Mustard Moguls: A Brief History Of Herlocher Foods
It looked like the perfect Happy Valley match.
The 124-year-old Gentzel building, home of the All-American Rathskeller and five other businesses, paired with an iconic Centre County family whose name-wrapped jars of dipping mustard have dotted tailgate tables for decades.
Chuck and Neil Herlocher, the father-and-son owners of Herlocher Foods, quietly purchased the historic State College property last June.
“Business there will continue as usual,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.”
Six months later, the Herlochers found themselves in the middle of a community firestorm when it was announced that both the Rathskeller and Spats Cafe would close. The family released an open letter that suggested the new owners of the property would attempt to preserve the previous atmosphere.‘Save the Skeller’ petition, hundreds of one-star Facebook reviews, and reams of angry comments indicated that most Penn Staters remained unconvinced.
But Herlocher Foods — more specifically, the company’s dipping mustard — shares a lengthy history with the community it provoked and has grown steadily as a corporation since the first vat of its famous condiment was cooked.
Chuck Herlocher opened a railroad-themed restaurant called the Train Station on East College Avenue in 1972, according to the Centre Daily Times. Alumni remember it as a popular, rustic-feeling, fun place to play backgammon and enjoy a meal. It wasn’t until the restaurant relocated to the building that now houses Envy Nightclub in 1978 that the Herlochers first began serving complimentary house-made dipping mustard and pretzels to customers while they waited for their food or drinks, according to the company’s official website.
“We made mustard twice a week in our kitchen, and in a month we gave away two tons of pretzels with our mustard,” Neil Herlocher explains in a video on the company website.
The Herlochers reportedly decided to mass-produce their mustard for consumption outside the family restaurant after a homesick Penn Stater living in California sent a letter and $20 asking them to send him some of the dipping mustard he missed so badly. Soon, the Herlocher name could be found on the shelves of an ever-expanding list of grocery stores in the northeast.
Neil Herlocher returned to Happy Valley after spending his college years in Boston and assumed his current position as president of the company in the early ’90s, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 1997, the company began to produce Penn State-labeled mustard for its local fans.
Today, Herlocher’s dipping mustard can be found in stores across the country thanks to a partnership with Kroger, the American grocery giant comprised of more than 2,700 food retail stores across North America.
“Kroger has taken us nationwide,” Herlocher says in the online video.
Herlocher’s mustard has branched into several unexpected markets since its departure from the Train Station. In Columbus, football fans can find Ohio State-labeled jars of mustard. In 2016, the company announced a trial partnership with Subway, which added the yellow spread to 300 of its establishments as a topping for a special pretzel sandwich.
In addition to their consistently expanding food corporation, the Herlochers have maintained a significant downtown real estate presence in State College. When the Train Station closed in 1985, the Daily Collegian reported that Chuck Herlocher owned a bar, a bottle shop, and three CC Peppers restaurants downtown.
The building that houses the Herlocher Foods headquarters is also home to Herlocher Enterprises, a realty company. Chuck and Neil Herlocher purchased the Gentzel building using the company name Cornelius LLC. A search of their last name in the Centre County Tax Assessment Office online database also lists the family as the owners of several downtown State College properties different from its 415 East Calder Way office address, including 434 East College Avenue, 432 East College Avenue, and 458 East College Avenue. Several other properties in the non-downtown residential area of the borough also appeared in the search.
Herlocher Foods has grown and prospered in State College and has developed unquestionable historical ties to the community and town — attributes that the family is quick to point out in its company branding and public statements.
“We are a family of Penn Staters and State College natives who live here, work here, and are raising our family here,” the family writes in its open letter on the Gentzel building. “We, like many of you, believe that certain things should remain.”
As we approach this weekend’s last call for the Rathskeller as we know it, it’s yet to be seen what exactly will remain in its place.