Led by His Nose, an Entrepreneur Launches Mustardstore.com
An instant business is born: Just add customers
Here's a late 20th century tale that Marcel Proust might appreciate: A young man, haunted by the taste of a simple, honey-flavored mustard
his grandmother served in southern France, creates a Net business to make
the delicacy available anywhere.
DJ (a.k.a. Didier Vallauri), a 34-year-old entrepreneur in Whippany, N.J.,
and his wife, Marcella, took $20,000 of their savings and in early December opened
mustardstore.com, which they are billing as the "world's largest 'mustard
only' store on the World Wide Web."
In fact, it seems to be the only site claiming such exclusivity, though
other Net food sellers offer mustard. The niche-of-niches strategy hasn't
drawn much business, yet. As of the afternoon of Dec. 7, mustardstore.com made
three sales, for a total of about $30. Still, Vallauri is convinced that
there's ample interest in the tangy sauce, which market research shows
to be a favorite U.S. condiment. "I am hoping the site will become a mustard community, if you will," says Vallauri. "There are a lot people out there who are into this stuff. It is almost like an
Of course, Vallauri's not talking about the drippy yellow stuff on ballpark
hot dogs. Want something spicy and hot? Mild with dill or garlic? How about
fruit mustard from the Caribbean? It's all there. The site has a search engine that allows you to search
by brand, manufacturer, or characteristics. Mustards range in price from
around $4.55 for a Chinese brand called Kame to $13 for Pommery, a French
brand. Vallauri says his site's appeal won't be low cost, or even for brands available
in stores. Instead, it's variety.
Although Proust's masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, unfolds from
the memories evoked by the taste of a madeleine -- a shell-shaped cookie
-- dipped in tea, Vallauri's sensory revelation came from Savora, a French
mustard that his grandmother served with rotisserie chicken. "I have always
had a love for this specific mustard, and I could never find it here. But
every time I would travel through Europe, I would bring it back," Vallauri
Vallauri was born in Queens, N.Y., of French parents. He got his
nickname because kids thought his mother was saying "DJ" when she called
for him. Beside his French heritage, little in Vallauri's background predestined
him for a gourmet niche market. He went to work right after high school
for airlines, bringing planes off ramps. Then, he jumped to the hospitality
sector, where he learned about reservations technology.
HOT PROSPECTS. Today, Vallauri is vice-president of marketing and business development for
Alphanet Hospitality Systems in Ramsey, N.J., which sets up mini-technology
centers for corporate travelers in hotels. "I saw the Internet as an opportunity
to apply the distribution and the electronic commerce background that I
had with reservations technology to become a clearinghouse, if you will,
for mustards," he says.
Can Vallauri keep faith with the virtual mustard community? He'll rely
on agreements with the mustard manufacturers, many of which are tiny, family-owned
concerns. Several have their own Web sites, but not online stores. That's
where mustardstore.com comes in. Goods are generally shipped via United Parcel Service.
Mustard makers seem glad to have him, anyway. "We are a tiny, little
business that concentrates on putting out good quality products," says
Nancy Raye, president of JW Raye & Co. in Eastport, Me. Her family
has made mustard for 100 years. "If he sold even $3,000 to $5,000 of our
mustard in the first year, that would be incredible," she says.
Though Web businesses tend to be synonymous with rapid delivery,
customers who have a burning need for a certain brand of hot, green Japanese
mustard may have to wait: Vallauri says it can take up to two weeks to
get a particular mustard delivered, because many suppliers are in remote places. Plus, reasons Vallauri, who'll pay for overnight shipping on a $10 jar of mustard?
At this point, Vallauri sells only 350 of the world's 2,000 mustard
varieties. But, he says, it's only a matter of time before his company becomes
the definitive mustard resource. "We will be continually adding new mustards,"
says Vallauri, whose site is targeting high-income people who
are into gourmet food and cooking. Despite his unpromising first week,
he expects $5 million in total sales in the next two years. How did he
arrive at that figure? He cites a study by the market-research firm Find/SVP,
which says 83% of U.S. households use mustard.
Chip M. Hearn, chief operating officer of Peppers Inc., a hot-sauce specialty store that has sold via the Web for the past three years, says
he's lucky if his site pulls in $200,000 in sauce sales a year. "I
don't know how the heck [Vallauri] could possibly do that, but more power to him
if he can," Hearn says.
Vallauri, who's operating out of his house, offers an unProustian retort: "Mustard is a huge market." For all the entrepreneur's sentimental inspiration, he'll have to bank on that.
By Jeremy Quittner in New York