Spokane Journal of Business

Uncle Dan's dresses up sales

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Uncle Dan's dresses up sales
-—Staff photo by Treva Lind
Uncle Dan's Inc. President Chris Stephens says the company currently sells about 35,000 cases of product a year.

Spokane-based Uncle Dan's Inc., a maker of salad dressing mixes for 47 years, has whisked up wider wholesale distribution after its bleu cheese variety became the official dip for a hot-wings eating contest in Philadelphia, called Wing Bowl.

Uncle Dan's makes dry-ingredient seasoning and salad dressing mixes sold in packets at grocery stores for customers to take home and blend with ingredients such as buttermilk and mayonnaise. For decades, the company has distributed to grocery stores in the Northwest and western Canada.

The Wing Bowl, which was held Feb. 1, is staged annually in Philadelphia near the date of the Super Bowl and draws more than 21,000 people to cheer on 30 contestants.

"Wing Bowl brought us great exposure; we've picked up five stores and a distributor in Philadelphia," says Chris Stephens, the company's president and general manager. "We'll be launching our new food service line for the first time in commercial-sized containers for use by restaurants and institutions."

Uncle Dan's, which employs four people here, operates its headquarters and product distribution from a 3,000-square-foot office and adjacent warehouse located at 623 N. Hogan east of downtown. Its dressing mixes are manufactured in Kent, Wash.

The company's products sold online account for only about 10 percent of sales, Stephens says, adding that the company's main emphasis is wholesale distribution to grocery stores. The office here fills direct orders from stores and works with distributors, he adds.

In addition to bleu cheese, the company's mixes include its Original Southern Classic Ranch and other ranch dressing flavors that are distributed mostly in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, western Canada, and parts of Utah, Montana, and northern California.

Stephens declines to disclose Uncle Dan's annual revenues. He says, however, that the company currently sells about 35,000 cases of product a year, at 24 packets to a case. The average price is $2.50 per packet, which equates to roughly $2.1 million in retail products distributed annually.

He says sales have remained relatively flat the past five years.

Supermarkets here that carry Uncle Dan's products include Safeway, Rosauers, Fred Meyer, Albertson's, and Trading Co. Stores. It's pursuing distribution at WinCo Foods and Walmart stores, Stephens says.

"We're the No. 1-performing dry salad mix in western Canada based on dollar sales and case movement," he says. "In the U.S., we go toe-to-toe with Good Seasons. We go back and forth between second and third place."

HV Food Products Co., a subsidiary of Clorox Co., is a top producer in the U.S. with its Hidden Valley Ranch mix packets and bottled dressings. However, Stephens contends that Uncle Dan's has a loyal customer base among Northwest residents, many who have bought the products for years.

"If you were born and raised in Spokane, odds are you've had Uncle Dan's," he says. "We're now beginning to serve a fourth generation of customers."

Stephens also grew up with Uncle Dan's. His father, Dan Stephens, who is the company's owner, founded Uncle Dan's in 1966 in Yakima and created a secret blend of various spices still used today. Dan Stephens moved the company to Spokane in the mid-1990s.

Today, Chris Stephens oversees daily operations. His 72-year-old dad remains involved in larger business decisions but is mostly retired, he says.

His father's first dressing mix, the Original Southern Dressing that's now called Classic Ranch, was created in the family's home, and it's still the company's most popular, Stephens says. Uncle Dan's other products sold in Northwest stores include Creamy Ranch, Country Dill, and a Zesty Ranch dip. An Italian dressing mix also is available in stores but only sold in western Canada.

Uncle Dan's has other products that the company only sells directly and are listed on its website, including Chipotle Ranch and Mediterranean Garlic mixes, he says. The website also carries a 12-ounce bottle of the Original Southern Classic Ranch dry mix, which is listed at $23 retail and formerly sold on a limited basis in Costco stores.

Stephens says he was overwhelmed by loyal customers' responses after they'd heard media reports that Wing Bowl selected Uncle Dan's product for their contestants to consume with chicken wings.

The company received letters, cards, calls, and hundreds of recipes sharing how people use the mixes as seasoning in different meals, he says, including for marinating meat. Some people called saying they'd forgotten about the product and wanted to know how to buy it again, he adds.

"We haven't really gotten out there talking about our product before, but it's time to do that now," Stephens says. "Other than some store circulars early on, we've never really done any mass media advertising. Everything has been built on reputation and word of mouth."

Stephens says the company has arranged with Wing Bowl's organizers to hold a qualifying hot-wing eating contest this fall for 10 contestants in Spokane at the Onion restaurant on North Division, with the winner receiving an expense-paid trip to compete in the Philadelphia event next year.

In general, he says, demand for Uncle Dan's products appears to be increasing, mainly because of growing U.S. consumers' demand to buy fresher food items without preservatives.

"In the late 1970s, dry salad mix was all the rage and there were no bottled dressings in the market," he says. "In the 1980s, bottle dressing came into existence, and the dry mixes went from 12 running feet of shelf space to three or four feet of running shelf space. In the 1980s, eating became about convenience and getting your food quickly."

The company stayed with its dry-mix dressing line, however, even though that category of food stocked by stores rapidly declined.

"Dad at the time decided he wasn't going to pursue the bottled dressing because he couldn't get the flavor he wanted, mainly because the preservatives you'd have to use altered the taste enough that he didn't want to go down that route."

Armed with the recent customer feedback, Stephens says the company plans to update its website soon and use social media to boost recipe-sharing that help customers use the products with different foods. The company plans to include a series of educational videos on its website later this year.

"Because of loyal customers and hundreds of recipes sent to us, this has helped us determine our product is more than just a salad dressing and dip mix," he says. "It's more of a seasoning line."

He adds, "We're also seeing there are so many more people who are taking control of their health and want to control what they eat. With our product, you make it fresh and add your own ingredients, and there are no preservatives in our product."

Treva Lind
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Reporter Treva Lind covers natural resources and technology at the Journal of Business. A Nevada transplant and recovering swim mom, Treva has worked for the Journal since 2011.

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