Maryland salad dressing makers seek to expand

EASTPORT — The Vetter family takes pride in their homemade salad dressing, from its natural ingredients on down to the slightly crooked bottle labels.

But as the demand for Tessemae’s All Natural grows, the Vetters realized they needed to speed up their rate of production. They are waiting to learn if they’ve been approved for a $200,000 loan. They would use that money to buy labeling, capping and kitchen equipment. They will learn about the loan within a couple of weeks.

“We’re trying to figure out how to mass produce something that is handmade,” said 28-year-old Greg Vetter, who holds the job title “Oldest Brother.” ”The only reason we’re a business is because people like the (natural) taste of our dressing.”

Since 2009, Tessamae’s has used garlic, organic lemons, sea salt and other ingredients to create its product. The salad dressings are sold only at Whole Foods.

The Vetters started out with four salad dressing flavors in the chain’s mid-Atlantic region. Now their product is stocked in stores from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Memphis, Tenn.

They are gearing up to supply an order of 80,000 bottles of dressing — their largest order to date. Three more dressings and a hot sauce will be introduced next month.

Last year, the company generated $500,000 in revenue. With the expansion of the product’s service area, they expect to make at least $3 million this year. They thought about increasing production before, but that came with suggestions to substitute their natural ingredients with items like rehydrated garlic and citric acid. They opted not to go that route.

“We’re making this and realizing that this dressing we make cannot be made for a normal manufacturing facility,” said middle brother Brian, 25. “We use it more for cooking than salad.”

Each salad bottle tells how they got their start. Mother Teresa Vetter created the dressing as a healthy treat for her three athletic sons — Greg, Brian and 24-year-old Matt. Eventually, they got the idea to sell it and Tessemae’s All Natural — named for Teresa — was born.

Everyone in the family has a role, and they go by the casual job titles of Mom, Daddio, Older Brother, Middle Brother, Youngest Brother and Wifey, which goes to Greg’s wife, Genevieve. But technically, Brian handles business development, Genevieve oversees the sales operation and Brian’s fiancee Claire Bowersox is the director of purchasing and production. Greg handles “everything but the kitchen sink,” he said.

They got their start at Whole Foods, where the three brothers provided samples at the store’s grand opening at Annapolis Towne Centre. They sold more than 600 bottles in 2009, all the while making it in the kitchen of Adam’s Ribs after hours. The restaurant also began using it as a house salad dressing for their customers.

The Vetters said they got this far not only because of their product, but because of their distinctive style. They sing in their voicemail greetings, avoid business attire and formal meetings. Once, Brian Vetter drew attention to the salad dressing by wearing bright red skinny jeans and a graphic T-shirt. They hold weekly brainstorming sessions at Brian’s Eastport house where they reach out to their workers around the country who provide Tessemae’s samples.

“We don’t view it as going to the office because we don’t have an office,” Genevieve said.

Previously, their largest production order was for 40,000 bottles of salad dressing. That called for two weeks of 18-hour work days. They said the labeling was the hardest part, so automatic labels and piston fillers are among the things they will buy if they get their loan. They’ll also buy 300-gallon tanks, which will allow them to make 10,000 bottles a day. However, that is all contingent on the loan.

“You can’t make $3.5 million worth of salad dressing by hand,” Greg said.

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