Kevin Plank invests $5 million in salad dressing maker Tessemae's

Under Armour's Kevin Plank takes a stake in Essex salad dressing maker Tessemae's

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and brother Scott Plank are investing $5 million in Tessemae's All Natural, the family-owned salad dressing and condiment maker based in Essex announced Thursday.

Tessemae's, started by three brothers from Annapolis who began selling their "all natural" brand of salad dressing to a single Whole Foods six years ago, has branched out to additional national grocers, retailers and hotel chains and will become a condiment vendor at M&T Bank Stadium during Ravens games starting Sunday.

The financing round by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank's Sagamore Ventures LLC, the early-stage venture capital arm of Plank Industries, includes an investment of an undisclosed amount by Baltimore-based War Horse, a development firm owned by Scott Plank. War Horse invests in "slow food," local food markets, whole-animal butchery, and restaurants in Baltimore and San Francisco.

The investment will allow Tessemae's, which reached $25 million in sales last year, to expand its national footprint and open additional business channels, the company said. It's products are sold in Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway, The Fresh Market and Costco retailers across the country.

"When I started this company six years ago, I'd be lying if I said that what Kevin Plank, Scott Plank and the rest of the Under Armour family accomplished over the last decade wasn't always top of mind," Tessemae's CEO Greg Vetter said in a statement. "As the rest of the world looked to Manhattan, San Francisco, Austin or Seattle for the next great American brand, they proved it could happen here. We're pushing to be the next."

Vetter added that "the investment dollars are amazing. It will allow us to continue to grow into more markets, support our national retailers, and build out new channels of distribution, like Ravens stadium."

The investors see the financing as a step toward "enhancing Baltimore city's position as a hub for innovative young companies," the announcement said.

Tessemae's dressing, ketchup, mustard, garlic spread, marinades and mayonnaise all grew out of an olive-oil based homemade dressing that the Vetter brothers' mother, nicknamed Tessemae, used to make to get her kids to eat vegetables. Because they are made with olive oil and have no thickening agents, sugar, dairy or gluten, the dressings meet requirements of diets such as vegan, paleo and Whole30.

"Consumers today are increasingly educated about the products they consume and demand absolute transparency in these products and their ingredients," Demian Costa, a Plank Industries partner and managing partner of Sagamore, said in the announcement. "Tessemae's uncompromising position on all-natural ingredients gives them a perfect opportunity to capture this growing market."

Vetter described the company's mission as showing the importance of eating "real" food.

"Obesity continues to rise, kids' test scores are down, food deserts are growing, health care costs are skyrocketing, but yet we continue to inexplicably minimize the most basic of daily decisions ... what am I going to eat today?" Vetter said in the announcement.

The financing round coincides with Tessemae's newest venture: becoming a Ravens "partner" vendor at M&T Bank Stadium.

In a multi-year deal, Tessemae's will operate four kiosks serving yellow mustard and ketchup on the stadium's main level and another four kiosks on the club level, said Kevin Rochlitz, senior vice president of corporate sales and business development for the Ravens.

The Ravens also are working with the company to bring its salad dressing to the stadium's suite level. The Essex company will be the stadium's second condiment supplier, alongside Pittsburgh-based Heinz. Unlike Heinz, however, Tessemae's is considered a Ravens "partner."

"We want to help build their brand," Rochlitz said. "They're obviously Baltimore-based. We're excited to have a Baltimore-based company and give an all-natural option to our fans."

For Vetter, having his Baltimore-area company go head-to-head with Heinz in winning over Ravens fans made the stadium deal all the better.

"It tastes better than Heinz, and it's local," Vetter, a former Bayhawks lacrosse player, said in an interview. "You can't be eating ketchup from Steeler country."

He said he is convinced that once football fans try Tessemae's, they will be sold on ketchup made with no refined sugar.

"Yeah, everybody has always known Heinz, and that's fine, but nobody has stood up and said, 'There's a better way to make ketchup,'" Vetter said. "We're going to go head-to-head with them, and let the best company win."

Kraft Heinz, Heniz's parent, had no comment, according to a spokesman.

Vetter said in an email that the Sagamore deal was sealed for Tessemae's executives after an initial meeting with Kevin Plank and his team, who he said had an appreciation of the healthy food movement and trends.

"At Tessemae's, we make salad dressing, that's it at face value," Vetter said. "Nothing overly exciting or amazing. But they saw beyond that; they understood how much more we could become."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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