Victoria Miller had dreamed of having her own food business for a long time. A self-described “foodie” since the age of 20, she’s always loved trying new recipes and playing with flavors. After years of taking “a billion” cooking classes at various places around the Bay Area and putting together different textures, she did know she didn’t want to be a chef. But if she had the time and resources someday, she thought, she’d really love to put together a food business, somehow making something. In the meantime, she’d continue to moonlight at her full-time job as a licensed medical social worker for Kaiser Permanente.
“I was always envious of someone who came up with this great sauce and then suddenly it’s on the market and everybody’s buying it, and I thought ‘Well, I could do that.’ I just need the time and the money and the energy to do it,” she said.
Then an article she read in a newspaper last January showed her the way she could do it. Someone in SoCal was making chocolate bars for a fundraiser. Due to the new cottage food law—the California Homemade Food Act—the chocolate maker could now actually make products at home and sell the chocolates legally.
“I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for,’” she said. “I’ve always wanted to try a food business, but it was too expensive or too risky and I didn’t want to put out a whole lot of expense for something I wasn’t sure I’d like doing or wasn’t sure would sell. And I thought this would be a low-risk way to try something.”
The timing of the new law was also fortuitous for Victoria. After having spent six years doing graduate work for her social work license, she had gotten more and more into cooking because she no longer spent the majority of her free time studying.
Without knowing anything about the food business or how to start one, she jumped in and applied by filling out the licensing form for cottage food purveyors. She had originally thought sauces might be a good thing to sell but wasn’t quite sure what she was going to make. Victoria started filling out the form. When she came to the part where it asked you to check the box for what you wanted to make, she decided to check off the boxes for anything that she thought might interest her—molé sauce, coffee, all of the things she thought she could possibly make. Having checked off an ambitious number of choices, she submitted her application for a cottage food license.
Then she got a phone call from the county. To approve her application, they needed exact labels and ingredient lists for everything she’d checked off that she wanted to sell. They wanted to know what she was planning to make in order to approve it for sale. Knowing she couldn’t possibly make everything she’d checked off—going back to the proverbial drawing board—Victoria revisited the list and started a process of elimination.
Victoria knew she could do baking, but she’d never really been that into it. She was into the stovetop—sauces, stews, roasts, sauces. Cooking was where her passion lied. Grow your own vinegar? Didn’t want to do that. Molé sauce? Interesting, but a lot of work. She looked into anything that wasn’t baking and decided that mustard was something she could definitely do.
“I knew I could do it. I knew I could make it. I knew I could sell it. I knew I could make a business out of it, so I went for that,” she said.
And with that, Brown Dog Mustard was born.
Victoria spent the next three or four months developing recipes for different kinds of mustard and discovering the intricacies around the legal definition of mustard, which as she learned, are quite restrictive when made at home. Despite being legally limited to primarily dry ingredients and spices for her mustards, Victoria currently sells bacon, honey, Chinese chipotle flavored and whole grain mustards.
Even though Victoria has only been selling her mustards since last May, she’s hoping to expand throughout 2014. She plans to take a course at the Food Craft Institute in January and she’s also thinking about commercial kitchen space. A commercial license would help her be able to expand her offerings and experiment with other ingredients—such as adding beer her mustards or branching out to other sauces such as ketchup or a smoky sweet sauce.
Oh, and the brand name? That was a way to involve her husband Scott in the business and have him feel comfortable selling the brand. Victoria said if it were up to her, she might have chosen a more feminine name, “like butterflies and blueberries,” she joked. Instead they went with a more German (Victoria’s father is of German descent) or craft-beer style brand feel to reflect the kind of food that pairs well with the kinds of mustards they’re making. The Brown Dog behind the label is the family dog, Kona.
“We’re not Hawaiian, so we went with Brown Dog,” Victoria said.
What drew you to food?
One of my first roommates was a vegetarian, which was completely foreign to me because I grew up in a meat-eating family. That you didn’t have to eat meat at every meal—that’s where I started changing my view on food and flavors. And from there it went to cooking classes and exploring different ways to cook.
It was food I’d made before. I knew I could do it and put flavors together because I love mustard, and I knew the flavors and thought other people would love it too and it sold—it was one of the few things on the CFO list that I could do well.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
An article in the paper or a magazine or online that talks about sauces or condiments. I read. I read ingredients or I’ll just—if I’m sitting at the TV—I’ll start googling different flavors that people are putting into sauces and condiments and get ideas of what I could put into things. Maybe someone’s putting fennel in something and another with basil, and I’ll be like, oooo, how about fennel basil mustard?
I have a research mind after being in a master’s program, and we learned in research that you look at a bazillion different things and then you start piecing things together from there.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I don’t know if it’s something I’ve heard or told myself, but my motto that I’ve being going by is always be open to suggestion. You don’t have to always do or follow every suggestion, but listen. Especially at the beginning I needed to be ready to change.
Gather as much info as possible and be open to suggestion and information and change.
The biggest challenge is money, and besides money the biggest challenge is—how should I say this—to disregard the impulse to quit my full-time job and just do this full-time. It’s kind of a running joke between me and my husband that I’m just going to do this, because I love this. That’s a personal challenge.
Maybe the biggest business-type challenge is knowing where to spend the money or what to spend it on. Is it jars or lids? Is it organic spices? What is the biggest expense where you want to spend money that will make the biggest impact on your business? Figuring that out and making mistakes along the way and [finding out], well that didn’t do very well
What is the best thing about what you’re doing?
Fun. It’s my passion, it’s fun. For me, it’s fun. One of the reasons I go to the Bay Area Homemade Market and other markets is I love hearing what people say about what I’ve made and hearing that information. How many people like it, how many people don’t like it, why they like it, just hearing that information. Another information gathering, which I love to do, I like to gather information. It’s like real-time research, it’s great.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I just started making the Chinese mustard with chipotle flakes, chipotle seasoning. I had not liked Chinese mustard before because it’s too hot, but this mild powder I found I can make it and eat it and really like it.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Mollie Rose. Everything she makes tastes great. She makes a lot of gluten free stuff that tastes really good and is also healthy. I also admire Jake’s Castro Kitchen—he has so many ideas for flavors. He has so many ideas for flavors, I don’t think he’ll ever run out of ideas. In fact I’m using some of his stuff for my holiday dinners.
One business I admire and I’m trying to model my business after is Inna [Jam]. I talked with her before the Eat Real Festival—I had some questions about the festival—and she responded right away and I hope to be like her.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Steak and chocolate. With a really good mustard on the side.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I really like Camino. I’ve been there a couple times. I really like their food. I don’t go out much because I cook all the time. There’s a lot of good restaurants out there.
Brown Dog Mustard
Photos courtesy of Victoria Miller, Brown Dog Mustard.