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Silver Linings: With a little help, they're putting the mustard on a new career

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader

June 30. 2018 10:25PM
Laurel Smith and her husband, Ed, operate Ruth's Mustard in Charlestown, adapting recipes originally created by her grandmother, Ruth Scranton. (Courtesy)



CHARLESTOWN - Ruth Scranton first whipped up batches of homemade mustard in her Goshen kitchen from a recipe inherited from her mother. Now her granddaughter Laurel combines it with jalapeno peppers, cracked pepper, ice cream - and pretzels made from dried crickets. 

This April, Laurel Smith, 57, of Charlestown and her husband Ed, 60, became one of 102 business owners nationwide to be named Small Business Champions by SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Their hobby turned into a thriving commercial enterprise: Ruth's Mustard, now available in nine flavors, packaged in crates that can be ordered online, and occasionally combined with unorthodox ingredients to create unusual taste sensations. 

Laurel, a former teacher's aide, and Ed, who retired from a career in law enforcement, are two of many older Americans who turn hobbies into businesses, gearing up for new ventures instead of winding down for retirement. 

"When Laurel says, Honey, I've got an idea, it's a cringe-worthy statement," jokes Ed, who now cooks 40-gallon kettles of the mustard once or twice a month at a commercial kitchen in Meredith. "It's been quite a sleigh ride." 

Ruth's Mustard is currently sold statewide in gourmet markets and delicatessens, and at country fairs and family events such as the New Hampshire Fish and Game department's annual wildlife festival.

"Whatever your business is, you have to make sure your really like it because it could really take off," says Laurel, who now helps bottle the mustard, oversees marketing and drives the product to specialty stores.

The Smiths' success, and the increasing popularity of Ruth's Mustard, is a story that defies stereotypes about retirement, entrepreneurship and older workers in general.

According to a 2016 study of startup activity by age, undertaken by the Kauffman Foundation, entrepreneurship has been climbing fastest among the 55 to 64 age group; Americans age 35 or younger start businesses at the lowest rate.

Saying 'no' to retirement

The number of people 62 and older who are self-employed is rising nationwide, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, while the number of self-employed Americans younger than 62 is declining. A 2015 survey by AARP found that only 10 percent of Granite Staters age 50 and older plan to retire and never return to work.

Research demonstrates that being older is often a benefit when starting a business. Mature entrepreneurs draw on larger stores of life and work experience, have better professional networks, can tap greater financial resources either through personal savings or loan access, and have gained in-depth knowledge of their customers needs and preferences by the time they go out on their own.

A 2017 study by four U.S. economists cited in Germany's Handelsblatt Global business daily debunked the myth that the most successful Silicon Valley startups tend to be the work of twenty-somethings: The likelihood of achieving "extreme success" is actually greatest for high-tech entrepreneurs who are 45 to 59 years old.

Older entrepreneurs "come to the game of small-business ownership with a lifetime of experience, which allows them to use previously developed skills," says Hugh Curley, economic development specialist for the New Hampshire office of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Baby boomers with available funds and know-how embark on second careers, either out of desire or necessity, he says.

The challenge for hobbyists transforming their passions into commerce is to understand their costs and budget accordingly; to study the market and objectively assess demand; and to reach out for advice and help when or before they need it, panelists said at a recent AARP workshop on turning a hobby into a business.

"My advice to any senior or younger person starting a business, or transitioning from hobby to business, is to look before they leap into a new venture," Curley says. "It's important to check with someone to look at your product and service, and the viability of it - and get the kinks out before you take it to Broadway."

Laurel and Ed Smith of Charlestown were named Small Business Champions by the Service Corps of Retired Executives for their business, Ruth's Mustard. (COURTESY)

Getting started

Laurel Smith grew up smelling, tasting, and making mustard in her grandmother's kitchen. But it wasn't until she received a request from 12 co-workers at North Charlestown Community School that she guessed demand might stretch beyond friends and extended family at cookouts and gatherings. 

"'You know that mustard you bring? We want some!!' They ordered 61 jars," Smith says. "Ed and I made 24 jars in one night. We made it in our house, wearing goggles and wearing handkerchiefs over our noses." The next 250-jar batch sold out in two months.

Inspired to grow the business further, they invested $2,000 from their 2012 tax refund, and received help from Charlie "Charcoal" Pinney and Matt DeGrosky at Nature Made Kitchen in Keene, who explained how to use commercial cooking equipment and buy in bulk, then introduced them to marketing venues, such as the Keene Pumpkin Festival.

Today, Ruth's Mustard is available in flavors including raspberry, cranberry, cracked pepper, chunky jalapeno, chunky garlic, original sweet & hot, and as a sweet-hot mustard grilling sauce and a maple mustard marinade.

It's sold in specialty food stores including Monadnock Oil and Vinegar in Peterborough, South Street & Vine in Portsmouth, Harman's Cheese and Country Store in Sugar Hill, North Country Marketplace in Colebrook, and Ralph's Supermarket and Emma's Deli in Charlestown.

Smith says she wished she sought SCORE's advice sooner.

"Whatever you think you know, you can always know more. If it's a totally ground-up invention, it just evolves, and you have to be open to evolving with it - and open to taking advice," Smith says. "One man told us, you have to make more than one flavor of mustard or people won't think it's a serious business. I never would have known that."

Attending a two-day workshop for SCORE award winners gave them a network of small-business owners to draw on - including the founders of Cowboy Crickets in Wyoming, makers of spiced, dried crickets and cricket powder used to make high-protein pretzels, which are now served with Ruth's Mustard at fundraisers and joint-marketing events.

Ed Izzo of Nashua, chairman of the Merrimack Valley SCORE chapter, provided the Smiths with specific guidance on defining their mission and goals, growing their hobby into a larger commercial enterprise, and deciding "how much money - and mustard they actually want to create," said Kerry Pfrimmer, New Hampshire district director for SCORE, which has six chapters throughout the state.

"There was a lot of discussion around making versus buying, and leasing a commercial kitchen so their money isn't all tied up in the business," Izzo says.

Last year, local SCORE volunteer mentors ranging in age from mid-teens to 84 helped start 392 new businesses in New Hampshire, offering advice on topics including creating a business plan, bookkeeping, marketing, and social media, and selling or dissolving a business.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire's aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at rbaker@unionleader.com or 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.


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