It started with the break-in.
Greg Vetter knew that if someone was daring enough to sneak into his Annapolis townhouse to filch a jar of his mother’s homemade salad dressing, there must be people willing to buy the stuff.
Turns out, there are.
Five years after the heist, Tessemae’s All Natural bottles more than 5 million units a year of its 26 dressings — from original lemon garlic to funky green goddess — in a factory outside Baltimore. Tessemae’s is at thousands of stores across the United States, including Whole Foods, Costco, Safeway, and mom-and-pop markets.
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
The company, named for Vetter’s mother, employs 150 people and earns between $2 million and $3 million in operating profit on $25 million a year in sales. It has branched out into mayonnaise, ketchup, barbecue sauce, marinades, and even a line of clothing that includes T-shirts, aprons, hoodies and hats.
The journey of Tessemae’s salad dressing from its humble beginnings as the secret sauce at family tailgate parties to a star at Whole Foods is a tale of persistence, improvisation, mistakes and mentoring.
“It’s 100 percent the American Dream,” said Vetter, who played lacrosse and studied liberal arts and business management at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Chief executive Vetter, 31, and his two brothers own about half of Tessemae’s. Investors — including Evan Morgan of Revolution and Washington business guru Mike McDevitt — own the rest.
The oldest of three boys — his business card reads “oldest brother” — Vetter got the business bug selling employee benefit packages to companies.
Three things happened in that job. He met CEOs and got an inside peek into how companies run. He developed a thick skin when doors were slammed in his face. And he became bored, hoping that there was something better out there.
Vetter called his mother in February 2009 with a proposition: “If I can get us into Whole Foods, will you go into business with me?”
After several unsuccessful e-mails and phone calls, a grocery team leader at the Annapolis Whole Foods agreed to meet him.
Vetter told his mother to “make the greatest batch of lemon-garlic salad dressing that you ever made in your life.”
So one Friday in late February 2009, he walked into Whole Foods with a Tupperware container full of salad dressing tucked under his arm, approached the customer-service counter and asked for the team leader.
“He walked up, looks at me and said, ‘Okay, what do we have?’ I said, ‘Here it is.’ He looks at me like I’m on some drug. I am holding the Tupperware container. I said, ‘I brought you a salad to eat.’ ”
“He looks at me, takes his finger, pulls out a piece of wet lettuce. He licks the dressing but doesn’t eat the lettuce. He looks at me and says, ‘You’ve got something special here.’ ”
Whole Foods said it would give the dressing a shot and scheduled a demonstration and sampling of the salad dressing for the grand opening of its new store location. In the meantime, Vetter would have to create a product, bottle it, label it and get state permission to sell it in time for a public unveiling.
He jumped on Google and started his new journey to become a food manufacturer. He filled out reams of new-vendor paperwork for Whole Foods. Then he set up a company, Tessemae’s All Natural, and developed a bar code.
Vetter found a distributor in Baltimore to sell the new company bottles. A lacrosse buddy designed the labels. They bought lemons and garlic and other ingredients at grocery stores, paying retail.
He even pleaded with a Maryland Health Department employee to expedite his packaging approval. He found a bottling-wax company in Wisconsin that FedEx’d what he needed. He used his mom’s kitchen double boiler to seal the bottles with the wax.
The first cases of Tessemae’s Lemon Garlic were mixed at Adam’s Ribs restaurant in Eastport, Md. The restaurant became the company’s kitchen for the next two-plus years.
The salad dressing’s debut in May 2009 was a huge hit: Whole Foods sold out four cases in 30 minutes. The next day, six cases sold out in 45 minutes.
The first few months were rough. Vetter and his wife, Genevieve, who worked at a staffing firm, gutted their retirement accounts to cover the company’s expenses. They kept their full-time jobs for the next two years so they had something to live on.
“We just didn’t know how you were supposed to do something,” he said.
Vetter’s brother Brian became the first official employee and its general manager on May 1, 2010. He has since been promoted to head of sales.
As they grew, they began to cut costs. They found a bottle manufacturer in Kentucky that reduced the cost of bottles from 50 cents each to about 30 cents. Eventually, they were able to reduce the retail price of a 10-ounce bottle of dressing from $6.99 to $5.49.
“We wanted to get it under $6.99 for sure,” Vetter said. “Five is the magic number for refrigerated dressing. We had to get in that range.”
The company now makes hundreds of thousands of bottles a month at a manufacturing facility near Baltimore dubbed “The Tree Fort,” from their childhood days zip-lining in the woods near home.
By the summer of 2010, a year after their debut in Annapolis, Whole Foods bumped them up from 18 stores to 42, more than doubling the company’s presence.
“It was massive,” said Vetter. “We essentially got a national deal with Whole Foods.”
Now they could really take on economies of scale with up to $100,000 worth of dressing orders a month. They found a Florida company that sold them an automated line to bottle the dressing. Not knowing anything about food manufacturing, they learned after buying the bottling line that they needed an additional $60,000 for an air-compression system to make it work.
The early investors included Adam’s Ribs owner Brian Toomey, who provided cash and the kitchen. Private-equity businessman Jim Chambers, whom Vetter met through Annapolis friends, guaranteed an early bank loan.
A year ago, Vetter was introduced to McDevitt, a former analyst with the Blackstone Group, one of the largest private-equity firms in the world, and former chief executive of Medifast, the Maryland-based publicly traded nutrition and weight-loss company.
Tessemae’s recently raised $3 million from various investors, including Jermon Bushrod of the Chicago Bears and former Baltimore Raven Ed Reed.
“We want to make this work,” said Vetter, who recently finished a nine-day road trip drumming up business. “We will do anything to improve ourselves.”
I asked Vetter if he ever found the perp who stole the dressing.
“It was one of my bros who never ate salad, only Taco Bell. I called him on the phone. He said, ‘I was jonesing for your mom’s dressing. I knew the [security] code to your house. I went to Whole Foods, got some spinach and now I’m crushing it.’ ”
So is Vetter.
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