Mustard Museum struggles to find recipe for growth

Since moving to Middleton from Mount Horeb, Barry Levenson's National Mustard Museum has had its share of challenges.

Barry Levenson admits there are times when he wonders whether a mustard museum was such a good idea. The thing that snaps him back into optimism is the fun visitors have with the museum experience, which provides him with all the motivation he needs to keep going.

The problem is that not enough people are taking it all in, at least not enough to match the higher level of expense associated with operating the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, as opposed to its former home in Mount Horeb.

When he talks about the museum, Levenson, its curator, describes a nonprofit that is hanging on in a difficult economic environment and is trying to build a new business model that will help it prosper in any economy. Overall sales have remained flat in the recession and sluggish recovery that ensued, but given those expenses, flat hardly cuts the mustard.

“Sometimes you doubt yourself,” he said in a moment of candor. “It’s easy to wonder whether this was ever a good idea. The original vision was to create something fun, informative, and free to the public centered on something we take for granted every day, mustard.”

Levenson is hardly raising the red flag on an idea spawned after operatic tragedy of the athletic kind. In 1986, the former attorney was taking a long, sad walk after his beloved Boston Red Sox had just blown yet another chance to win the World Series and, once and for all, break the “Curse of the Bambino.”

Levenson’s own curse is his addiction to the franchise whose owner sold – yes sold, not traded – Babe Ruth to the Yankees to raise proceeds for a Broadway musical (No, No Nanette). As Levenson was walking off the 1986 Boston blowup, he had a happy eureka moment involving a condiment applied at every baseball stadium in America – mustard.

The Red Sox would not break the curse for another 18 seasons, but a new mustard museum was spicing up the local business and cultural landscape within five years. Now, Levenson is hoping that a combination of sponsorships and retail thrusts will work to give the museum a new lease on life.

Birth of a museum

Having worked in criminal law for the state of Wisconsin, he did not know that others were not collecting mustards. The concept of a museum centered on a condiment seems fun enough to put smiles on other people’s faces, in stark contrast to the often depressing work – with plenty of exposure to man’s inhumanity to man – he had been devoted to.

The original business “plan” was to create a fun, informative, and free museum experience that would be financially sustained by selling jars of mustard and mustard souvenirs, including clothing. The museum has been around for more than 20 years, drawing tens of thousands of visitors who enjoy the fun (tasting the large variety of mustards on display), the silly (Poupon University), the goofy (singing the Poupon U fight song), and the funny/informative (exhibits).

Over time, Barry and wife Patti came to realize that running a museum, any kind of museum, isn’t a silly thing. It’s expensive to operate, and that’s just to keep lights on, maintain it, and keep the exhibits fresh. As a result, most museums in the nation are nonprofits, a move the Mustard Museum made in 2011.

“It took us until a little over a year ago to figure that out,” Levenson acknowledged.

An enormous amount of debt, about $300,000, is still on the books and, in Levenson’s words, still is “very burdensome.” That includes a $180,000 loan from Dane County for which the museum cannot make payments, and a $45,000 loan from the city of Middleton that has been refinanced.

“It does threaten us,” he stated. “We are behind on rent. We have an enormous loan with Dane County for which we are supposed to also create new jobs, and we haven’t been able to. The economy has not helped, but the economy has not helped anyone. It’s not just us. To be part of a community and do what we are supposed to do is difficult.”

Financial spread

The museum is looking for sponsors because if the nonprofit segment can pay its own way, “that will go a long way to helping us because the nonprofit piece takes up almost 40% of what we do here,” Levenson explained. “The other thing we’re involved in is the collection here, which is extensive. There are over 5,400 mustards from all over the world.”

The collection, now valued at about $125,000, is an asset that belongs to the museum, one that such a nonprofit needs to have, and wants to own. “If a museum doesn’t own its own collection, what is it? Levenson asked. “It’s an asset purchase plan where a nonprofit is paying the business for the collection over time, and if we can do that, that money could then pay off a good chunk of the loans.”

Levenson opined that all museums need benefactors, including internationally famous ones such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, and local favorites such as the Chazen Museum of Art. “We all are in the same boat in the sense that we need people to support what we do,” he stated. “Yes, there is a bit of lightness to what we do that it’s easy to take for granted, but when people are here, they are having a really good time.”

To raise awareness of the museum’s business side, it will tout its status as a source for gifts, including personalized mustards for businesses, groups, and individuals. As a 501(c)3, gift donations are tax deductible.

Much of its advertising will continue to be the word-of-mouth variety, and the fact that “businesses can utilize us,” Levenson added. “Some businesses have, but we need more. They can support us by saying we want to send someone a gift box or basket with a jar of mustard with our logo on it. We’ve done that for some, but we need to get more of that.”

With the general public, the museum will promote its mustard souvenirs, mostly smile-inducing things like clothing (T-shirts) and yard signs that say “Elect Mustard.” Years ago, Levenson wrote a children’s book about mustard, but as Patti pointed out, he gave away more of the books than he sold.

The museum’s website business is up 7% over last year, but Levenson admits that online sales have to grow more.

Partnerships with caterers also help. The Mustard Museum serves the Union League Club of Chicago, where the chef relies on the museum to provide him with mustards for a popular sandwich bar. The club remains the museum’s best customer, ordering six cases of mustard each month.

Another large order comes from the Epic Systems user’s conference, which is an annual event that has grown exponentially in recent years.

Rebranding has been discussed, but at the end of the day a museum is a museum, and it’s not as though the facility is starved for publicity. Over the years, it has been featured several times on the Food Network, in Rachael Ray magazine, in Midwest Living, and on the old Oprah Winfrey Show. Other promotions may or may not help with the local populace. A crew from BBC Scotland recently visited the Mustard Museum and was surprised to find it contained much more than a tiny collection.

Mustard gold

According to Levenson, people will visit the museum on the weekend, see decent crowds, and assume he has a goldmine, but they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. The cost of operation, the debt, and the fact that he and his wife have sacrificed – Patti takes a modest salary, he takes none – to keep it going.

And they want to keep it going. He still believes it’s worthwhile and does something very few businesses do. “Whenever you go to Walmart or Walgreens or Target, you are not going there to laugh, to have fun. This is a place we invite people to come and enjoy. If they buy something, great. They don’t have to.

“They can taste mustards and people will do that. They can taste 15 or 20 mustards, have fun, walk out, maybe buy a jar of mustard, maybe nothing, but they will have learned something.”

Levenson does not regret the move to downtown Middleton (Hubbard Avenue) because it had to be done. In Mount Horeb, the museum was in a building that wasn’t working out, it could not buy, and was not going to be renovated, which made the decision to move easy. He does not believe the Middleton site is difficult to find, and the city of Middleton is working on a new parking structure to serve the area.

“The city itself has been very supportive. The mayor, the city administrator have been very generous in their time and they helped us refinance a smaller loan. It was a $45,000 loan, but still it was a very burdensome one for us.”

The thought of charging admission was quickly dismissed. “A lot of businesses are in that mode, so we’re not alone,” he acknowledged. “I’ve talked to other people who are struggling the same way. I’d like to continue to have this as a free, fun resource for everybody, where you can have some fun, hang out, taste some mustard, laugh, and enjoy yourself.

“Laughter is in short supply right now and we provide a lot of it, or at least we provide more than our share. How many businesses do that?”

For a taste of what you'll find at Barry Levenson's National Mustard Museum, check out the museum's video tribute to mustard: