Middleton’s Mustard Problem

Can the National Mustard Museum forge on?

Admit it: You were surprised when you heard the news that the National Mustard Museum in Middleton was in financial trouble. We sure were, and we’ve known proprietors Barry and Patti Levenson since the original museum opened in Mt. Horeb in 1992, if not before. We were regular visitors to the charming, quirky, fun, tasty, one-of-a-kind experience/attraction/store.

While the current trend in many restaurants is a martini menu, the Wilson Street Grill (back in the day) had a mustard menu, featuring mustards selected from the museum’s collection. The Grill also hosted a mustard-tasting competition and was a spot where on at least one occasion Barry successfully fended off narrow-minded attorneys from Grey Poupon looking to shut the doors of one of Barry’s finest creations, America’s Mustard College, Poupon U. But while the fictional college may be thriving, the museum is not. Or more accurately, the business is not.

Barry and Patti are incredibly hard workers and welcoming hosts—smart, funny and unfailingly generous—but they’d be the first to tell you learning to run a business was a challenge. And worse yet, they are loathe to ask for help. So a visit to the Mustard Museum inevitably left the impression that all was well. There were always people in the store or museum or theater, having a good time, asking questions, laughing and tasting mustards. And there were always people buying mustard and Poupon U T-shirts, Captain Mustard jigsaw puzzles, coffee mugs, oven mitts and posters. There just weren’t enough of them. And over the last few years they’ve been buying less. (Haven’t we all?) The problem is, when a nonprofit, school group, or community event organizer asked for a donation of mustard, or a tour or a tasting, Barry and Patti always said yes. It’s just who they are.

The bigger problem is probably the move from Mt. Horeb to Middleton. The finances are complicated and circumstances like the building owner’s own problems and the recession conspired against the Levensons. They did everything they could to stay afloat, worked harder, tried new marketing strategies, took second jobs, borrowed money. Stay afloat is about all they did. And now they’re sinking. Again, the element of surprise.

Barry in particular is a marketing genius. His promotional materials are laugh-out-loud funny. Of course he’s got something to work with: we’re talking mustard here, folks. And while Barry can plant his tongue firmly in cheek and talk about mustard as if it were a vaccine against all things nasty and dangerous, there’s just something, well, unusual about a business—to say nothing about a museum—dedicated to mustard. It’s inherently funny. It’s just not inherently profitable.

Levenson is working on the most immediate problem, meeting the terms of his loan from Dane County. But long-term success will depend on two things, people buying more mustard, and the newly created 501(c)(3) that gives nonprofit status to the museum portion of the business.

Somewhere out there, someone, perhaps someone reading this column, loves mustard or the museum or both and is interested in helping keep Levenson’s dream alive. Now they can make a tax-deductible donation. Or perhaps something more creative—naming rights to the Mustard-Piece Theater perhaps? Believe us, Levenson can think of something. But this is also a bit of a good old-fashioned lesson in taking local businesses for granted. Appearances are not always what they seem. Good intentions don’t always lead to good results. If we want the National Mustard Museum to survive—and we very much do—we’re going to have to help. Stop by, drop a few bucks in the museum donation basket and buy some mustard. We need to support our genuine articles, or risk losing them.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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