EASTPORT — 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 seed flakes into an award-winning condiment, as they have for 113 years.
But in a world where corporations such as Heinz and French’s churn out thousands of gallons of mustard a day, how does the one-room mill stay relevant?
“A lot of marketing,” said Kelly Raye, the head of marketing and co-owner at the mill, and 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 finally collapsed in the 1980s due to global competition and a general loss of interest in U.S. markets, Raye’s had to rebrand itself in order to survive.
“We didn’t do any retail packaging until the sardine industry started to go away,” Raye said. “So that’s when we started doing the specialty mustards.”
Instead of selling mustard to sardine canneries as a complementary good, the mustard became the good itself. Raye’s mustard stood out because of its unique production process. Most companies such as Heinz and French’s cook mustard powder in huge vats so that they can produce huge quantities very quickly. But at Raye’s, which does not cook, it takes over a month to make a 500-gallon batch.
“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, those mustard seeds are sent through two stainless steel rollers and 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 sit in the mixture overnight, and in the morning the mill workers turn 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 quartz stones, which grind the mix into a thick, glue-like base that drips into waiting blue barrels. The whole 500-gallon batch takes six hours to process, after which the blue 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, beer- or wine-soaked mustard flakes — are added to make Raye’s 25 unique flavors.
“My favorite is White Lightning,” Greenlaw said. “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 stores as far away as San Francisco, but that wasn’t always the case. When Raye and her husband took over the business about 10 years ago, she put her love of marketing 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.”
To further build brand awareness, 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 also Raye’s favorite sweet mustard flavor, and the peppery Dundicott Hott is her favorite hot mustard flavor.
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 named after Martha Stewart, Oprah and Rachel Ray. 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 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.”
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.”
Raye’s Mustard Mill
Where: Washington Street, Eastport
Open: Memorial Day through Christmas, Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. most Monday holidays (such as Labor Day), but call ahead.