Marceleno Felix's friends often greet him with the question: "Pardon me. Would you have any Grey Poupon?" He always smiles, twitches his heavy black mustache and his ample eyebrows and replies: "But of course."
The Mexico-born Felix, 55, is master mustard maker for Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard at the big Nabisco Brands food plant here. "I get the biggest kick out of those Grey Poupon TV commercials," he said. "my friends all know I'm the guy who makes Grey Poupon."
Few mustard lovers are aware that Grey Poupon is produced in Oxnard, an agriculture-based town 60 miles up the coast from downtown Los Angeles. Most think that the mustard--whose makers call it one of "life's finer pleasures"--is imported from Dijon, France.
Indeed, the formula did come from Dijon. It's the same formula--with a few modifications--devised there in 1777 by a Monsieur Grey, an Englishman, and a Monsieur Poupon, a Frenchman. Their secret recipe uses mustard seed, distilled vinegar, salt, white wine and several unidentified spices.
For 212 years the Grey Poupon firm has produced the creamy yellow mustard with a distinctive pungency. And the Grey Poupon Mustard Shop at 32 Rue de la Liberte in Dijon is owned and operated by Monsieur Henri Poupon, a direct descendant of the founder.
But in 1946, Heublein Inc. purchased the secret formula from the French company and started producing Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard in America. The company made the mustard in Connecticut until 1975, when it moved production to Oxnard.
Then, in 1982, Heublein merged with R.J. Reynolds. Nabisco Brands joined R.J. Reynolds in 1985, and the Nabisco Brand's division of Reynolds has made Grey Poupon for the past four years.
Locked in a Safe
"The entire U.S. supply of Grey Poupon--30 million jars a year--is made at our Oxnard plant," said plant manager I. D. Neel, 43. "Under the agreement with Grey Poupon, we cannot export any of the product outside this country."
Neel says that even he does not know the closely held formula for Grey Poupon.
Mark Gutsche, corporate communications director for Nabisco, said, "The formula is locked in a safe at Nabisco's research and development headquarters in New Jersey. Only four people back there know the formula. The secret is the spices, which are blended in New Jersey and shipped to Oxnard."
The mustard seed for America's Grey Poupon comes from Canada and is stored in two silos at the Nabisco plant here. The wine used in the mustard is a kosher white wine from New York.
"Grey Poupon is certified as a kosher product," Neel said. "A rabbi visits the plant at least once a month to make sure everything we're doing is kosher."
Grey Poupon's sales really took off 10 years ago with the now-familiar advertising campaign created by Lowe Marschalk, a New York ad agency. The product has become the biggest-selling mustard in the premium-priced category.
In the ads, Grey Poupon is shown being used by diners served by a waiter in white dinner jacket aboard a Venice gondola, being exchanged by two passengers in chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces and aboard the Orient Express. The commentary is the same:
"Life's finer pleasures. . . . Happily, some are affordable like Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard. Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon? But of course."