American comedian, songwriter, and actor Eddie Cantor said, “It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
At first glance this might seem to contradict everything about good business, but it is a philosophy that is driving our industry back to its roots with consumers at the wheel. In the passenger seat is the Tessemae’s trio Greg, Brian, and Matt Vetter.
Brothers first, then partners in business, these three have seen their mother’s homemade dressing skyrocket and have cultivated a quickly-expanding fan base. After such rapid growth, the big plan for 2018 seems to be to enjoy the scenery.
“Tessemae’s wasn't an idea for a business until my neighbor broke into my house and stole a 32 oz bottle of lemon garlic dressing,” Greg, oldest brother and company CEO, recalls for me when I ask about the birth of the company. “I figured if a man was going to break into another man’s home for a dressing, I should probably bottle it.”
Aside from my curiosity at what the following block party was like, I can see why Greg thought this might be a worthwhile venture. The dressing in question was a mother’s attempt to get her three boys to eat their veggies. Teresa Vetter mixed up a tasty concoction that became what middle brother Brian, COO, calls the family’s ‘everything sauce.’
“Our mom created this more than 20 years ago as an ‘everything sauce’ to get us to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Brian explains of the dressing. “How she makes it is complex, so she kept it close no matter how many people asked for the recipe, and then it took on a life of its own. Everyone who tried it loved it.”
Enough, it seems, to inspire home invasion with the hopes that the valuable goods would be in Greg’s fridge. The fact that his “business proposition” following the occurrence was a family dinner conversation is no surprise, either, when you spend two minutes with the Vetter clan.
“I figured if a man was going to break into another man’s home for a dressing, I should probably bottle it.”
-Greg Vetter, CEO
“Our family has each others’ back. Whether we want to or not, you say yes to helping each other. Regardless of success, the answer was going to be yes,” Brian says of his signing on to bottle dressings every available minute for the next seven years.
Matt Vetter, VP of Production and youngest brother, was still in college at the time, but knew just as well that this was the path to take.
“I studied Sports Management and minored in Business, and I would do demos on the weekend at the local Whole Foods in the Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland, and DC areas. I would go home on some nights to help make the dressing and bottle it. I remember having to hand-stamp all of our labels with a ‘Best By’ date,” Matt recalls for me. When I ask him what made him decide to join on full time after he graduated, he jokes, “I didn’t have a choice! In all seriousness though, I saw it as a great opportunity. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I believe in healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle, and at the time it seemed like a great fit.”
With all three brothers in place, there was nothing left but to keep their noses to the grindstone. When I ask Greg about his ‘aha moment’ of success, he corrects me.
“I'm assuming your question is, ‘When did being your own boss not suck?’” he clarifies, and I can’t disagree. “It was probably three years ago when we were on the West Coast for a food show. We had been grinding seven days a week for five years, and the dressings were gaining momentum. After the show we went to an invite-only launch party for a new beer and then went to a friend's vineyard in Malibu, California. I looked around and thought, ‘We ain't in Kansas anymore.’"
It’s around this time, he explains, that everything was rolling at once. Tessemae’s was virtually an overnight sensation.
“There were so many amazing experiences in a short amount of time and all because we decided to make a product the right way and tell our story,” Greg says.
Burgeoning at the right time, when consumers were becoming more savvy about label reading and seeking that ‘right way’ in the making of their food, the company has seen more demand than it can keep up with in the last couple of years. The result has been non-stop creation, which brings us back to that original Eddie Cantor philosophy.
“We have always had our unwavering mission for food to become food again without a need for alternatives, and I think we will be working more toward getting back to that and just enjoying where we are,” Brian tells me of what is on the horizon. “We will continue to fight the fight in distribution, but we’re only eight years old. Maybe we will never be one of the large commercial distributors, but this is what we do and this is who we are.”
Rather than a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ mentality though, Brian describes to me a plan of staying where the company is to further bolster its fundamental message of keeping food natural and getting back to why they began.
After all, Tessemae’s is coming off of several new launches, including an organic line of dressings and its own offering of ready-to-eat salads, as well as a rebrand to encompass its having gone beyond sauces. Its retail presence and distribution has grown by leaps and bounds.
“People stress about everything in their day-to-day; food is something that should be simple,” Brian explains.
“People stress about everything in their day-to-day; food is something that should be simple.”
-Brian Vetter, Coo
Getting food back to the basics includes simple ingredients in all Tessemae’s salads with 100 percent clean products, including the chicken and non-produce components, complete with, of course, dressings that Teresa Vetter would be comfortable feeding her family—no mystery ingredients included.
“As we tell everybody: be patient, because we will not be putting xanthan gum, natural flavor, etc., in our products,” Brian punctuates.
Greg emphasizes this, telling me, “This past year has seen explosive growth to the point where we have had to prioritize who gets what. I want to continue to deliver on our promise to our customers and provide them with the products they want with our quality standards. We want to continue to make the dressings and produce available to all the people that want them.”
The message the company brings goes beyond produce aisles, made clear by its partnership with the ever-expanding Crop Circles—a program that looks to promote produce in food deserts.
“I was tired of hearing people talk about food deserts and not doing a damn thing about it,” Greg tells me when I ask about how the team initially got involved. “We live in the United States of America, and we have areas that don't have access to fresh food. Everyone wants to talk, and no one wants to do. So, I said ‘F@#$ it, let’s go into some of these areas with our produce partners and hand out 50,000 lbs of fresh, organic produce with some delicious dressing and see what happens.’”
It’s no wonder the company’s executives are constantly on the go. With such embedded involvement, and having a sibling of my own who I couldn’t imagine spending this much time with, I ask Matt if there have been any difficulties in transitioning from the conference table to the dinner table.
“We had our challenges in the beginning of the company, but it has strengthened the family bond,” he says, adding jokingly that “recent polling” has revealed him as the “most liked” brother.
“In five years, if we continue to see growth like we did this past year, then I see Tessemae’s leading the produce industry in our category."
-Matt Vetter, VP of Production
As for what’s to come, all three are in agreement about where they would like to see the company go: continued growth in not just sales and offerings, but members of its team.
“In five years, if we continue to see growth like we did this past year, then I see Tessemae’s leading the produce industry in our category,” Matt says confidently.
Truly, with unrelenting determination and a “jump first, ask later” attitude running through both their blood and their company, this team will certainly continue to give us something to watch.