Manager’s Corner: Barry Levenson, National Mustard Museum
Barry Levenson, founder and curator
National Mustard Museum | Middleton, Wisconsin
A museum dedicated to a condiment is unusual, but not nearly an unusual as the story of its creator. About 25 years ago, Barry Levenson walked away from a promising legal career with the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office to start a museum dedicated to mustard. The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum was born.
Since then, the museum has changed names — it’s now the National Mustard Museum — and locations. In 2009, Levenson’s operation, which includes the nonprofit museum and for-profit store, moved from Mount Horeb to the Madison suburb of Middleton.
The museum store offers some 1,300 items, including 450 different mustards, hundreds of mustard-themed products, Levenson’s Poupon U” line of apparel and merchandise, as well as jams, oils, vinegars, teas and candies.
MM: How large is the museum and store?
BL: The museum is approximately 1,700-square feet and the retail store takes up about 1,000 square feet. We also have offices and a warehouse area.
MM: How many employees?
BL: We have a store manager, a shipping/receiving manager and the equivalent of around five more full-time employees. My wife is the events planner and director of marketing. I am, of course, the CMO (“Chief Mustard Officer”).
MM: How do you go about finding new products?
BL: Most new mustards come to us as mustard companies deem to find us. One way that we discover new mustards is the annual World-Wide Mustard Competition, which attracts entries from around the country and around the world. The only trade show we regularly attend is the NASFT Summer Fancy Food Show.
MM: How did Poupon U come about?
BL: Years ago, a mustard maker from Cleveland called and asked, “Where do mustard makers go to college?” I didn’t know so he told me, “POUPON U.” I loved it and ran with it, creating T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, hats, even diplomas. (Did you know you can get a D.D.S. degree from POUPON U? It’s a “Doctor of Diddley Squat.”) By the way, Grey Poupon is a sponsor of the nonprofit museum and loves POUPON U.
MM: What kind of events do you host?
BL: Our biggest event is National Mustard Day, annually the first Saturday in August. It draws about 6,000 visitors and is the biggest sales day of the year. We also host the World-Wide Mustard Competition at which about a hundred judges (chefs, food writers, and just ordinary mustard lovers) come together over the course of three weekends to taste mustards. We also participate in many local events and let people use the museum for various gatherings, about one or two every month.
MM: What sort of challenges does balancing the nonprofit museum with the for-profit store present?
BL: It is a real challenge because the two entities must be separate in all respects, especially when it comes to financial matters. We are very careful to not jeopardize the museum’s nonprofit status. There is a museum board that monitors the nonprofit’s status and we are careful to keep everything transparent.
MM: I’m sure you’re constantly asked what your favorite kind of mustard is, so I’ll take a different route. What is your favorite condiment after mustard?
BL: Horseradish is my second favorite condiment, probably because it is from the same botanical family as mustard and gives the same kind of nose hit as strong mustard gives you. As for ketchup, don’t even go there!
6 tips from Barry
- We do not charge admission to the museum, but the acrylic donation box near the entrance raises about $10,000 a year. The suggest donation is $2 per person.
- We make custom label mustards for individuals, businesses and organization, including several museums that use them in their gift shops or as thank you premiums for donors (we offer special pricing for museums so they can make money promoting themselves).
- I have learned that you can’t hit a home run every time you swing. Even Babe Ruth struck out more than he hit long ones. If you don’t swing hard, you’ll never knock it out of the park. If you connect enough times, they won’t even remember your whiffs.
- Never say no to an interview. The radio personality on that station in Nowhere, South Dakota, might end up as a major star in a big market and will remember if you were nice — or if you were naughty.
- Be part of your community.
- Never bad-mouth the competition, unless it’s ketchup.