The world is full of wannabe entrepreneurs who dream of commercializing family recipes, but the road between dreaming and doing is long and impassable for most. Not so for the Vetter brothers, Greg, Brian, and Matthew. They're predicting $35 million in sales this year at the company they started with their mother's salad-dressing recipe.
Tessemae's All Natural (named for their mom, Tesse) is now the No. 1 refrigerated salad dressing at Whole Foods and Safeway, and the company has 22 products, all of which are gluten free, sugar free, and vegan friendly.
It all started when a buddy of Greg Vetter's, a former professional lacrosse player, lifted a bottle of Tesse's salad dressing from his fridge. He was annoyed and then intrigued. If it's worth stealing, then maybe it's also worth selling, he reasoned. He approached a family friend, Julia Obici, a vice president at Whole Foods, about getting the dressing into his local Annapolis, Maryland, store.
"Everyone in the neighborhood knew the dressing, and it was amazing," says Obici. "But I told them they were going to have to go about it the same way as everyone else who feels they have a great product."
That involved approaching local store managers who have purchasing power for their own stores. But the local Annapolis Whole Foods wasn't interested. So Vetter finally got the attention of a regional buyer who tasted the dressing, gave it a thumbs-up, and agreed to let the brothers sample the product at a new store opening in Annapolis Towne Centre. Three cases of salad dressing sold out in half an hour; the following day, another five cases sold in 45 minutes.
The family was mixing the dressing's all natural ingredients by hand, bottling it, and sealing bottles with red wax (à la Maker's Mark bourbon) to avoid having to buy a pricey sealing machine. But when Tessemae's earned shelf space at Whole Foods, followed quickly by regional distribution, the brothers began to think they needed to find a co-packer.
There was just one problem: Every co-packer they interviewed told them that in order to mass produce the dressing, they would need to use lemon juice concentrate and citric acid, an oil blend, and dehydrated garlic rather than fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic cloves. To the Vetters, those compromises were not only ethically unacceptable but detrimental to what they knew was a competitive edge.
Resigned to start their own manufacturing facility, the brothers were considering moving to Kentucky until the city of Baltimore came up with an alternative to keep them local: a reasonably priced, 36,000-square-foot manufacturing plant that spans an entire city block. They also landed a small-business loan and raised $1 million from family and friends to fund inventory and infrastructure. "I always thought it was a great item," says Obici, "but was wondering if the guys would have the chutzpah to put it all together. And they did, which I'm proud of."
"We scaled the entire thing, and it was pretty crazy," says Matt Vetter. "We didn't know what we were doing, and it was a challenge every single day." By the fall of 2013, the brothers decided that the operation was growing beyond their capabilities and that they needed more experienced "ninjas." So they hired two former executives from Medifast to be their CFO and to run their manufacturing operation. "Our bank was busting our balls about whether we could scale," recalls Greg Vetter. "We brought in these guys, and they completely shut up."
The brothers are now talking to other major retailers about carrying their growing line of condiments, which includes dressings, marinades, and spreads. As the company grows, Tesse Vetter still plays an important role. "Every time we bring in another retailer and we scale up, we bring her in and have her make a batch of the lemon garlic dressing and we test it against ours," says Brian Vetter. So far, he says, "we're proving that you can manufacture healthy, clean food the same way you make it at your house. People said it was impossible."