Twenty years ago, Herlocher Foods wrapped jars of its signature dipping mustard with the “Penn State Dipping Mustard” label for the first time, but Herlocher Foods President Neil Herlocher said if it wasn’t for a $20 check from a Penn State graduate almost 40 years ago the mustard might have never been jarred and sold.
Herlocher’s Dipping Mustard has been enjoyed for almost four decades. It is stocked in more than 100 grocery store chains in 30 states across the country, but the tangy treat with State College roots will continue to bring smiles for decades to come.
In the early 1960s, Neil’s father, Charles Herlocher, opened Herlocher’s Restaurant in a house on East College Avenue. The family business evolved into a railroad-themed restaurant called “The Train Station,” which opened in 1972.
To outfit the new restaurant, Herlocher purchased a private railroad museum collection, which eventually grew to become the largest in the United States, according to Neil Herlocher. In February 1978, the restaurant and bar moved into the building next door, which is now home to Envy nightclub.
At the time, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board allowed only a few foods to be given away to bar patrons for free. Pretzels were on the list. Herlocher began to handmake the pretzels in the restaurant and he offered them with a dipping mustard made from a family recipe inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch. The food combination became a staple in the State College bar scene.
In June 1978, Herlocher received a letter with a $20 check that altered the course of the family business.
“Dear Mr. Herlocher, I moved to California after graduation, and I cannot live without your mustard. Please send me whatever this will get me,” the letter read.
Herlocher cooked the salt, fat and gluten-free mustard in 30 gallon kettles and put it into jars to be sold in the bar. He also sent a few to California.
State College stores began stocking the mustard and after a request by BiLo Riverside Market in Dubois for a pallet of the product, Herlocher contracted DelGrosso Foods in Tyrone to mass-produce the mustard.
While the mustard business was taking off, Neil Herlocher was in Massachusetts earning a finance degree from Boston University and an MBA in accounting from Bentley College, now Bentley University.
“When I was getting ready to leave for school, I was planning on majoring in restaurant management,” Neil Herlocher said. “But I was working in the restaurant since I was a kid and my father told me that I learned more in the restaurant than the school would ever teach me, so I decided to get a business degree.”
After Neil Herlocher returned to State College he began to manage Herlocher Foods and eventually became president of the company. In 1997 he was pitched an idea that led to branding the dipping mustard with the Penn State logo.
“I have to give credit to the DelGrosso family for giving us the idea,” Neill Herlocher said. “Joe DelGrosso gave me a call and said, “We’re doing Penn State salsa and I think you should do Penn State mustard.””
Herlocher’s strengthening relationship with Kroger markets, based in Cincinnati, and the popularity of Penn State dipping mustard prompted a call from Kroger. Neil Herlocher was asked if he would consider circulating Ohio State Dipping Mustard, but because of the Penn State roots he was apprehensive to make the deal.
“I really had a hard time doing that but the reality is, you can’t say no to your largest customer,” Neil Herlocher said. “They have 1,200 stores.”
Over the past 20 years, Herlocher’s mustard has been found in surprising places around the world, such as New Delhi, India, Neil Herlocher said. But during a recent trip to the State College post office he was informed of an unexpected location where the mustard was found.
He was mailing a letter with Herlocher’s letterhead and the postal worker told him that he was previously part of the military special forces in Iraq. While conducting raids of Taliban homes, the postal worker said soldiers would make detailed reports of items found in the Taliban homes and Herlocher’s Dipping Mustard showed up on one of the lists.
“I immediately thought ‘Am I on a do not fly or watch list?’ ” Neil Herlocher said with a chuckle. “But when I thought about it, I remembered Campanis Shoe Store in Bellefonte used to send shoe box care packages to the soldiers in Iraq and I would give him 20 or 30 cases of mustard to send over. It made the most sense.”
Herlocher’s mustard can also be found on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ charter flights and recently it was spread on a promotional Subway sandwich served in 500 Subway shops around the region. Neil Herlocher said he is happy with the success, but the most important goal going forward is to continue producing a quality product that customers can trust will never change.
“We have thought about trying different ideas, but we always come back to saying ‘let’s just stick with this’ and it’s made my job a lot easier,” Neil Herlocher said. “My only sales pitch is, ‘please try my mustard,’ and luckily it has worked great.”