Annapolis natives and Tessemae’s founders Brian (airborne), Greg (left) and Matt Vetter.
Want to know the secret recipe for creating a successful salad dressing business from scratch? One: Have a mother who makes delicious, homemade salad dressing. Two: Expand on the mother’s recipe to develop products with clean ingredients that are sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan friendly. And three: Make sure it’s run by three outgoing, handsome and business-savvy lax bros.
These factors are part of what make Tessemae’s All Natural the top-selling refrigerated salad dressing brand at Whole Foods and Safeway. Founded by Annapolis natives Greg, 31, Brian, 29, and Matt, 27, Vetter, the company now sells 12 unique dressing flavors, including the original favorite Lemon Garlic, Cracked Pepper, Lemon Chesapeake and Zesty Ranch, and various condiments and spreads such as Slow Roasted Garlic Spread and Chesapeake Mayonnaise. (Also available at Costco and Harris Teeter.)
Predicting $25 million in sales this year, it’s almost unbelievable that Tessemae’s—named after their mom, Teresa—formed because one of Greg’s friends stole a two-liter bottle of his mom’s lemon garlic dressing out of the fridge. “If a man is going to steal another man’s salad dressing, then I’m going to bottle it,” says Greg with a laugh. “I called my mom and said, ‘If I get us into Whole Foods, will you go into business with me?’ She said that would never happen.”
Greg wasn’t deterred. While the Annapolis Whole Foods was still under construction, the Washington College grad cold-called the grocery store’s team leader, Keith Spriggs—and walked in with nothing but a Tupperware container of romaine lettuce covered in the dressing, which got a rave review. Spriggs referred him to the produce coordinator of the Mid-Atlantic region who gave him the go-ahead to start production on a big order.
“I basically had to Google how to become a food manufacturer,” says Greg, who recruited his brothers, who were Towson University students at the time, to help out. The first time the three brothers whipped up a batch together was in the kitchen of a rib joint after hours—it amounted to four cases worth of salad dressing. After some practice, the product made it to the shelves in time for the Annapolis store’s grand opening on May 5, 2009, and set a national sales record for Whole Foods, selling 55 cases of lemon garlic dressing in one store over five days. Despite the initial success, Greg says the company floundered in the first year, as he was doing it part-time and there was no management. A year after Brian graduated with a communications degree, he came on board to become the first full-time employee, carrying out day-to-day tasks to make sure the company grew.
They came up with a plan to grow the company 20 percent a month for six months. To do this, Greg says the basics of the plan involved getting into additional stores, increasing the number of bottles sold in those stores and then introducing new products. It was a “do whatever it takes to not get kicked out” strategy, he says. Soon after, the product skyrocketed to become a top-seller in Whole Foods for the Mid-Atlantic region—and ultimately enabled Tessemae’s to become a global vendor, with products soon to be sold in Target, Fresh Market, H-E-B in Texas, Roundy’s in the Midwest and Whole Foods Canada.
“It’s crazy, but our Achilles’ heel is that we sell too much in comparison to our competition,” Brian says. “We’re always sold out and they’re always in stock. Our goal now with Whole Foods is to always be in stock and have a beautiful set of dressings that’s always there.”
As far as the roles they play in the company, the brothers joke that their official titles are “oldest” (Greg), “middle” (Brian) and “youngest” (Matt), but they are professionally known as CEO, chief of sales and business development and vice president of product life cycle/super chef, respectively. The trio employs 150 full-time and part-time workers in the company’s new Essex-based headquarters, a 36,000-square-foot manufacturing factory dubbed “The Tree Fort.”
“We call it ‘The Tree Fort’ because as kids, that’s where we’d go to plot the next great adventure, to scheme a sneak attack or to simply run wild,” Greg says. “It’s a place where anything is possible.”
The Fort is also where new products come to fruition. Along with the recent French and Italian additions, Matt says coconut milk-based Caesar and ranch dressings will be added to the new “traditional classics” line. But note: No new flavors go on the market without Mom’s approval.
“She’s our official taste-tester,” says Greg. “Before we release any product, we let her try it and she tells us whether it’s awesome or not.” (The brothers launched Poppy Seed Grapefruit and Oil-Free Italian, which Teresa didn’t like —and they both flopped.)
“We used to ignore some of her advice and we were wrong,” adds Matt. “Now we listen. Mother always knows best.”