Harmony Johnson photo
Kelly Davis, founder of Lusty Monk Mustards
Kelly Davis, founder of Lusty Monk Mustards, grew her business from a love of Victorian era condiments.
Kelly Davis’ passions for history and experimenting in the kitchen combined the day she made her first batch of homemade mustard. While thumbing through a 19th century cookbook, the Asheville, N.C., resident was intrigued by a recipe for freshly ground mustard, a concoction that Victorian-era cooks typically made each day.
“Nobody makes it anymore,” she said. “I tend to go for things I can’t find anywhere else.”
That first batch, created five years ago, was instantly memorable. The fresh-ground mustard seeds gave off intense flavor and a signature nostril-stinging kick.
“It’s a lot better and a lot more pungent right after you grind it,” Davis said.
She named the mustard Lusty Monk, inspired by a story in one of her history books about a strict order of monks that wasn’t allowed to eat mustard because they thought it was an aphrodisiac.
A single mom to two teenagers, Davis hadn’t planned on adding mustard to her plate. She was already holding down two jobs—as a proofreader for a newsletter company and as a bartender at Green Man Brewery in downtown Asheville. But the demand for her spicy blend was growing. At first, she gave away the concoction at Christmas gifts. Then she convinced the brewery to serve it to patrons with pretzels as a complimentary snack. Coworkers and bar patrons were immediately impressed.
Antonio Grion of Asheville still remembers his first taste, thinking “damn, this is good!”
“I knew she had a hit,” he said. “She had something that was original. It’s fantastic. It’s spicy but not hot, flavorful but not overpowering, and fresh.”
He and other brewery regulars readily encouraged her mustard making experiments. They helped refine recipes by giving feedback on the balance of spices and convinced her to discontinue a blend made with bourbon and raisins. Her first recipe, dubbed Original Sin, was followed by a fiery chipotle blend called Burn in Hell and the sweet, hot Altar Boy Honey Mustard, which brewery patrons helped name.
”It sort of snowballed” from there, she said.
In 2007, her brother Scott Davis was looking for a jar of the mustard in his Portland, Ore., kitchen and panicked when he thought he’d run out. To ensure himself a steady supply of the condiment, he convinced Davis to start Lusty Monk LLC and provided the start-up funds. To learn everything she could about starting a specialty food business, Davis enrolled in night classes at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a shared-use food and natural product processing facility that offers workshops for culinary entrepreneurs on the Enka campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. She took almost every course available, from food marketing and pricing to “pickle school,” a workshop covering safety and regulations for acidified foods.
”They’ve got an incredible kitchen,” she said. “They’ve got all this help. They hold your hand throughout the whole process.”
By building her business over several years and relying on Blue Ridge Food Ventures for advice, Davis said she has been able to navigate the learning curves associated with the specialty food business, including wholesale, online sales and holiday marketing.
“There’s something to be said for growing slowly,” she said. “Don’t immediately try to get into every grocery store. You’ve got to figure out what the retailer wants.”
Lusty Monk Mustard is one of Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ big success stories, said Mary Lou Sturgi, executive director.
Sturgi said she encourages food entrepreneurs to figure out what makes their product different from everything else sold in grocery stores—from the product itself to the name, labeling and marketing—and then be diligent about selling it.
“Kelly’s a great example,” she said. “She’s just out there thinking outside the box and a small food producer really needs to do that.”
But Davis didn’t take all of Sturgi’s advice. When she told Sturgi she wanted Lusty Monk to be sold in a refrigerated case, Sturgi tried to discourage her. “People just aren’t looking in the refrigerator for mustard,” Sturgi said.
But refrigeration keeps the mustard spicy, Davis explained, and Sturgi was happy to be proven wrong.
“Kelly had her good reason,” she said. “She would catch people’s attention and they would go looking for it in the refrigerator if necessary.”
Davis officially graduated from Blue Ridge Food Ventures in 2007 when her brother’s investment allowed for the purchase of a home in Asheville that formerly housed a beauty salon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspected the house before purchase and they were able to convert the salon, with all of its extra plumbing, into a commercial kitchen with FDA approval.
That same year her sister, Kristen Monteith, took Davis’ recipe and started Lusty Monk West, attending workshops at a shared-use kitchen similar to Blue Ridge Food Ventures near her own home in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I wasn’t making it fast enough,” Davis said, acknowledging that Lusty Monk has brought the three siblings closer together because they are so often in contact about the business.
She imports bulk quantities of mustard seeds from Canada, where most of the plants are grown, and uses a 4-foot-tall immersion blender to grind them. Davis hired one employee to help with packaging and bottling. She handles distribution herself, although she is weighing the pros and cons of hiring help for that too.
“It’s easy to make something,” she said. “The hard part is getting it out there.”
Davis spends long hours on the road, driving from Richmond to Atlanta and from Tennessee to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “You’ve got to want it. It’s not going to make you rich overnight.”
She said she enjoys meeting the business owners who carry Lusty Monk and they appreciate the face-to-face service as well.
“The things that we have here are made by our friends, and she’s one of my friends. I can trust them,” said Laurey Masterton, owner of Laurey’s Café in Asheville, which sells Lusty Monk in its store and serves it on sandwiches and other dishes. “She knows that I know who she is. If there’s anything wrong with it, she knows I’m going to let her know about it. She’s going to care about what she makes, even more so when you’re selling to a friend.”
Davis personally took samples of the mustard to The Proper Pot in downtown Brevard for employees to sample.
“We loved it,” said Beth Canady, owner of shop, which has sold Lusty Monk Mustard for more than a year. “It’s one of our most popular local items.”
Western North Carolina is an ideal place to start a food business, Davis said. Store owners are “really supportive and they want to buy local,” she said.
Frank Mele, owner of Good Shepherd Health Foods in Cookeville, Tenn., said a desire to support local businesses was one of the main reasons he gave Lusty Monk space in his store.
“We want to get bigger and we can do that if other people get bigger with us,” he said.
The mustard attracts a lot of repeat customers, and Mele said he frequently uses it on semi-organic hot dogs and as a dip for rice chips.
Scott Counce, co-owner of Merry Wine Market in Black Mountain, said he was hooked on Lusty Monk at first bite.
“You taste that mustard and it’s just incredible,” he said. “You can’t stop eating it.”
Served on sandwiches at Black Mountain’s Veranda Café where Counce often eats lunch, the mustard got him talking to the restaurant owner, who put him in contact with Davis.
“We sell local cheeses, local crackers and local jam, and mustard was just a natural progression for us,” he said. “We knew it was something we had to have. We firmly believe in supporting local businesses and local products.”
The wine market has carried other mustards before, but Lusty Monk is special, Counce said.
“It’s such a notch above any other mustard we’ve ever had,” he said. “When people taste it, everyone just automatically assumes it has horseradish in it but it doesn’t. People don’t realize how watered down regular mustards are. You’re really tasting honest-to-goodness mustard here.”
The mustard flies off the shelves at the wine market.
“We have people who don’t drink who come here specifically for the mustard,” Counce said.
Today, Lusty Monk Mustard is sold or served at more than 100 locations in more than 50 cities across 10 states including Earth Fare, Whole Foods Market and many independently-owned shops. It is also available online at lustymonk.com.
The Altar Boy and Original Sin mustards won first and second place respectively in condiment category for the 2011 Scovie Awards, an annual competition that recognizes the top fiery foods products in the world. The contest is a competitive blind tasted food competition that draws hundreds of products. Monteith will represent Lusty Monk when the awards are presented in March at the 23rd annual National Fiery-Foods and Barbecue Show in Albuquerque.
Mustard distribution and production became so time consuming that Davis quit her proofreading job more than a year ago. After several weeks of getting coworkers to cover her shifts, she finally admitted in October that she no longer had time to work at Green Man Brewery.
“It’s great when our employees can bring forth their own thing and make a success of it,” said brewer John Stuart. “Of course we were sad to see her go. She was an integral part of our bar for so long. People actually identify the mustard with our tasting room because for so long you could only get it here.”
The brewery continues to eagerly support Lusty Monk, he said. Bar employees and patrons greet Davis like Norm on “Cheers” whenever she stops by to deliver gallons of mustard for dipping pretzels.
“We all understood the mustard business took precedence,” Stuart said. “I’m glad she’s so successful. She doesn’t have to work two jobs anymore.”
Blue Ridge Food Ventures
Peter Jankowski can take the heat. But hot sauce was a problem.
The Zionville farmer and woodworker loved dousing hot sauce on almost any food but couldn’t find one with just the right flavor, so his wife started experimenting in the kitchen.
“I invented something he likes. He uses a lot of it and this way we could afford to pay for it,” Dorene Jankowski said, laughing. “People kept saying, ‘Well, you should bottle this.’ And I did.”
In 2005, Fire from the Mountain sauces “were ready to go,” she said. “We were just looking for a facility that had all the equipment that we needed.”
Enter Blue Ridge Food Ventures.
An initiative started six years ago by AdvantageWest, an economic development partnership serving the 23 westernmost counties of North Carolina, Blue Ridge Food Ventures provides a shared-use commercial kitchen and food-business incubator on the Enka campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
“We’re a one-stop shop for people who want to start a food business,” said Executive Director Mary Lou Surgi.
The 11,000-square-foot facility includes a full-scale commercial kitchen, a dry product preparation area and a natural products production area for drying, crushing and extracting plants and herbs for tinctures and extracts. It’s the largest facility of its kind in the Southeast and has helped more than 170 businesses get started, Surgi said.
“We’re all about helping people make their dreams come true,” Surgi said. “At Blue Ridge Food Ventures, people have an opportunity to try without investing a whole lot of money.”
Fire from the Mountain produces three hot sauces, a salsa and a barbecue sauce made with applewood-smoked chipotle, habanero and Serrano peppers. The products are approved by the FDA to be sold commercially.
Theresa Green of Asheville relies on Blue Ridge Food Ventures for the sheer size of the facility.
Owner of UliMana, she is one of the rare food entrepreneurs whose product is an instant success. Her handmade chocolate spreads and truffles made with vegan, organic ingredients were one of the first raw products available in grocery stores when the business launched in 2005.
With a staff of several employees, UliMana's entire production—cooking, packaging, shipping and labeling—takes place at the Enka facility.
“We’re ordering pallets of chocolate and barrels of agave,” Green said. “You need a forklift and you need a pallet jack. They wouldn’t all fit in my kitchen!”
Specialty food business owners credit the workshops and staff expertise offered by Blue Ridge Food Ventures as being critical to their company's success.
Appalachian Ginseng Farm owner Richard Bonsteel starting making extracts and honey from Carolina Black ginseng grown on private land near Franklin about eight years ago. He wanted to promote ginseng's wellness benefits on a larger scale, so he enlisted the help of friend Jimmy Landry, a Black Mountain resident who knew they needed to start making use of the food-business incubator.
The men knew very little about launching a product line and wading through the FDA regulations, he said.
“There’s a lot of paperwork involved,” Landry said. “ They really do teach you how to walk through it.”
Green said she also relies on the Blue Ridge Food Ventures staff when she's stumped for marketing ideas.
“Mary Lou’s been very helpful, just knowing that she’s there and being able to bounce ideas off of her,” she said. “There’s a definite community spirit. You know that you’re not all alone.”
The Jankowski's drive more than two hours from their farm near Boone to make Fire from the Mountain products. Even if a shared-use kitchen were closer to home, Dorene Jankowski said she would still use Blue Ridge Food Ventures.
“Mary Lou has been the best,” she said. “She is constantly working to get our products out there. She’s always trying to look for ways to get people to recognize you.”