Consumer packaged goods are like any other product—prestige comes from small audiences, but the big money comes from the masses. Like the filmmaker who crosses over from the art house to the multiplex, Greg Vetter, co-owner of Tessemae’s All Natural with his brothers Brian and Matt, has charted a path from Whole Foods to Costco, where in certain regions his product has become the "first perishable dressing in Costco history."
We caught up with Vetter—lacrosse player, clubbing enthusiast, and now, salad dressing magnate—to hear in his own words how he and his brothers transformed a family recipe into a multi-million dollar business.
GREG VETTER: My brothers and I were wild as hell, and my mom had to figure out how to get us to eat our vegetables. She made this lemon garlic dressing, and suddenly we were just crushing salad at dinner. We played high school, college, and professional lacrosse, and the only thing the teams ever asked of our mom was to bring that salad dressing. When we went to college, she made it for our college houses in two-liter bottles.
I moved in with my girlfriend, now wife, and my mom made salad dressing for our house. One day in January of 2009, I came home to have lunch, and the salad dressing was missing from the fridge. I called one of my buddies, Smitty, who does not eat salad—he eats Taco Bell for lunch every day—and I was like, "Did you take my salad dressing?" And he said, "Yeah, I woke up, I needed it, I knew the code to your house, I got it, and now I’m eating spinach." I’m like, "Well, bring it back." He’s like, "Okay."
Later I’m with my mom, and I’m like, "What kind of man steals another man’s salad dressing?" I'm like, "I think we should bottle this. If I get us into Whole Foods, will you go into business with me?" She was like, "It’s never gonna work." I was like, "That’s not what I asked you."
I called Whole Foods and told them I was a food manufacturer, which wasn’t true. I got a meeting with one of the grocery buyers, and I walked in with a Tupperware container of salad. The guy’s like, "Where’s the packaging?" I’m like, "Dude, you’re busy, it’s lunch, I brought you a salad." He looks at me like I’m on something, but soon he’s taking these pieces of wet lettuce and licking the dressing off. He says, "You have something special."
They handed me about 200 pages of paperwork I had to fill out to get into Whole Foods. I went to the computer and Googled, "how to be a food manufacturer." I just started calling people: "Listen, Whole Foods said yes. I have til the end of April to get this done. I need your help, because I don’t know shit about shit." I Googled "bottle distributor Annapolis." I Googled "label requirements for sauces and dressings." I Googled "food science labs in Maryland."
These 200 pages, I’d hand-write the answers and scan them over, the individual pages. They were like, "Listen, man, you can give us the pages all at once."
May 1, 2009, we’re at the opening of the Annapolis Whole Foods. We end up breaking a national sales record. In the first five days we sold 55 cases of the lemon garlic dressing. They had never seen something like it.
In June of 2009, I called these four other stores. I was like, "Hey, I sold this much salad dressing in the month of May," and they’re like, "Yes, please." Historically, salad dressing’s a very slow-moving product, maybe four cases in a month. We sold 55 in a week.
My brothers and I would stand behind a demo table. We’re anywhere between 6’ and 6’3", and we were selling salad dressing to housewives. "Oh, it’s our mom’s salad dressing." We figured out, "Hey, the brothers can’t be doing demos every day of the week. But we can find other good-looking people to stand in grocery stores and tell our story and hand out our dressing."
In May 2010 we jumped to about 18 stores, and in May 2011 we jumped to all the stores in the mid-Atlantic. We expanded from lemon garlic to balsamic. Then we came out with a couple more products. Four of our dressings were in the top five in the mid-Atlantic. Then we jumped into the South region of Whole Foods. People were like, "Oh you’re only successful because you’re local." I’m like, "You’re wrong."
In October 2012, we went to Whole Foods Vision Day in Brooklyn, New York, to present the brand to all the decision makers across North America. We’re very wild, we don’t hold anything back. The same way we are to you, we are to the CEO of Whole Foods. And the product speaks for itself. Next thing we know, we have verbal approval from every regional president. So we went from two regions to every region in one day.
We’re making dressing the way your mom would make it. We’re mass-producing it, without cutting any corners. I don’t think food should innovate at all. That’s why obesity is so high. If you look at graphs of increasing obesity versus increase in food innovation versus decline in test scores in the U.S., it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, "Maybe we should stop innovating food, because it’s making everybody fat and stupid."
We had to innovate in a completely different way. We knew what our end result had to be, so we innovated on the back end. We went up to a co-packer, but they wanted us to use things we didn’t want to use, like xanthan gum. So instead my brother Matt took this mixing-turbine-type-deal like a boat propeller and just added additional props to it, to turn the dressings in different ways. If we turn the dressing in 10 different ways, we don’t have to use a thickening agent.
Five years ago, Whole Foods was the grand slam. But to put things in perspective, Costco does 100 billion a year. Whole Foods does 10. Costco's volume is ridiculous. It allows us to get into mainstream America with a product that traditionally would only be seen in Whole Foods.
We’re the first perishable salad dressing in Costco’s history. For us that’s a huge thing, because we’re a relatively new brand. It’s something that not many consumer packaged goods in history have been able to do, and they definitely haven’t been able to do it in five years. We’ll be able to touch people we were never able to get to.
We went from $30,000 in 2009 to 60 in 2011, then in 2012 we did $800,000, in 2013 we did $4 million, and in 2014 we’re on track to do $25 million.
We’re crushing it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
[Images courtesy of Tessemaes]