Mary Ellen Howard never thought she’d be making mustard for a living, but at age 50, an opportunity fell into her hands that she couldn’t pass up.
Nearly 10 years after opening Murphys Mustard Co., she and her husband, Richard, are elbow-deep in mustard.
A trip to the company’s commercial kitchen – a converted garage adjacent to their Murphys home tucked away in the forest – showcased the two-person operation, which turns out as many as 150 jars a day.
Upon entering the room, the pungent scent of past batches filled the nostrils. Bright yellow jars lined a shelf next to a 5-gallon drum of mustard flour and a whiteboard detailing the cooking schedule.
Outfitted in a patriotic motorcycle-themed apron, Richard was busy pouring vinegar into an enormous pot for the first batch of the day – a garlic-dijon blend called Fool’s Gold.
The company started with one recipe that Mary Ellen acquired from a lady who passed away a long time ago. She used to make the mustard during the holidays to give away to friends and family, and people would tell her, “You should bottle and sell that,” Mary Ellen says. When the economy was starting to tank in 2008, she was cut to part-time, and she started thinking more seriously about turning her “mustard hobby” into a business venture.
A homebuilder at the time, Richard offered to build a commercial kitchen for her in their garage, and eventually joined her full-time cooking and bottling.
Today, Murphys Mustard Co. carries nine mining era-themed blends, wholesales to 20 stores across the state and has two distributors – one in Washington markets and one in Modesto – that sell the product at farmers markets. The old family recipe is still used for what is now labelled on thousands of glass jars as the Miners Mustard.
“I remember 10 years ago I was approved on a Thursday from the state, and the next day was the Friday night farmers market in Angels Camp,” Mary Ellen recalls. “I remember coming home with something like $70 and I was like ‘Wow I sold mustard,’ and it’s just kept growing and growing.”
The trick to the trade?
The two travel all over California, Nevada and Arizona to sell their jars at farmers markets and events, where they nearly always sell out, Mary Ellen says.
“We’ve been to a lot of great places and met a lot of great people,” she says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
She says that the product has been a hit at Celtic fairs since it pairs nicely with boiled foods.
“During busy season we’re cooking sometimes five days a week,” Mary Ellen says. “It’s work, but it’s pleasure. It’s something we enjoy, and it’s nice because then we come home and we have everything here. Cook, bottle and label and we’re ready to go again.”
Ordering 60 pounds of mustard flour every week and a half, the couple has set themselves up for long days in the kitchen.
“I make mustard four days a week, 10 hours a day. This is my life,” Richard says as he stirs the watery yellow mixture on the stove. He says he averages about five 30-jar batches a day.
Run into Mary Ellen at a farmers market and she’ll probably list off the myriad of cooking uses for the company’s mouth-watering mustards.
Beyond its typical application as a condiment on hot dogs and sandwiches, “Mustard is a great cooking ingredient for any kind of pork, poultry or fish – it will crust and it will seal in the juices,” Mary Ellen says.
From the tangy, sweet Cranberry Harvest mustard to the spicy chipotle- and ghost pepper-infused Foothill’s Fire mustard, years of experimenting with ingredients have fine-tuned nine unique blends to deliciousness.
“In the last few years, I have really enjoyed trying to find out what spices pair well with the other ingredients,” Mary Ellen says. “I’ve reached a spot where I try to use a different vinegar for every blend, so we now have nine different vinegars we’re using. We have gone from sugar to agave, organic white wine, organic blue agave, 18-year-aged vinegars, balsamics from Marisolios in Murphys to find unique flavors. It’s been an interesting journey.”
Despite the prospect of expanding the local booming business, it’s important to Mary Ellen that the operation stays small-scale and free of artificial coloring, GMOs, gluten and preservatives.
“Each jar is made with you in mind,” she says, reading the label on one of the jars. “It really is – there’s a lot of care and love that goes into every batch of it. Nothing but natural good ingredients. As long as we can keep it in our facility, we have control.”
The Spice Tin in Murphys, which started up around the same time as Murphy’s Mustard Co., was the company’s first wholesale buyer.
“All of her mustards are very popular, they always sell out,” says Patty Schulz, co-owner of the Spice Tin. “We love to have Mary Ellen come in and do a demo in the shop. She’s always so personable and passionate about her mustards.”
Shulz’s favorite is the Claim Jumper, a wasabi-infused blend. “I’ve used it as a dipping sauce for shrimp (and) potstickers,” she says.
Along with the Spice Tin, the duo’s gourmet mustards can be purchased locally at Big Trees Market, Red Apple, Black Sheep Winery and Ironstone Winery, among other places.
“I can sling a jar of mustard to anybody anytime, but it’s the people that keep coming back that tells me we have a good product,” Mary Ellen says.