Greg Vetter is the CEO and oldest brother at Tessemae’s All Natural. Based in Annapolis, Tessemae’s grew out of a family recipe: when Greg’s mom Teresa (Tessemae) prepared a lemon garlic dressing to encourage her three athletic sons to eat more vegetables at dinner, the recipe was an immediate hit among the brothers, and Greg told his mother they should go into business together. Years later, the brand is a regular staple at supermarkets nationwide, offering a wide selection of condiments and marinades all made from natural ingredients with as few additives and preservatives as possible. In 2014, Tessemae’s received recognition as Inc.com’s Young Company of the Year.
Q. Can you take us through how the company got started—from your mom’s kitchen to what it is today?
GREG VETTER: We [my brothers and I] grew up eating this one salad dressing. Every night, it was the same thing: olive oil, lemons, garlic, mustard, sea salt, and only on Romaine lettuce because as a bunch of wild young boys that’s all we would eat. And so, every night it was the topic of conversation for three boys that just got done shooting squirrels and tackling people. We were like, “Oh, you know, maybe we should add a little bit more lemon or add some more salt.” And then we played high school sports and college sports and professional sports and the only thing they ever asked of my mom was “bring the salad dressing.” At that time, it didn’t have a name.
One day, I came home from work—I was doing employee benefits—and this two-liter bottle of salad dressing was missing from my house. Obviously, you don’t misplace a two-liter bottle of salad dressing. So, I started looking around the house and I started calling people because I’m assuming somebody came in and took it. Finally, I get to this one guy, and he’s the last person on the list because normally he eats fast food every day for lunch. I said, “Hey man—random question—did you come into my house and just take the salad dressing?” He said, “Sure did. I woke up, was jonesing for it, knew the code to your house, and now, you know, we’re over at my house having the salad.” So I called my mom and I said, “You’re not going to believe this. The salad dressing’s been stolen. I’m going to bottle it and start a company, and I am going to get us into Whole Foods.” She laughed and she said “That’s never going to happen.” And I said, “All right, when I get us in, will you go into business with me?” She said, “Sure, Greg, whatever,” and she hung up the phone.
So, I then call a local Annapolis Whole Foods and I tell them that I’m a food manufacturer, which wasn’t true. I finally get a meeting, and I walk in on a Friday—it was super busy during lunch, we didn’t have a bottle, we didn’t have a label, we didn’t have a name—I literally walked in with a Tupperware container of romaine lettuce with lemon and garlic dressing on it. And the guy said, “Okay, where’s your packaging?” And I said, “Dude, you’re super busy. It’s lunchtime—I bought you salad.” He looks at me like I’m on drugs, and he just kind of takes this piece of lettuce out, licks it off and he goes, “You have something really special here. We need to call the regional office.” So I do the same thing with the regional office. They give me 200 pages of paperwork to actually become a food manufacturer. I Googled my way through that, and then we get in for the grand opening in Annapolis Whole Foods and we set a national sales record with Whole Foods. We sold 660 bottles in four days at one store, and so that’s how we got our start.
Q. Where’d the name come from?
A. It’s my mom’s nickname. Her full name is Teresa. My dad is from southern Ohio, and she went to a wedding—I think Mary Henry was being married and—so it was the first time she met my dad’s brothers and she said, “Hi, I’m Teresa,” and my dad’s older brother goes, “Not in these parts you’re not—you’re Tessemae.” And then it just stuck.
Q. You call yourself the “oldest brother” before “CEO.” How do the responsibilities of leadership team work out between you and your brothers?
A. I believe in leading by example. While this all this started with me, and then it went down to Brian and Matt, the management of all of the energy that we have just comes down to focus and planning, so I don’t contain it. We don’t change it. If you ever walk into our facility, you’ll experience all of that energy. It’s just focus, and we’re all working towards the same goal. Simply, one thing I don’t ever want to do is I don’t ever want Brian to not be who he is. I never want Matt to not be who he is, and that’s probably why our titles are set up the way that they are so that we don’t get lost into, you know the hoopla of building a brand or building a company with me being the chief executive officer, its oldest brother, and we’re all working as a team, as a family, to get this done.