When most baseball fans order a hot dog at the ballpark, they reach for the yellow mustard when it comes to topping off their dog.
Unless they’re in Cleveland.
For nearly a century, a vinegar-based brown mustard has been the condiment of choice in Northeast Ohio. “Ballpark mustard” has been a fixture at the city’s baseball games since the 1930s, making its path through the various homes of the Cleveland Indians and finding its way into everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to homemade barbecue sauces at the city’s various restaurants today. Stadium mustard is something the city feels passionate about. “The baseball experience certainly isn’t complete without having a hot dog with Cleveland-style mustard,” says Morris Eckhouse, a Cleveland-based baseball historian with the Baseball Heritage Museum, housed within the team’s first home, League Park.
It’s also sparked a decades-long rivalry. Even word choice here opens up a can of worms. Call the condiment “ballpark mustard,” and you’re actually using shorthand for Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard, the brand that started it all. Refer to it as “stadium mustard” and it’s an accidental allegiance to Stadium Mustard, Bertman’s chief competitor for more than 40 years now. “As long as I [can remember] — and I’m in my fifties, both mustards have been around,” Eckhouse says. “Both have their stories. You know if you prefer one or the other.” Each brand has its passionate fans, and the question of which reigns supreme still remains unsettled today.
So what exactly is this stuff, anyway?
The mustard Clevelanders have been so familiar with for nearly a century is spicy, brown, and vinegar-based. The ingredients list reads as refreshingly straightforward: for Bertman’s, distilled vinegar, #1 mustard seed, sugar, salt, and spices. Stadium’s label is even less complicated: vinegar, water, #1 mustard seed, salt, and red pepper. The Bertman brand clings to its secret mix of spices for its success. “We haven’t changed the recipe in 92 years,” says chief operating officer Eric Wilson. Meanwhile, David Dwoskin, president of Davis Food Co., which makes Stadium, describes his mustard as “very mild” and quite healthy.
A hot dog is a natural vehicle for either product — those who enjoy mustard on a dog find a more mellow flavor than yellow mustard, and a slight sweetness to contrast with the salty hot dog, without too much heat. “When I grew up in Cleveland, I knew yellow mustard existed — but I would never put it on a hot dog,” says chef Michael Symon, owner of Lola’s, B-Spot, and the barbecue restaurant Mabel’s, where Bertman is prominently featured.
Though the condiment is generally pervasive in Northeast Ohio, odds are most sports fans have experienced it at a stadium. The Cleveland Browns feature Stadium Mustard as an offering at FirstEnergy Stadium. But Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians, has exclusively carried Bertman for decades.
“It is a major aspect of the culture here at Progressive Field, as it was at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, as it was back in our first home, League Park,” says Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland Indians’ senior vice president of public affairs, who has worked for the team for nearly 40 years. Even ushers at the field are trained to field questions about the mustard, including facts about his history and where out-of-town fans can find it outside of the park.
Where did it come from?
It all started in 1920, when Joe Bertman first founded the company as a wholesale grocery firm out of his garage, producing spices and pickles (in the mid-1930s, it was known as Bertman Pickle Co.). It was in the 1930s that the company’s mustard found its way to the Cleveland Indians’ first home. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Bertman himself says League Park was his first big customer in 1932, but other sources show it first being sold in 1938. Until the early 1970s, it was only sold in gallons, but afterwards began to appear in supermarkets.
As the Cleveland Indians changed homes, Bertman went with it. It was available in the Cleveland Municipal Stadium and eventually made its way to Jacob’s Field (now Progressive) when the Tribe relocated there in 1994. “It fell in line with our marketing strategy,” says DiBiasio, remembering the time when they were transitioning fans from a giant, 70,000-seat stadium to a more intimate 40,000-seat ballpark. Having a local, female-owned business as a partner was also good press for the team: Part of the credit for the company’s longtime relationship with the team is due to the efforts of Patricia Mazoh, Morris remembers, who was running the company at the time. “She was known as the Mustard Lady,” he says. Mazoh was also Bertman’s daughter.
It was during those years at Municipal Stadium that David Dwaskin had his first taste of Bertman’s mustard, going to his first baseball game at age 12. “I bit into a hot dog, and it was the best hot dog I ever had in my life,” he says. “I realized it wasn’t just the hot dog — it was also the mustard. Though I was only 12 years old, the taste never left me.” But he never saw the mustard outside the stadium. Years later, he went back as an adult and realized it was the same mustard.
Dwaskin approached Bertman and began working as a sales rep, selling the mustard to retailers. His Davis Food Company originally partnered with Bertman, but the companies parted ways in the early 1980s. Dwoskin now sells his own version of the mustard under the Stadium brand, producing it both wholesale and retail. “It’s grown every year since we started,” he says.
Their presence grows — and the rivalry continues
Today, Stadium Mustard can be found in 150 stadiums and arenas across the country, and continues to grow its presence through online sales. It’s available in every state, but it is only Ohio where it’s truly pervasive, according to Dwaskin.
Bertman currently can be found in such Northeast Ohio retail shops as Kroger, Giant Eagle, Buehler’s, and Heinen’s, as well as more than 80 country clubs across the area. It’s also collaborated on menu items with Great Lakes Brewing Company (they created a beer-flavored mustard with the Cleveland brewery), Melt Bar & Grill, and the Proper Pig Smokehouse. It also enjoys some online sales: Bertman is on Amazon and is prominently featured in Cleveland in a Box, a retail package aimed at natives who have left the area. Wilson sees a more prominent national rollout in the company’s future, but it won’t happen overnight. Word of mouth, though, has brought the product to some interesting places, such as Universal Studios in Orlando and the Oakland Coliseum. Both companies acknowledge their mustards are still chasing yellow mustard in terms of product recognition.
Since the parting of ways, a rivalry naturally has surfaced between the companies. Ask each about their competitor and you’ll get diplomatic but slightly barbed responses. “There is no sugar in our product,” Dwaskin is quick to point out as a selling point for Stadium. “The real fans know who the original is,” proclaims Bertman principal Michael Mintz. But he also notes, “it’s ok to have competition. It keeps you on your toes.’
Both can point to anecdotes of extreme loyalty for their particular product. Mintz talks of visitors to out-of-state ballparks sneaking bottles of Bertman into the stands, and families of armed servicemen sending care packages that place Bertman in the commissary. “Every time we run into someone and they hear we’re with Bertman, they say, ‘Oh, I have that in my refrigerator,’” says Mintz. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…”
Dwaskin speaks of a customer suffering from a disease who bought five cases in the hopes he’d outlive finishing them off. The company’s website is filled with photo testimonials from fans across the country. Stadium Mustard has even made its way to outer space, courtesy of NASA Mission Specialist and fan Don Thomas. Dwaskin has heard lore of people drinking the mustard straight out of the bottle, filling baby bottles with it as favors, and giving it away at weddings.
Symon, for his part, is Team Bertman. “To me it has just a little more depth of flavor,” he says. Symon was passionate enough about the product to make it the main base flavor of the barbecue sauce he uses at his restaurant Mabel’s. “I have never liked ketchup-based barbecue sauces; I think they’re too sweet. When we started using Bertman’s as a base, people would just freak out about it.”
Some were skeptical of the brown-colored appearance of the sauce, but Symon had an answer ready: “If Clevelanders give me too much grief, I always point out that Heinz is made in Pittsburgh. I ask them, Would they rather have brown sauce or Steelers sauce?’”