+ By Leigh Glenn + Photos By Allison Zaucha
Don’t expect the food revolution to be additive-d and preservative-d. If local salad dressing and condiment company Tessemae’s All Natural is a bellwether, then expect unhealthy oils, so-called natural flavorings, citric acid, and xanthan gum to be replaced with ingredients that separate and solidify—like olive oil—when combined with other condiments and refrigerated. Like Tessemae’s.
In just six years, the movement toward healthful, unprocessed foods has become the personal cause of the team behind Tessemae’s. It’s a family-owned operation, with oldest brother, Greg Vetter, serving as CEO, middle brother Brian as executive vice president, and youngest brother Matt working as executive vice president of operations. The eponymous matriarch, Teresa (Tessemae) is taster-in-chief, and father Steve provides good karma.
Teresa’s mother instilled in her daughter the importance of exercise and healthful food, and Teresa taught Pilates before most people even knew what it was. But she was not a food purist. When her sons visited friends and had a purple drink, she didn’t pitch a fit. If they went to the beach and begged for neon-orange fake-cheese puffs, that was fine—they just didn’t need five hundred bags of them.
The seed for Tessemae’s was planted a quarter-century ago, when the young Vetter brothers were athletic and, like most boys, craved foods that were anything but green. Teresa, however, wanted them to eat more veggies. After one of her annual visits to the wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, Teresa brought back recipes—black beans and rice or gazpacho—to the family’s Epping Forest home. The dishes would elicit a week’s worth of deference from her sons.
But one concoction in particular, a lemon-garlic dressing poured over romaine, changed everything.
Greg Vetter was in fifth grade and clearly recalls that first encounter. “Whoa, we ate all that lettuce,” he recalls, “Make us more!” Baguette in hands, the family wiped the bowl clean. The salad became a Vetter family staple, and over time requests started coming in for the dressing at lacrosse tailgate parties.
When Vetter was a college freshman, his lacrosse coach offered to start him if he gained twenty pounds. He did it, but primarily through a beer-and-pizza diet. When he arrived home during school break, with long hair and the additional weight, his mother didn’t recognize him. Vetter then began researching food and athletic performance. He traded powdered eggs for hardboiled ones, and ate oatmeal and fruit instead of the chipped beef over biscuits that many of his teammates favored. His relatively simple actions rippled through the team, and by the end of the year, many of the guys were eating like he was.
After college, Vetter found himself in a series of unfulfilling jobs. He did well at them, but knew that he could do better. Blame healthful food, maybe, with its sides of mental and emotional clarity for keeping him going, along with a desire for more meaningful work. He had always felt that he and his brothers would do something great, but didn’t know what it would be—just that it wouldn’t follow the usual 9-to-5 routine.
And then a friend lifted a liter bottle of the lemon-garlic dressing from Vetter’s refrigerator. He was more puzzled than upset; why the heck would a guy steal salad dressing? Was it just that good?
Vetter asked his mother if she would go into business with him if they could get the lemon-garlic dressing into Whole Foods Market. She agreed. He passed himself off as a food manufacturer, and landed a taste trial with a buyer. The dressing was a hit, and the Vetters were allowed to demo at the 2009 Whole Foods Market grand opening in Annapolis.
In their first week of production, at Adam’s Ribs in Eastport, they made and sold 660 bottles of dressing, 10,000-fold increase in sales of bottled dressings and condiments compared with 2009. The Vetters shifted into high gear. Wanting to stay local, they found a 36,000 square foot workspace in Essex. The Vetters moved in in 2013, replacing the drab greys and browns with bright colors and inspiring quotations from people who made a difference: Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Ray Lewis. It more than accommodates the 24/7 production operations for the present lineup of 13 dressings and 8 condiments and sauces.
Vetter attributes some of their success to growing up crabbing, fishing, and swimming in the nearby Severn River. He’s kept a quotation in his wallet from John F. Kennedy: “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.” Says Vetter, “I just like to see what people can do and what I’m capable of doing, and that is how I approach every day.”
Working their business plan, the Vetters aim to create a buffer against the fickleness that characterizes the consumer packaged-goods industry. As long as they can continue scaling up Tessemae’s brand while maintaining high standards, Vetter expects the company will continue to grow.
As Vetter sips water from a glass bottle before heading to Washington, DC, for a meeting, one gets the sense of how grounded he is. He knows that the company’s success could go as quickly as it came. “Take it for what it is,” he says, “and enjoy the ride.” If all goes well, perhaps Tessamae’s will help turn this revolution into an evolution of how we think and feel about food. █