Don and Kelly Smiley’s love story began 17 years ago, about the same time he fell in love with her mustard.
Don’s from Willowick. Kelley hails from “Big Sky Country.”
“Don and I were married there in 2008 in Glacier National Park. I am a Montana girl and we thought it was appropriate to bring Montana to Cleveland in this way.”
They make Montana Girl Mustard, a condiment close to a cowgirl’s heart.
An old family recipe retrieved and revised
Kelley was in her kitchen thumbing through an index card box when she rediscovered a decades-old family recipe.
She remembered the mustard for its sharp, hot, pungent flavor. “It’s kind of sweet, but it ends with a spicy kick.”
Don became an instant fan. “When I first met her she would make the mustard only at holidays. It was really just a couple times a year. It was a dipping mustard for cheese and crackers.”
Don and Kelley are full-time IT professionals. Neither has any culinary training, but Kelley worked as a line cook and baker starting in high school.
She tweaked the family recipe to make it sweeter and spicier. “It’s got that kick like horseradish,” she says, “but there is no horseradish. It’s just our little secret recipe.”
Don thinks the kick comes from the combination of apple cider vinegar and mustard flour.
“Everyone that ever had it, they’re like ‘Oh, this is great. Can I get the recipe?’ We started eating it more and I said, ‘We’ve got to put it on this, we’ve got to try it on that.”
They would give it away at Christmas.
“We would just put it in a little jar," says Kelley, "and I had a little homemade label, and it was kind of nice.”
Butcher shops are stocking it
Feedback was so good, Don decided to talk to their neighborhood butcher about stocking Kelley’s homemade mustard.
“Right up the street from us, Rudy’s Quality Meats in Willowick. We said ‘Hey, could we do this? Let’s try it.’”
That was back in 2013. Today, Montana Girl Mustard is on the counter at Jaworski’s Meats in Middleburg Heights, Gibbs Butcher Block in Columbia Station, Corky and Lenny’s in Woodmere, and more than a dozen other butcher shops and fresh markets.
Don Smiley’s pleased about his newest customer, The Grocery, a new store in Ohio City. “They’re now carrying our product, both from a retail point, but they also use our food service-size jar on sandwiches.”
The Smiley’s now have 10 food service customers stocking Montana Girl Mustard in full and half-gallon jars. They also hope to get local chefs and restaurant owners interested. “We heard Michael Symon loves mustard,” says Kelley, “so we’d love for him to try it.”
Spreading themselves thin for their mustard
The Smiley’s claim after one taste of Montana Girl Mustard, the cowgirl kick will brand you for life.
But establishing the business hasn’t been easy.
“To hold down fulltime jobs and make mustard in the evenings and sell mustard on the weekends, it’s been a bit stressful,” says Don. “But we’re getting through it.”
“Yeah, Kelley concurs. “There’s been a lot of legal type things and food requirements, so yeah, there’s been a lot of work to get to this point. So we’re hoping to keep moving forward.”
Don and Kelley used to make the mustard at home in Willowick. Now they cook and bottle it with state-of-the-art equipment at a commercial kitchen in downtown Cleveland.
“We use a big steam kettle cooker,” says Don. “We just actually started using that a couple of weeks ago. Before that we were just using a normal four-burner stove.”
“When I’m cooking it on the stove,” says Kelley, “I have to really whisk it and stir it a lot and in the steam it just seems to cook a nice consistency.”
Support from their fellow producers
At Cleveland Culinary Launch and Kitchen the Smiley’s share equipment and work alongside other independent food producers, like Andrew Rain of Randy’s Pickles. “They make some awesome mustard,” says Rain, “and it’s such a shared kitchen that we’re in. Everybody’s kind of in the group together. So it’s great to have people like them here.”
Choice Catering’s Patrick Kander also works in the kitchen, and likes having the mustard on hand. “It is the best mustard around. Being able to look behind you and know that you can use a product that’s being made right in the same space that you’re in is a really nice feature of this place. I’ve done mustard barbecue sauce. I use it as the stabilizer in my vinaigrettes.”
The Smileys have found other uses, like marinating pork chops, drizzling it on pierogies, and using it in coleslaw. “The Montana Girl Mustard and a little ranch dressing, “ says Kelley, “instead of the mayonnaise.”
From Montana with love for Cleveland
The Smiley’s say their key ingredient is Cleveland’s culinary renaissance. “A lot of growth," says Don, "a lot of new potential here in Cleveland. It’s like this old city that’s energized with all these great ethnicities, and mustard goes so well with all kinds of different things.”
If business goes well, Kelley hopes to quit her IT job to put more giddy-up into Montana Girl Mustard, and maybe take it national.