Salad dressings are an important part of many cuisines. Leafy greens were eaten in prehistory, and despite common misconceptions that early agriculture was entirely focused on grains, many of the first gardeners grew spring greens. The Ancient Greeks often mixed salads with oil, herbs, and seasonings (the word salad comes from the Latin salata, meaning “something salted”). Green salads were especially popular in Medieval Europe, and lettuce seeds were brought to the New World colonies, where salads were eventually redefined; the 20th century saw the advent of French, Russian, Thousand Island, Green Goddess, and even the mighty Ranch – all in the dressing-obsessed United States.
Today, the salad dressing aisle of every supermarket in America is downright embarrassing. Every dressing promises health, high quality and natural ingredients, and not a single one makes good on its promise. I dare you to try and find a dressing that is free of sugar, corn, soy, wheat, seed/grain oils, or chemically-extracted ingredients (hint: you won’t). It’s infuriating, especially coming from a product whose sole existence is to make salads more palatable and nutritious (adding oil increases the bioavailability of the fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E, and K found in leafy greens). Salads have always been associated with health, but modern dressings have made it more difficult for us to make that connection. The salad dressing industry is so untrustworthy that after first switching my diet I resolved to just eat my salads with olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper.
Enter Tessemae’s All Natural. Our family has been enjoying their salad dressings since 2011; their dressings were first sold in the Annapolis Whole Foods (one of our local markets), so we’ve been riding on the Tessemae’s bandwagon from nearly the start. In fact, last year I used their Lemonette dressing to help secure my win in a bacon competition.
It’s relatively easy, albeit unglamorous and time consuming, to develop your own salad dressings. But I’m a man of simple truths, and the simple truth is that Tessemae’s dressings are so tasty, and contain such high quality ingredients, that I haven’t felt a need to make my own. Essentially, this is the basic principle of supply and demand; thanks to their supply, we carry no demand. Honestly, as a consumer I’d much rather depend on the convenience and reliability of a quality product than figure my own out. There is honor in creating one product, and doing it well – very rarely today do we find true craftsmen and artisans. This is something that Tessemae’s does unequivocally with their dressings and sauces.
I had the pleasure of visiting their Baltimore-based headquarters (lovingly called “the Treefort”) twice over the past few weeks. Here is what I learned.
You may already know the story behind this small but growing company: three Annapolis-raised brothers (Greg, Brian, and Matt) decided to go into business selling the salad dressing their mom (Tesse) had created and served them while growing up – she too wasn’t happy with the quality of salad dressings sold in stores. Her original dressing, Lemon Garlic, contains only five ingredients: olive oil, lemons, garlic, mustard, and sea salt. Oldest brother Greg walked into the Annapolis Whole Foods with a plastic container of his mom’s dressing, sold 60 cases, and the rest is history.
Their simple and pure approach is a marvel of modern salad dressing aisles, and has been carried over into the 25 varieties of dressings, sauces, marinades, and spreads they offer today. Every sauce is gluten-free, sugar-free, and Vegan-friendly, and nearly all of them are Paleo-friendly (a couple of them have tamari, which I’m personally okay with). Each sauce contains a simple, clear list of ingredients – and always made with real food.
All development and testing is done at the Treefort, and everything is produced on one line; in other words, they only make and bottle one sauce at each sitting. Although they’re using some high tech equipment today, you can still feel the homemade vibe in their production line, down to the crockpots full of wax for sealing their bottle lids. They let me add wax to a couple of bottles myself, it was very cool.
I had a few questions for the team regarding their products and what motivates them.
First, I wanted to know more about the ambiguous “olive oil” found on their ingredients list, especially considering today’s lucrative olive oil trade. They couldn’t go into specifics, but they did verify that their oil comes from 100% cold extracted Spanish olives. I also wondered about why they don’t use dairy to make creamy sauces. They currently don’t rely on animal products because it appeals to a larger audience (both Vegans and Paleos alike) and it would require a larger investment in food handling permits. Lastly, I asked about why all of their sauces (ketchup and barbecue in particular) are raw, especially when heating them would help some of the flavors to marry; the answer is that they don’t currently have the manufacturing infrastructure to cook their sauces.
They’re not trying to be all things to all people. Instead, it was apparent to me that for Tessemae’s, it’s more important to stay true to the principles they hold, which is to create delicious, simple, all natural products. The future of their individual products – be it sticking with raw sauces, adhering to specific dietary restrictions, or expanding their line to a broader audience – isn’t set in stone, but the principles behind them are unwavering. To me, it is incredible that in today’s age a business is so principle-driven, and has made it this far without accepting a single shortcut.
Every company will tell you that they take customer feedback seriously, but I was surprised by the level of attention they give to comments and requests. They print out their favorite comments and lovingly tape them to a huge wall (called the “Love Wall”).
During the two days I visited their office, they were in different stages of developing two different new products, prompted exclusively by customer feedback.
I was really drawn to their label room for some reason.
The Treefort is full of bright and welcoming colors and murals, with many of the rooms painted to represent a particular flavor from their line. This room personifies their Southwest Ranch flavor.
Break room mural.
I also happened to be visiting the Treefort on Tessemae’s five-year birthday. The crew gathered around to talk about how far they’ve come, and to obviously eat some cake. As everyone got together, I was struck by the fact that all things Tessemae’s – from their dressings, to their quirky online persona, to the impact they’re making on one of the shadiest food markets in the world – all started with a recipe created at home, and an idea to take it further.
That’s really inspiring, especially to a guy like me who has been working for years to develop delicious and nutrient-dense recipes in a tiny kitchen with terrible lighting. It lends credence to the thought that great ideas come from all places, and can make a profound impact on society. That’s some heavy, deep stuff, especially when you take a step back and consider that we’re talking about salad dressing, folks.
So yeah, let’s be honest. I didn’t visit Tessemae’s to drill them on where they were sourcing their ingredients, or their next big plans. Those things can change at the drop of a hat. Instead, I wanted to see if they are a company that I can trust. Because at the end of the day, it’s not important what a company is doing right now, but whether you can trust them to make the right choices in the future. And personally, I’m convinced.
Tessemae’s products can be found at Whole Foods, online, and at a growing number of Safeway stores, with plans to expand to more stores soon. They currently have an offer where all online orders over $29.94 will receive $5.99 off, using the code TESSECLEAN. Offer ends May 19th, 2014.
I received no compensation for my tour and review of the Tessemae’s facilities, although they did give me about a dozen sauce bottles to taste and test for future recipes.