The Earth keeps spinning, the waves keep crashing on the shore, and the 1,800-to-2,000-pound quartz stone wheels at Raye’s Mustard Mill keep grinding mustard seeds into award-winning mustard, as they have for 114 years. But in a world where corporations like Heinz and French’s churn out thousands of gallons of the condiment a day, how does the one-room mill stay relevant?
“A lot of marketing,” said Kelly Raye, the Eastport company’s co-owner and marketing director. She’s also the great-great-great-niece-in-law of the company’s founder, J. Wesley Raye.
When J. Wesley — the son of a sea captain — first started the mill in 1903, it was meant to supply the thriving sardine industry in Eastport.
“They packed the sardines with mustard for flavor, and also as a preservative because of the vinegar in the mustard,” said Gerald Greenlaw, the mill’s director of sales and operations.
However, when the Maine sardine industry eventually collapsed in the 1980s due to global overfishing of the herring fishery and a general loss of interest in canned sardines in U.S. markets, Raye’s had to re-brand itself in order to survive.
“We didn’t do any retail packaging until the sardine industry started to go away,” said Raye. “So that’s when we started doing the specialty mustards.”
Instead of selling mustard to sardine canneries as a complementary ingredient, the mustard became the product itself. Raye’s Mustard stood out because of its unique production process. Most companies such as Heinz and French’s cook mustard powder in great vats so that they can produce huge quantities of mustard very quickly.
At Raye’s, however, it takes over a month to make a 500-gallon batch, using the centuries-old grindstones and other procedures.
“When you don’t cook the mustard, you don’t cook out the taste and the nutrients,” Greenlaw said. “You get the full effect, the full flavor, the full jolt from the mustard seed.”
At Raye’s, mustard seeds are passed through two stainless steel rollers and are flattened into flakes. The flakes are then mixed with 70 gallons of vinegar and 200 gallons of artisanal spring water in massive tanks at one end of the mill. The seeds soften as they soak in the mixture overnight, and in the morning the staff turns on the 50-horsepower electric motor —which replaced the old coal-fired one — out back, sending a 113-year-old drive shaft and all its attached belts and gears into motion.
The machinery pumps the mixture out of the tanks, and between the massive stones, which grind the mix into a thick, glue-like base that drips into awaiting blue barrels. The whole 500-gallon batch takes six hours to process, after which the barrels are taken to the warehouse, draped with cheese cloth, and aged for four weeks.
Then a host of ingredients —which might include jalapeños, blueberries, cranberries, molasses or beer- or wine-soaked mustard flakes — are added to make Raye’s 25 unique flavors.
“My favorite is White Lightning,” said Greenlaw. “It’s a blend of yellow and oriental seed and it just has a really nice jolt. It would remind you of horseradish.”
Raye’s Mustard is shipped to grocery and specialty food stores as far away as San Francisco.
When Raye and her husband took over the business about 10 years ago, she put her marketing expertise to the test by using Google Analytics to find out how visitors accessed the company website.
“You could see people were coming to our site on their phones,” she said. “So we changed our website to be mobile-friendly so that if people are traveling they can still use our website easily.”
Raye also made ads on Facebook that targeted users based on their ZIP code, so that someone in Ohio, for example, could see the ad and recognize the brand next time they were at the grocery store. Since Raye’s is the only stone-ground mustard mill left in North America, it also has received plenty of attention from national magazines such as Oprah, Martha Stewart Living and Rachel Ray Every Day. But despite all the press and complicated online tools, sometimes all that is required to sell more mustard is a simple name change.
“Kevin’s cousin Nancy [the former owner] was looking at her sales numbers and found that the Original Recipe wasn’t selling as much, even though we had won a lot of awards for it.” Raye said. “But we had a picture on the wall of Kevin’s great-great-great-grandfather’s schooner. So Nancy was like, ‘I’m going to name it Downeast Schooner,’ and it’s our number-one seller.”
To further build brand awareness, Kelly Raye held a naming contest for the mustard flavor now known as Moose-a-maquoddy Molasses.
“Eastport is on Moose Island,” she said, “and it’s across from the Passamaquoddy Bay.”
Moose-a-maquoddy is Raye’s favorite sweet mustard flavor, and the peppery Dundicott Hott is her favorite hot flavor.
Now that the brand name has spread across the country, the hardest part for Greenlaw is keeping the century-old mill running smoothly.
“We just make sure everything is tight and oiled and greased up,” he said. “This isn’t something you can go to NAPA and buy a part for.”
Where: 83 Washington St., Eastport.
In summer: Open from Memorial Day through Christmas.
Hours: Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open most Monday holidays (such as Labor Day) but call ahead to verify.