Boetje Foods Inc. has earned bragging rights: its stone-ground mustard was named Grand Champion in the 2016 World-Wide Mustard Competition; the company is family-owned and operated; and the food manufacturer is headquartered in the Quad-Cities, a community the owners say is fiercely loyal and supportive of the hometown brand.
The company is based in Rock Island, Illinois, which is one of the communities in the six-county bi-state region that is known as the Quad-Cities.
The building where the mustard is produced is roughly 10 blocks from where it founded in 1889 by Fred Boetje, who had emigrated from Germany. He believed food in the United States was rather dull, so, he created his own Dutch-style stone-ground mustard and went door-to-door, selling the mustard for 5 cents a ladle.
“It caught on,” said Boetje Foods general manager Harrison Kropp.
Today, 127 years later, sales remain strong.
The Kropp family bought the company more than 30 years ago and continues to hand-craft the mustard in the Old World style. Will said he and Harrison keep their eyes on every step of production. “We are very proud of that,” he said.
Boetje Foods may be characterized as a small company due to the number of employees -- there are five, including Will and Harrison who are father and son. The same characterization does not apply when describing the company’s growth.
Will’s father owned the company when he started working there in 1983. At that time, Boetje’s Mustard was sold in seven states. Today, the stone ground mustard can be found in stores in 29 states, and Will said the company is working to increase its reach even more.
Boetje Foods is in discussions with at least one national grocery chain and Internet sales continue to grow, he said.
“Our biggest break came in 2008, when we entered the World-Wide Mustard Competition in Napa Valley,” Will said. It was the first competition the company ever entered and Boetje’s won the gold medal in the coarse-grained category, beating out Grey Poupon. “That opened doors, and people started calling us,” he said.
The company continues to win awards, and snagged its biggest this year when Boetje’s was recognized as the No. 1 dark mustard in the world.
With help from another unique local business, Boetje’s started selling a Bourbon Barrel Aged Mustard in March 2015.
Harrison said he approached LeClaire, Iowa-based Mississippi River Distilling Company with an idea in 2014 – why not age the stone ground mustard ingredients in Cody Road Bourbon casks?
After some discussion and experimentation, “We nailed the perfect recipe,” Harrison said. “It is difficult to keep up with demand for that product,” he added.
The Bourbon Barrel Aged Mustard is produced on a limited-run, then sold at the Distilling Company, local Hy-Vee grocery stores and Bier Stube restaurants. Harrison said the barrel aged mustard usually sells out before a new batch is ready, and it takes about three months to produce a batch.
“I also work with some local breweries, and they are more than happy to be a part of what we have going on,” Harrison said. “Everyone in the region wants to work together. I believe everyone is on the same page. They want to be local and help each other out.”
The willingness to partner leads to experimentation and potential new products, which can be a win-win for businesses, he added.
Will said the family is dedicated to making a superior product at an affordable price, which is appreciated.
“People call us and come up to us all the time to share their stories, and it is great,” Harrison said. “We get to hear their feedback and they spread the word for us.”
Customers also take jars of Boetje’s along when they travel and send jars as gifts to family and friends, he said.
“They loyalty of our customers is outstanding. Knowing we have all of our local people behind us makes our job so much easier,” Will said.
Harrison said the Quad-Cities is a great location for food manufacturers, and described the region as the “hub of the Midwest. We are right in the middle of the U.S., and not too far from Chicago or Des Moines. We are in the heart of Interstate 80, which makes it easy to get our product in and out of the area.”
Will said the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce and city of Rock Island have guided the business in the right direction of potential suppliers, raw materials and equipment upgrades.
Recently, a local alderman came to the company’s rescue, he said. The aldermen found a machine shop that could machine some new parts for a 100-plus year old grinder the company continues to use.
“Help such as that has been very, very good for us,” Will said.
Boetje’s reciprocates the loyalty it receives from the Quad Cities. The iconic business remains headquartered in Rock Island. “We would never want to upset what has been working for years and years, and has a lot of historic value to the area,” Will said.
“Harrison and I are both very happy, and the future looks real bright for us. Boetje’s will be around for a long time,” he added.
Harrison also believes Boetje Foods will continue to thrive. “I can’t imagine another brown mustard out there that tastes better than ours. I know I don’t want to eat anything else,” he said.
For more information about doing business in the Quad Cities, visit QuadCitiesFirst.com.