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Can three lax bros take the salad dressing biz by storm?

Fast-growing brand started with mom’s recipeFast-growing brand started with mom’s recipe
From left, brothers Matt, Brian and Greg Vetter make an assortment of salad dressings and marinades at their manufacturing plant in Essex, Md.Photo: Barbara Haddock Taylor—MCT via Getty Images

When you think of sports, your mind probably doesn’t jump to salad. Then again, sports lessons have a funny way of infiltrating all parts of life.

Three brothers from Maryland who grew up playing lacrosse—two of them professionally—have used the knowledge they gained from the sport to start a salad dressing company. (Lettuce is also lacrosse slang for long, flowing hair coming out the back of a helmet—no rare sight on a college lacrosse pitch.)

When the Vetter brothers were younger, their mother, Teresa Vetter, came up with a tasty lemon-garlic dressing to get the boys to eat salad. “The only thing anyone asked for at our tailgates was for us to bring the dressing,” says Greg Vetter, 31, the oldest brother.

The next logical step? In 2009, after all the Vetter men had graduated from college, Greg called his mother, “asking if she would go into business with me if I got us into Whole Foods. She responded by saying, ‘That’s never going to happen.'”

In February 2009, Greg, armed with a Tupperware container of salad and the original lemon garlic dressing, walked into the Whole Foods (WFM) in Annapolis, Md. and presented his product. He had no bottling, no assembly line, no outside help. Despite this, Greg emerged with an order for his salad dressing from that single Whole Foods location.

Tessemae’s All Natural was born, but Greg, who soon brought in his brothers Brian and Matt, says the company would have floundered without the drive he developed as an athlete. Greg and his brothers had little business knowledge, but sports had given them the gift of an underdog mentality. The Vetters also knew what they lacked, so in November 2013, they brought in outside consultant Mike McDevitt, founder and CEO of Tandem Legal Group (but not a lawyer by trade), to help out. For $350,000, McDevitt bought an initial 3.5% ownership stake in the company (he now owns 15%). “That was an investment in Greg Vetter,” McDevitt says. Now, with fast growth, McDevitt has high hopes. “I see $100 million [in sales] as a goal in the very near future. All these stores are asking for this product, but we want to make sure they fit our brand.”

McDevitt’s firm was not the only company hungry to join Tessemae’s, but it was the best fit. Tessemae’s says it has rejected other investors along the way. “I had to learn the Tesse way before I could improve the Tesse way,” McDevitt says.

The Vetters, and the company, by extension, value collaboration and teamwork. In other words, Tessemae’s functions a bit like a sports team: “They had a big order to go out for their raspberry vinaigrette,” McDevitt says, “and they had their entire team on the [assembly] line doing everything they could. The CEOs were dipping the bottle into the wax.” They finished 10 minutes before their deadline; one of the brothers came over with a bucket of vinaigrette and dumped it on Greg’s head.

Even high-stakes lacrosse games are meant to be fun, the brothers reason; why not apply the same mentality to their business? Tessemae’s calls its headquarters in Essex, Md.—which consists of an office complex and 36,000-square-foot fully automated assembly line—the Tree Fort. Why? Todd Fletcher, executive VP of marketing, says, “Back in the day, [a tree house] is where you went to let your imagination run wild. This is your home base. It is raw, pure energy, but not in an intimidating way. It is motivating, more than anything else.”

Fletcher’s formal title, by the way, is a bit of an anomaly: Oliver Ginsburg is director of customer happiness and (self-proclaimed) “guru of the Internet.” The youngest brother, Matt, is the company’s “doctor super chef” and (again, self proclaimed) “Dr. Dre of salad dressing.”

The little company is thriving. It has 24 dressings and two varieties of mayonnaise, two hot sauces, a teriyaki sauce, a garlic spread, a ketchup, and a seafood marinade. Last year, only the firm’s fifth on the market, Tessemae’s brought in $4.1 million in revenue, up 342% over 2012, which was in turn up 247% over 2011’s $890,000.

To keep growing, the brothers will have to find more magic. Robert Goldin of food-market research firm Technomic warns that the salad dressing market “is very, very crowded.”

But Tessemae’s has help from a recent health kick in America. Not only are unique exercise trends exploding (see: CrossFit, American Ninja Warrior, Tough Mudder, and others), but food label trends are pointing in the healthier direction. Just look at a Tessemae’s bottle to see how carefully the company is aligning itself with that push: you’ll see terms like “sugar free,” “gluten-free,” and “certified Earth Kosher.” (EarthKosher is a company that provides Kosher certification.)

Tessemae’s products are gluten free and certified non-GMO. The sales of food and drink items that bear these terms, according to Nielsen, have increased in the United States over the past four years. (Sales of non-GMO products, for example, have gone up an average of 23.8% every year.) Tessemae’s also makes its dressing according to organic standards (those items are up an average of 13.2% over the past four years), but it does not label the products as such because doing so, the Vetters say, would lead stores to raise the prices more than the brothers would like.

Tessemae’s believes it will keep growing thanks to its secret weapon: the recipe originator herself, Teresa. Their mother is the company’s “official taste tester” and has absolute veto power over every new flavor. Twice now, the brothers acknowledge, they have gone against her suggestions, and both of those flavors—poppy-seed grapefruit and oil-free Italian—bombed. But if Mom was worried, she doesn’t let on anymore. “They do it all on their own now.”