How A Salad Dressing Sparked a Business Plan
Company: Tessemae’s All Natural
Founder: Greg Vetter
Year Founded: 2009
Growing up in Annapolis, Greg Vetter and his two brothers ate their mother’s homemade salad dressing just about every night. Made with all natural ingredients, they took for granted that it was delicious and healthy. But what they didn’t know is that it would one day be the foundation for a business that’s on track to post $3 million in revenue this year.
Vetter, who played professional Lacrosse for the Washington Bayhawks, realized the true value of his mom’s recipe when he found his favorite salad dressing missing one day. “I called a bunch of my buddies and found the guy who took it,” he recalls. “What kind of man steals another man’s salad dressing?”
He figured if the dressing was worth stealing that it may also be worth selling. “I went to my mom and said “if I can get us into Whole Foods, will you go into business with me?” His mom, Theresa (her nickname is Tessemae) agreed, thinking the plan would go nowhere. And it didn’t at first. Calls to the local Annapolis Whole Foods in early 2009 were met with rejection, but Vetter wouldn’t give up.
“A new Whole Foods was opening in May so I knew that every decision-maker for the company on the East Coast would be in Annapolis,” he says. So he called a regional buyer, who finally agreed to taste the dressing. Vetter presented him with a plastic container of dressed lettuce. “He licked the dressing off the lettuce and was super surprised,” says Vetter.
The buyer agreed to give him a shot, which sent Vetter into a frenzy: he’d have two months before the store opening to get up to speed on health codes, order bottles, figure out the manufacturing process and design labels. Labor was the easy part. He had extracted a promise from his mom, after all, and he had two brothers, a dad and a wife—an instant workforce. Vetter scrambled. Bottles were ordered from California, ingredients were purchased at local grocery stores, and a friend with a restaurant offered to let Vetter use his kitchen. In order to avoid buying a costly bottle sealing machine, he decided to seal his bottles with red wax, like Maker’s Mark Bourbon—which is now a trademark of the Tessemae’s brand.
When opening day rolled around, Vetter hauled three cases of dressing to Whole Foods. “We sold them in 30 minutes,” he says. The next day, another five cases sold out in 45 minutes. When Whole Foods asked for another 20 cases, Vetter panicked because he was out of bottles, so he found a place in Baltimore where he could buy 50 cases of beer bottles. “From Wednesday through Saturday, we sold 55 cases of salad dressing, which was a national Whole Foods record for a bottled produce product,” he boasts. That earned him shelf space in the new Annapolis store, and more than 60 Whole Foods stores in other mid-Atlantic locations gradually followed suit.
Vetter thinks the secret to Tessemae’s success is in its simplicity. The company now has seven different dressings and all are made with just a handful of ingredients, all recognizable as what Vetter calls “real food.” But that simplicity is also a problem when it comes to manufacturing. “Every co-packer I call wants to use rehydrated garlic, substitute citric acid and lemon juice concentrate for fresh lemon juice, and us an oil blend instead of olive oil.” Vetter’s response is always the same: “no way.”
That means that he’s still making and bottling the dressing on his own, with the help of family members and a temporary staff of 12 that he brings in for bottling. In January, the company produced 40,000 bottles and in March, there was a purchase order for another 65,000 bottles. Vetter expects Tessemae’s, which did $500,000 in revenue last year, to post up to $3 million this year if he lands the $225,000 manufacturing loan he recently applied for. That will allow him to buy his own bottling equipment and to hire more production staff.
And if he doesn’t get the loan? “Up until now, we’ve financed everything on our own. But we’ve been getting a lot of calls from people wanting to invest. I’m not going to sacrifice the momentum we’ve built because I’m stubborn. If we need to bring on investors, we’ll do it.”
Illustration by Cannaday Chapman