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Siblings start company to market heritage salad dressing

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 12/27/2012 8:36 AM

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FOREST CITY, Iowa — Three Mason City natives are marketing the salad dressing their grandma used to make.

Lisa Steffen, Lori Kruger and J.D. White started LLJD, a limited liability company, to market Gramma Amber's Salad Dressing.

The salad dressing was created by their paternal grandmother, Amber Christensen of Warsaw, Ind. Christensen often entertained business guests of her husband, Howard Christensen.

The oil and vinegar based dressing was part of their lives growing up and always a closely guarded family recipe. Steffen recalls that her late mother, Dore White-Melson, declined several requests to share the recipe.

White-Melson took down the recipe over the phone from her mother, Amber, in shorthand. Steffen isn't sure if that's because she wanted to write it quickly or if she wanted to write it in code. Her mother was a secretary before she married her father, Steffen said.

White-Melson passed the recipe down to Steffen, who made large batches in her Forest City home for 20 years, gifting it to her family and friends and making it for her siblings and their friends and family.

They were often told they should market the dressing because of its unique taste, Steffen said. The idea stayed in the back of their minds until J.D., who lives in Omaha, happened upon a small businessman in Omaha who was willing to help them start their own small business.

That was 14 months ago. A lot has happened since then for the sibling entrepreneurs and their Forest City-based company.

They found a third generation family company, Triple K Manufacturing, in Shenandoah, Iowa, to produce and bottle their salad dressing. Triple K is a co-packer of various salad dressings and sauces. The company started in 1960.

Brian Maxine of Triple K gave Steffen and her siblings a checklist of steps they needed to follow to start their family business and market their grandmother's salad dressing.

"There were so many things," Steffen said, adding that the list was very helpful as they navigated the series of steps necessary to start LLJD.

They began by talking to a lawyer and putting a business plan in place. They went through the process to have their brand name, Gramma Amber's, trademarked. The process took nearly a year.

They hired a graphic designer to create the perfect label. It had to be classy, retro and very nice, Steffen said. They wanted it to be a bottle people would be proud to put on their table. The woman featured on the label is their grandmother.

Also as part of their startup process, they sent their recipe and an unopened bottle to a laboratory in Omaha for nutritional analysis. It was then they found the dressing is MSG and gluten free and low in sodium. It has 30 milligrams of sodium per serving.

They secured a federal tax identification number and purchased Universal Product Codes — UPCs — a must for selling retail.

Gramma Amber's salad dressing went on the shelves Jan. 28, 2012.

The siblings are marketing on their own and distributing from their trunks at this point. One of their future plans is to find a distributor.

For now, Steffen keeps smaller grocery stores in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota stocked. The boutique store at the Iowa Welcome Center south of Albert Lea also sells Gramma Amber's salad dressing and sales there are surprisingly brisk, she said. It is also available at several restaurants.

Her brother keeps stores around Omaha stocked and her sister, Lori, who lives in Bloomington, stocks retailers along the I-35 corridor and Mankato.

Their lone big account thus far is Hy-Vee.

"Hy-Vee's been really awesome," Steffen said. The employee-owned grocery store has allowed them to come in and offer free samples of their dressing.

"It pretty much kind of sells itself," Steffen said.

Why did the siblings decide to share the recipe with the world rather than keep it a family secret?

"Most of our motivation was to preserve our heritage," Steffen said. "Lori, J.D. and I are the only living relatives with no aunts, uncles or cousins immediately. Our father was an only child and my mother's brothers are deceased."