Ve'ahavta Collaboration and a whole lot more
December 8, 2019 is a huge day for us: we release our first ever limited edition, Collab Mustard! In conjunction with Ve’ahavta, the Jewish response to poverty and homelessness in Toronto we created what I hope you will agree is the quintessential Chanukah Mustard flavour: Apple Dijon. It goes perfectly with latkes. Pork chops too. In many ways, this is even more important than rebooting our four mustard flavours which happened during our summer call-up with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Please allow me to explain.
Closing the deli on College Street in early 2018 was emotionally devastating. I felt like an utter failure but worse, I felt a sense of social isolation that I really didn’t know how to handle. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t my fault beyond having signed a bad lease - that's on me. But emotionally, the feeling of loss of identity and direction was profound. It felt like a death in the family of someone before their natural time. As you may know, I recently lost my 54-year-old brother David and I can unfortunately confirm that the sense of loss was similar.
I loved owning the deli on College. That is, until my landlord sucked all the fun out of it by unlawfully locking me out in 2016. Losing that place left an enormous void. The first six months were awful. I grew a beard, gained a lot of weight, mostly stayed inside and mistreated myself in a variety of ways. My new wife Willa tried her best to get me going. Nudging me to take walks, see friends and speak to loved ones on the phone. In June, for my 50th birthday, she took me to Iceland. In many ways, that trip was a turning point.
Iceland is magical. 24 hours of summer sunlight messes with you and I needed messing with. Renting a Dacia Duster 4 x 4 and exploring the Western Fjords was, for a guy who loves to drive, as epic roadtrip. Add to that 8 visits to hot springs in 11 days, extraordinary food and breathtaking scenery and you have yourself a life-affirming cocktail of yaaaaassssssss.
While in Iceland, I started to reflect on my 10 years of deli life. On it’s own, this was progress because it didn’t involve wallowing in self-pity. I reflected on what worked and what didn’t work from a business perspective. I’d taken the world of deli in many different directions: a restaurant, catering business, food truck, wholesale sales, retail mustards, franchising and media work too. More importantly, while we were in Iceland, I reflected on what worked for ME and what didn’t work for me.
A funny thing happened while I was reflecting, exploring, soaking and eating my way through Iceland and beyond. Actually throughout 2018 I got multiple emails a week from people asking about my mustards. At first, I sent curt responses. “I’m not making mustards anymore.” Stuff like that. I mean, I wasn’t rude or anything but I just didn’t want to entertain the idea of getting back into the mustard business. Why? To put it bluntly, it was on my “Didn’t Work” list. Why? Because despite selling hundreds of thousands of jars of mustard, we made no money at it.
The full “How I Got into the Mustard Business” post will wait for another day. For the here and now, I’ll say that the mustard manufacturer got paid, the distributor got paid and the retailer got paid. But the brand? Not so much. Yes, it was great for exposure but “A guy can die from exposure,” as my friend Richard Crouse says. In 2017 I shut down the mustard business instead of focussing on it to see if I could find a way to make profit. I was focussed on franchising the business. Mustard was, at that time, just an unprofitable distraction.
Obviously, franchising didn’t work out as I’d hoped it would. But given the time and space that Iceland and emotional devastation offers I was able to reconsider the world of mustard. Because, dear readers, you kept sending me emails looking for my mustards. Could I make it work this time? How?
The answer came to me more like a simple truth than an epiphany: Shopify.
In 2016, I heard Shopify COO Harley Finkelstein speak at the Globe and Mail’s Small Business Summit. At the time I was so self-involved that his presentation was interesting but not life changing. Now, it would change my life. Shopify offers a low-cost avenue to re-connect with my customers and my audience. I could sell my mustards direct to consumers or even to retailers and still maintain a profit margin that might allow me to move forward with my life. Sounds great, right? It is.
Fortunately, I married an amazing woman who built my Shopify website for me. As I type this, Willa sits next to me on our couch building the graphic elements of this, the first edition of the "Mustard Lovers Monthly" Newsletter. I would be lost without Willa.
I also realised that building a Shopify site wouldn’t be enough. I needed a way to drive traffic to the site. Good ol' fashioned marketing. Through all my introspection and self-flagellation, I realised that as much as I loved the deli business, what I loved more was connecting with people. My customers, staff, suppliers, investors and my listeners. The deli, it seems, was merely the vehicle I used to establish that connection.
The question was, how do I connect with mustard? The answer: collaborate. What does that mean? In this context, it means both using my mustards to create:
1. Unique food experiences like our recent Mustard Party with Shaun and Michelle and The Navigators at Chinched Restaurant in St. John’s Newfoundland, our Mustard Dinner with Jon Rennie, Matt Kendrick and Nick Benninger in Waterloo, Ontario and our Mustard Festival in Southampton, Ontario with Sue Palethorp, Justin Nicklaus and David Small (Meat Market, Offshore Bakery and Room 797, respectively), and
2. Developing new, limited edition mustard flavours with chefs and organisations I want to work with. My mustards are all natural and literally the best money can buy. I only want to work with the best. But would anyone want to collaborate with me? Enter Brandon Lablong and Ve'ahavta.
Brandon is a lovely man. He asked me to get involved with Ve’ahavta (translated as “and you shall love”) in 2016 by helping with their fundraiser. It’s an easy organisation for me to support. Having been homeless myself briefly in 2002, I know what it feels like to be on the client side of homelessness. The fear, shame and loss of self-esteem. In 2017 I hosted their annual gala fundraiser called "Starry Nights".
Brandon left Ve’ahavta shortly after my hosting turn in 2017 but rejoined earlier this year. In August Brandon sent me a Facebook message saying he noticed my catering truck at an auto shop near his home. “Are you selling your mustards near my mustard yellow house”, he asked? Turns out Brandon’s wife is a mustard fanatic. I invited Brandon for lunch on St. Clair Avenue to catch up. I told him all of the above and my ideas around collaboration.
“How about doing a Chanukah Mustard with Ve’ahavta,” he asked?
“Wow, I’d love that,” I said.
“What would a Chanukah Mustard taste like,” he asked?
I thought for a few moments. “Apples,” I said.
“I love it,” he said “let’s do this,” he said.
And thus began the validation, or not, of my new business model. Together with Ve’ahavta, Willa and I are pleased and proud to release a limited number of Apple Dijon mustards. We are only making 600 jars. When they’re gone, they’re gone. All proceeds after manufacture and transport goes to Ve’ahavta. See, this is not just a collab, it’s a fundraiser too.
On Sunday December 8, it will be my honour to attend “The Ve’ahavta Project”. From 2 to 5 pm at The Warehouse Venue, we’ll engage a maximum of 400 people in volunteerism and fundraising. My role is to sell some mustard. I hope you’ll consider coming out to buy and get involved. If you can’t make it, any unsold jars will be available on our website.
Please stay tuned. We have more collaborations and events in the works as well as a national mustard tour planned for 2020. You read that right: Willa and I are planning mustard events with chefs, restaurants, butcher shops, bakeries, farmers markets, fishers, foragers, First Nations friends and new Canadian too, festivals and fine food shops from coast-to-coast-to-coast in Canada. Kicking off on Canada Day, July 1, 2020 the journey begins. Why? Canada grows over 80% of the world’s mustard seeds. That little-known fact is worth celebrating and a great excuse to get out and connect.
Thanks for being part of our journey.