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Dressing for Success

Granite Falls, Minn. – In the convenience- food age, Karen Henning says consumers still have only two options for putting potato salad on the dinner table – make it from scratch or buy it ready made. There are no quick-fix alternatives. “You can’t go into a store and buy a jar of potato salad dressing,” Henning says.

Seeing an opening in the market, Karen and husband Doug are marketing their own brand of sweet, tangy dressings. This fall, Cedar Valley Foods dressings will be available at several grocery and retail stores in west central Minnesota. Along with the usual ingredients – soybean oil, eggs, sugar, vinegar – Hennings’ dressings are made with a secret formula “of this and that,” Karen says.

Karen developed the dressing recipes by making thousands of pounds of potato and pasta salad every year for Doug’ s Cafe and catering business in Renville, Minn., which they purchased in 1975 and sold in 1990.

Serious about salad

Karen came upon her hit creation by trying different combinations of ingredients and seasonings until the salads became so popular that customers started ordering them by the gallon to take home. Some suggested the Hennings sell dressings that customers could mix with their own potatoes and pasta at home. The idea simmered for years as both Doug and Karen pursued other opportunities. Doug is now an American Family Insurance agent and Karen works for the Jennie-O Turkey Store in Montevideo, Minn. About four years ago they decided to take their recipe more seriously.

The Hennings invested in a marketing study and worked with AURI on feasibility and nutritional labeling. The Small Business Development Center in Marshall, Minn. helped with business development and financing. The Hennings then formed a new company: Cedar Valley Foods. Bottling the products in their own kitchen, Doug and Karen began giving out samples at tradeshows and special events.

“Taste is still consumers’ number one criteria,” says Charan Wadhawn, AURI food scientist who has assisted Cedar Valley. “I believe this product has passed the taste test of thousands.”

In 2001, the Hennings served 500 pounds of salad at the Women’s Expo in Willmar. “There were 3,000 to 4,000 women there and they thought the dressing was great,” Doug said. “It was then that we decided to get the dressing in jars.”

They also gave out product samples at the 2003 Minnesota Inventor’s Congress in Redwood Falls. Almost everyone who tried it was impressed, Doug Henning said. “One little girl came back half a dozen times.” Many requested to purchase the dressings, although they were not yet commercially available.

To the bright lights

This summer, a friend suggested they compete in the Million Dollar Idea show on KSTC Channel 45, a Twin Cities cable television station. Karen auditioned with a videotape of her demonstrating “Karen’s Recipes” dressings in an Edina mall. She was selected to be one of 62 contestants appearing in the show’s eight weekly episodes. Karen moved up to the final round of the contest but didn’t win the grand prize – a $40,000 package of business services. However, the Hennings gained exposure and experience.

They contracted with a specialty food processor in Indianapolis to make the dressings; the first batch was shipped to Klein Foods in Marshall for bottling in late August. The bottled dressings will be in local stores this fall. In September, they presented samples of Karen’s Recipes at the Chef’s Medley Show in Willmar.

The Hennings are confident their business will succeed – with a large support group to lean on: “There are a lot of friends and family, plus eight newspapers, four radio stations… our local support,” says Doug who served a combined 10 years on the Renville City Council and as mayor.

Within two to three years, the Hennings want their products in major retail stores. They also hope to eventually construct their own bottling plant. But for now, they are focused on attracting customers. Doug says people who have tried the dressings are persistently asking where they can buy it, “so it’s time to get it in the stores.”