FALMOUTH — More than three decades have passed since Carol Tanner, using her mother’s recipe, sold her first jar of mustard under the Mother’s Mountain label.
Today the business is still going strong, with five different mustard flavors, two types of hot sauces and a range of jams and salad dressings, along with a variety of other specialty products.
And 35 years in, Mother’s Mountain products are still made in small batches with all-natural ingredients at Tanner’s home-based operation on Mustard Hollow Way.
With the help of her husband, Dennis Proctor, Tanner now distributes Mother’s Mountain products across New England, with many natural food stores, farmers markets and specialty food stores carrying the brand.
Tanner, 85, is a transplant to Maine, but Proctor, 59, was born and raised in Freeport. The two met when both were working the midnight shift at L.L. Bean.
It was 1982, Tanner said recently, when she first had the idea to start her own business by featuring her mother’s homemade mustard recipe.
The first jar of Mother’s Mountain mustard was sold in December that year and the label listed only five ingredients: apple cider vinegar, eggs, spices, mustard seed and sugar. Tanner and Proctor chose their business name because they were using her mother’s recipe and because, as avid skiers, they had a strong connection to Sugarloaf.
Born in the Bahamas to an architect father who was originally from New Orleans, Tanner said her mother made all of the family’s condiments, from ketchup to relish and more, using old family recipes.
Tanner came to Maine in the 1960s when her former husband, a doctor, bought out the practice of another doctor who was based on Congress Street in Portland.
Tanner raised four children and, in addition to cooking, was interested in art and writing. In fact, she provided the art for the Mother’s Mountain logo.
Tanner and Proctor have no specific plans to retire anytime soon. They talk every year about only continuing for another five years, but when that time is up, they’re still making mustards, jams and hot sauces and still enjoying the work, Proctor said.
Particularly at this time of year, he said, he and Tanner often work 10- to 12-hour days, five or six days a week. Even so, they still rely mostly on themselves or help from family to get the cooking done and the orders out.
Tanner said they had no specific business plan when they launched Mother’s Mountain. The pair had no idea how to market a product that their family and friends really liked, but weren’t sure what the wider response would be.
Their first sales were directly to the public at places like the Maine Festival, held at Bowdoin College, the Yarmouth Clam Festival, or the Common Ground Fair. In those early years the two grew their customer base mostly by word of mouth; now they use professional distribution agents.
And, these days, like most business ventures, Mother’s Mountain has a website and a presence on Facebook and Instagram, although Tanner said it’s been a tough learning curve, particularly keeping up with social media, which Proctor said could be a 40-hour-a-week job by itself.
Proctor said although Mother’s Mountain was doing fairly well selling mustards, “we knew we had to diversify to survive.” So about 15 years ago, Tanner and Proctor began making jam, and now jam sales are about 65 percent of their business.
In addition, the two have also responded to the demand for more adventurous foodstuffs with their hot sauces and chili salsa. Proctor said the ketchup market is also beginning to explode, and he’s also planning a new pepper jelly product since their Rosy Red and Green Lightning pepper jellies are proving to be so popular.
But even with all these market changes, Tanner and Proctor still rely on many of her family’s old recipes. For instance, Proctor said the chili salsa recipe is from the 1880s and “we make our jams just like your grandmother would.”
Proctor said Mother’s Mountain is still growing in sales every year, even though the competition for gluten-free, salt-free and all-natural products is getting fiercer all the time.
Proctor said part of their success comes from being “very picky” about where they sell their products. Although Mother’s Mountain is now basically a wholesale business, Proctor said he will also still whip up batches for direct-to-consumer orders, as long as they’re big enough.
Tanner and Proctor like to buy their ingredients from local producers whenever possible, but said their mustard seed mostly comes from out west or Canada.
Through it all, Tanner said, “we’ve met a lot of interesting people, including Julia Child, and we’ve made the best of friends with other foodies.”
And Proctor said the best test of Mother’s Mountain products is that he and Tanner eat everything they make.
“We haven’t bought mustard at the supermarket for 35 years,” he said.
Dennis Proctor of Mother’s Mountain in Falmouth labels jars for the company’s popular Fire Eater hot pepper sauce.
Carol Tanner, holding a bottle of Mother’s Mountain barbecue sauce, points to an early poster advertising the company’s products. Thirty-five years after selling its first jar of mustard, Mother’s Mountain is still going strong.
A vat of super spicy beer mustard waits to be poured into jars at Mother’s Mountain company in Falmouth.
Carol Tanner, of Mother’s Mountain, holds out jars of specialty barbecue sauce and a salad dressing.