By Becky Billingsley
Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, North Myrtle Beach - While hard work performed by Jerry and Nancy Novak, plus their equity investment, has helped make their gourmet mustards a southeastern success in a short amount of time, these condiments' appealingly unique flavors sell themselves once they're tasted.
But of course getting their Simply Southern Gourmet mustards on the tongues of potential customers takes hard work, time and money, and the Novaks, a transplanted Grand Strand couple who moved to the Cherry Grove section of North Myrtle Beach from Pennsylvania, took the process step by step. They discovered unexpected hurdles along the way, but said they'd undertake the project again and have enjoyed learning the intricacies of the gourmet mustard business.
Jerry Novak retired from the plastic injection molding sales, and Nancy Novak is a retired home economics teacher. He often cooked their dinners, and discovered he enjoyed puttering around in the kitchen on cold Pennsylvania days. He likes mustard and was tired of the typical brown, yellow and honey mustard choices. After much trial and error over a number of years, he came up with unique recipes he and his family and friends thought were incredibly delicious.
The thick and smooth mustards are completely appropriate on sandwiches and in dressings, but their bold and appealing flavors make them useful as glazes, dipping sauces and recipe ingredients. The four original mustards are:
Balsamic Sweet Onion Pepper, which has sweet-hot sass and a twang of apple cider vinegar.
Roasted Peach Mango Pepper is nice as a seafood glaze and as an addition to deviled eggs or cold pasta salads.
Velvety Sweet Potato Pepper Mustard might be the new condiment on your Thanksgiving table beside the cranberry sauce, and it could edge out mayonnaise on turkey sandwiches.
Roasted Pineapple Cranberry Pepper is a flavor enhancement for chicken, pork or seafood or, whipped with cream cheese, puts a new spin on ordinary Fire and Ice cream cheese appetizers.
After Jerry Novak had his recipes perfected, he had to submit them to US Dept. of Agriculture labs in Raleigh, N.C., to be tested, to see if they were amenable to mass production and to develop nutrition and ingredient labels. Happily, the ingredients did not need tweaking, and a graphic designer was hired to develop labels before the labels were submitted for approval. The label design was supposed to take three to four weeks, but it actually took three to four months. Then the labels had to be revised, because the printing that declared the jar contained 9 ounces was 1/16 of an inch too small.
Once they had labels, the Novaks had to choose a co-packer to make and pack the mustards. One in Charleston wouldn't let them specify precise ingredients, such as not including pepper seeds in the recipe. They went with a North Carolina co-packer that lets them help source premium ingredients, such as the balsamic they prefer. The Novaks are on-site each time their 150-gallon mustard batches are produced and packed.
Then they had to have somewhere to store all those mustard jars packaged on wood pallets, so they rented a warehouse.
And still there were more details to attend, from liability insurance to setting up a limited liability company and hiring an accountant.
"We work harder now than when we were working," Nancy Novak said with a laugh on Feb. 8 in the couple's North Myrtle Beach townhouse. "We had to get a Web site designed, too. The more we step into it, the more there is to do, but we're intrigued about how far we can take this."
"It takes $40,000 to $75,000 to do this properly," Jerry Novak said, "but we don't know if we've reached the end yet." All told, they worked for 14 months on their mustard project before the first jar was sold in September 2011.
But while more expenses may be discovered, the money is starting to flow back, thanks to the Novak's concerted marketing efforts. They've done research to find out how to get their mustards into grocery and specialty food stores and understand it's a four to six month process each time they pitch it to a store owner. So far they're in several stores across three states; locally Simply Southern Gourmet mustards are in the Bodega in Conway; Kudzu Bakery in Georgetown and Pawleys Island; Carolina Gourmet in Pawleys Island; Toby's World Gifts in Little River; Piggly Wiggly stores in Murrells Inlet, Myrtle Beach (The Market Common) and Pawleys Island; and The Peanut Shop at Barefoot Landing.
They've received no rejections from any manager they've approached about stocking the mustards. Once they can get the decision-maker to taste them, the Novaks say, they're sold, and that also goes for store customers when the Novaks hold sampling demonstrations.
"When people taste it, they buy it," Jerry Novak says.
These days their marketing is taking on bigger audiences. As members of the South Carolina Specialty Foods Association, they've discovered setting up a booth at trade shows allows them to get their mustards before more people with mass purchasing power at one time. This year they're planning on getting their product in front of 30,000 buyers at Atlanta Mart, and then in June they're setting up shop at the nation's largest showcase for products such as theirs: The Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C.
The Novaks are ready - their pitches are honed. They talk about how their mustards contain 5 calories per serving, and are gluten-, sulphite- and fat-free. They're finalists in a "Pitch Your Product" competition sponsored by "Country Living" magazine, and soon the mustards will be in Whole Foods.
And, knowing that having something new and delicious to talk about is a beneficial sales hook, Jerry Novak will soon introduce a new fifth mustard: Tart Apple Sweet Onion.
"I have come to expect everything will take longer than expected," he said, "but overall, it's been fun."