes to be Number 1. I am going to go until I can’t possibly go any more but not never up,” she says. “I also didn’t have the billions of dollars that the other big companies have. I did a lot of guerrilla marketing, a lot of festivals and food shows and demonstrations in grocery stores. I just worked really hard and had a lot of sleepless nights, but never gave up on the faith of the mustard seed or Mustard Girl.”
Today, Mustard Girl All-American Mustards are still made from ingredients sourced in the Midwest. Mustard seeds come from Wisconsin and from Canada. All the other spices and ingredients come from the Midwest. The honey that’s in some of the mustards is also from Wisconsin. Mustard Girl All-American Mustards are sold in all Super Targets across the U.S., Publix stores in the South, Whole Foods in the Midwest region, expanding to other territories in the next year. Mustard Girl is the official mustard for the burger bars on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Mustard Girl mustards are also being adopted by leading chefs, including the Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants and Tom & Eddie’s. “Kids love the Sweet ‘N’ Fancy Yellow. Men love the Zesty Horseradish. Women love the American Dijon, and children love the Mustard Girl Sweet N Fancy Yellow. Everyone loves the Mustard Girl Sweet n Spicy Honey Mustard and Mustard Girl Stoneground Deli too- a range of flavors for the whole family that taste like a beautiful symphony upon your taste-buds.” Connor says. “I was asked to participate in Aspen Food & Wine Show this June which was a great honor. This is my first Aspen show, which I’m really looking forward to, and did the NRA Show last year, which was a huge success.” The mustards are also medal winners in the World Wide Mustard competition. These mustards are packed with mustard seed, turmeric and spices; they are all natural, gluten free and kosher, with no fat and no preservatives. She’s currently developing new mustards and also some salad dressings that she hopes to bring to the market in 2016 along with a cookbook. “I’m still looking for my ketchup boy too,” she says. “I’ve just been too busy cutting the mustard.”
In addition to running the company, Connor has a busy schedule of community involvement, including a number of projects aimed at improving life for women and children. She works with the Women’s Health Foundation in Madison and with the Ivory Coast Women’s and Children’s Clinic started by a friend of hers. She has volunteered with Common Threads organization started by Chef Art Smith, owner of TABLE Fifty-Two and other restaurants. The organization helps inner-city kids learn to cook and teach them about nutrition in hopes of preventing obesity, and take better care of themselves so they can longer, healthier lives. Make a Wish Foundation of Wisconsin gets donations from her. Madison Children’s Museum too. “I also like going to schools to help inspire children. I go to any class that would like to have me,” she says. “I come in dressed up as Mustard Girl and tell them my story, and we talk about what everybody wants to be when they grow up and make some yummy mustard inspired recipes. The children are our future mustard seeds of tomorrow…. Spreading the sunshine the best you can, inspiring others to believe in their own mustard seeds, and to not give up out there no matter how hard it is, makes life worth it in the end, what a better way to do this than through mustard!”