10 questions with an alumna on the move
(expanded from the Fall 2011 issue of Badger Insider Magazine)
Along with being a Badger, Jennifer Connor ’01 is known as Mustard Girl. And she owes her alter ego to her time spent at UW-Madison. As a freshman, Jennifer fell in love with a special mustard served on campus. After tracking down the local mustard farmer, she bought his gourmet recipe and in 2007 founded Mustard Girl All-American Mustards. Jennifer’s been spreading the joy of mustard ever since at mustardgirl.com.
How did you go from being a Badger to becoming Mustard Girl?
I’m glad I was a Badger, for if I wasn’t I don’t think I would have had nearly enough fighting spirit in my veins to become Mustard Girl! I owe a lot to being a Badger because going to UW-Madison helped me discover the seed of who I am, and ultimately produced the fruition of who I was destined to be.As a freshman, I attended many exciting football games! Not only did I make great friends, I was introduced to eating a ton of brats and trying lots of different mustards for the first time! Ultimately, I was able to train my palette and decipher what good mustard really was, and eventually found Rendall’s Mustard (the old farmer’s mustard recipes I eventually purchased).Although at the time, I never had any idea I would ever become the Mustard Girl, the seed was planted! I would take home jars of his mustard — it was like the Fourth of July on my taste buds and I would put it on just about everything.But before I went into the mustard biz, I got sidetracked selling cowbells. During my junior year I was watching a Denver Broncos football game against the Packers and I heard a cowbell at Lambeau. I immediately thought how fun it would be for the UW to have a Badger Bell to ring at football and hockey games. So I got licensed through the CLC, got a vending site at the Capitol and was on my way … selling Bucky Badger Bells to help put me through school.
I gained some bell ringing business experience through that. And the Badger football team had such a good year they went to the Rose Bowl … so I made the Rosebell! After that I made cowbells for the Democratic and Republican Conventions, and my bells were noticed by one of the political curators of the Smithsonian Institute. He thought they were the best memorabilia he had seen in 40 years and put my bells on display at the Smithsonian. They can still be seen today. That was something I never imagined achieving but you never know what might happen if you don’t ever try.
After that, I did cowbells for [the rock band] ACDC (Hells Bells) and definitely rocked a few concerts! Even though I was thrilled to see my cowbells make it to the Smithsonian, and to be the official Bell Lady of Wisconsin and ACDC, I was beginning to go a little deaf from the ringing so it was time to switch sails.
So I went to work for Clear Channel Radio’s ESPN station in Madison and got a call from Phil Woodman, a fellow Badger and owner of best independent grocery stores around town! Mr. Woodman told me our favorite mustard man Mr. Rendall was closing his mustard shop because he was too old to make his mustards by hand.
He suggested I go find him and continue the biz … so I did because I couldn’t imagine the world without his mustards. They were sunshine to my taste buds and I wanted to spread that sunshine to the world.
Rendall was hesitant at first. He asked me what my major was, and I said Art History. He said no way will I be able to do the mustard biz, it will be way too hard. With the great tenacity I learned from going to the UW, I told Rendall to give me a week and I will come back with a plan … although I had no idea what that plan might be. So I decided to drive to my family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin to look for a sign and see if this was the right thing to do. I went to a tiny church as my last resort, and I said to myself, if the pastor says “yellow” during the sermon I’m in. Well, on that divine day the pastor gave his sermon he didn’t say “yellow.” Instead, his sermon was about having faith in your mustard seed of all things. And with that, I thanked the man upstairs with all my heart and I told Mr. Rendall what happened. He saw that I had the enthusiasm and passion to cut the mustard, so he passed along his recipes to me and the rest is Mustard Girl history. It all goes to show you too what a little faith can do.
How did your time at UW-Madison prepare you for this venture?
I am deeply appreciative for all the gifts UW-Madison brought me. While there, you challenge yourself the best you can, and make friendships that last a lifetime. You are also surrounded by the greatest professors, resources, and environment that encourages and inspires you to dig deep. Unbeknownst to us at the time, these experiences combined to help our seeds grow. Sadly, there does come a time when you have to graduate … although leaving the UW was a longer process for me, as I think I was subconsciously becoming a professional student. Being a Badger helped me become Mustard Girl as it helped form me, build my foundation and give me the spirit to never give up. I will forever take Bucky with me in heart wherever I go as I spread that Mustard Girl sunshine!
What were you doing professionally before starting your business?
After my cowbell business, I worked for Clear Channel Radio in Madison with the greatest bunch of guys anyone could ask for. I also worked for the Samuel Goldwyn Company in Hollywood, and I gained some acting experience that helped me in my role as Mustard Girl doing promos. I then went to Chicago to try and a job in advertising. I had every door slammed on me because I was just an art history major and wasn’t qualified in any of the agency’s eyes. Although I defended myself with my cowbell victories and tantalizing radio ads, all I got back were blank stares from empty-hearted interviewers. I felt (when you put it in campfire talk) that the folks doing the hiring were slow roasters, not fast burners when it comes to roasting tasty marshmallows. In the end, when you get lemons you make lemonade … or in my case, make mustard!
You are now in partnership with UW Athletics, correct? How did that come about? How is it going?
UW Athletics have been wonderful to work with, and it’s such an honor to have Mustard Girl at Camp Randall and the Kohl Center. I’ve gone full circle — from Badger Girl to Mustard Girl—and I’m looking forward to keeping all those yummy Sconnie brats happy! This experience has taught me that you certainly have go out there and throw mustard seeds in many fields and watch them grow. Maybe Lambeau Field and Miller Park will be next! Down the road you might see Mustard Girl doing pushups with Bucky at Camp Randall, taking a Lambeau Leap, or giving the Racing Sausages a run for their mustard at Miller Park!
Do you make special appearances as Mustard Girl? What’s that like?
I do but I have to remember not to eat too many sausages the night before so I can fit into my dirndl!I love spreading that Mustard Girl sunshine as much as possible! I have a summer squeezing season campaign where I give squeezes for local charities. I also go to festivals including Ocktoberfest. I am in parades with a little yellow trike adorned with flowers. Most recently, I’ve been participating in the Costco Roadshow program selling mustard in various cities. If I do well, I’ll soon be in all the Costco’s in the Midwest. I’ve even had people come up to me and tell me they were Mustard Girl for Halloween … and young girls that tell me they want to grow up and be Mustard Girl, too. It warms my heart so much!
What makes your mustards different/better than any others?
I can say trying Mustard Girl for the first time feels like the Fourth of July on your taste buds. They’ll have you squeezing for more thanks to their amazing and unique tastes. They are also all natural and gluten free. I’ve had numerous French people say my Dijon is exactly the way it’s made France. And German people say my Stonegound is made the traditional German way. The Wall Street Journal and Woman’s Day Magazine rated Mustard Girl as their top picks! All in all, Mustard Girl tastes truly divine and most importantly makes people happy — good for the heart and soul kind of mustard!
What’s your favorite food to put mustard on?
Mustard Girl mustards are quite universal with any food — including chocolate. I especially love it on brats, hotdogs, brat pizza (I have a delicious recipe for one using my Stoneground Deli), fried egg sandwiches, deli meats, wild game, salmon, chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad, and, of course cheesecurds.
Have you had to do things differently with your business in this economy? Or is mustard recession-proof?
Unfortunately, no business is recession proof, but having faith in your seed is! That is my mantra — to never give up. No matter how hard and gray and stormy life appears, just sail on through to the rainbows on the other side. After teaching myself how to juggle for the first time, a moment of clarity came to me — anyone can be a rock star. But it is how they juggle their rocks underneath the stars that make them one. Success comes from hard work, discipline, tenacity, resilience, and determination. It certainly isn’t given to you on a hot dog, that’s for sure. From a business standpoint, I had a vision in something that is a constant — a commodity everyone eats. And because everyone has to eat, why not make that experience even more deliciously divine!That vision has really helped me on my path. After evolving the mustard farmer’s recipe, and putting my love into creating my own mustards after many hours in the kitchen, I went on to create a savory, affordable, gourmet mustard that is a classic. It’s one that will never go out of style and leave you with a smile. I felt very blessed to happen to fall into a delightful recipe for success.Here’s a little path I follow to keep strong for Mustard Girl:
Mustard seed — believe in your seed
Understand yourself and your product
Success: aim for it and keep your eye on the prize
Tenacity: don’t give up work hard
Aspire to be best in your field
Resilience: don’t let the bad guys get you down — bounce back
Determination to move forward and be successful
Gratitude and respect for others around you that have helped you
Instoppable — be that!
Rock and roll — got to have that music for your soul
Love, always love and put love in everything you do
Who or what inspires you?
My mother and brother with their love and tenacity. The tremendous spirit of my deceased father, my uncle, cousins, family, and close friends and mentors including fellow alums Mr. Holcomb, Mr. Burt, Stephen Ambrose, Konrad Tuchscherer, and Barb Underwood. All aspects of Nature the Stars and my higher power.Life inspires me to the fullest every day, even watching a tree grow from seed to maturity. I try to keep aware of tiny miracles that happen around me every day. We live such short lives, I know the importance of “going after it and keeping your eye on your path, counting your blessings, not wasting time, and getting rid of negativity and things/people that bring you down.” There are a lot of people out there with big hats and no cattle — you want to stay away from those types, and stick with those who know how to saddle up and ride straight and true. I think we all have seeds in us to learn from, and we must never forget the gift of love and always have faith in our mustard seeds.
What’s next for Mustard Girl … product line extension, big box retail presence, etc.?
My goal is to expand Mustard Girl to the east and west coasts and develop other product lines including salad dressings and condiments like Ketchup Boy! I hope to come out with a cookbook next spring too, which I am very excited about. At the same time, I will continue giving inspirational talks to kids in schools to help inspire them to not give up and believe in their mustard seeds!<