One Singular Sensation

The Sensation Salad

My Rouses Everyday, May & June 2018

It started in the Mid City neighborhood of Baton Rouge, at a restaurant called Bob & Jake’s.

They didn’t call it the Sensation salad back then. It was just — well, to them it was just a salad, but the locals of Baton Rouge would call it otherwise. After Bob & Jake’s closed, the Sensation survived, with other restaurants taking stabs at the signature dressing. It proliferated in the late ’60s and has remained a staple of the city’s food culture. Even Southern celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and John Besh have prepared it on their shows. Baton Rouge culture lives in the shadow of New Orleans, but here was this thing that was its own …

A Sensation salad’s soul is this: garlic, cheese, oil and lemon — the latter squeezed, sprightly, just before serving. Local foodies in the know toy with percentages and varieties — Romano or Parmesan, vegetable oil or olive, and for the bold, this spice or that. Are you really even a Baton Rouge chef if you haven’t tried your hand at topping the masterpiece?

When Richard Hanley went to Rouses to buy a Sensation salad dressing, he didn’t see one on the shelf. He was bringing a salad to a party, and it had to be Sensation — his favorite! — and the salad dressing aisle was coming up short. A Baton Rouge native, he’d known growing up that there were only three serious salad dressings: Balsamic, Ranch and Sensation. So where were the bottles of the stuff? It merited investigation, and to his astonishment, there were no Sensation salad dressings on any store shelves in 2012 because no such dressing existed. It was a local thing. How could he have known?

At the time, he worked in marketing and had a good job as an art director for a New Orleans-based advertising firm. He loved his job and he was good at it, but — and this might sound crazy — he couldn’t shake the notion that there was this gaping hole in the salad dressing market, and that maybe, just maybe, he could fill it. He wasn’t a cook, but he gave it a shot and began experimenting with his take on Sensation salad. He came up with four killer variations of the original, then held a salad party. He invited friends and family over and asked them to choose their favorite. He then took the winner and recalculated the recipe to re-create its goodness in a much larger batch. It took six hours to make enough dressing to fill three cases worth of bottles, and he brought them to the local farmers’ market.

The dressing didn’t last two hours. Though he had to leave his booth with only a frowny face drawn on a napkin and the words “Sorry! Back next week!” he knew he had a hit. He doubled the batch — 12 hours of work — and returned to the farmers’ market, and the same thing happened again. Suddenly, he had a big decision to make. This thing — well, it could be something! But … salad dressing? Was that something people even devoted their lives to? He and his wife, Kate, talked it over. It was crazy, but it could work! They were still young. It was a big gamble. They had two little girls. But they decided it was now or never. He quit his job and they moved in with his parents. His wife quit her job the following year. They were doing this. They were going to make a successful food company.

And Hanley’s Foods was born.

Kate & Richard Hanley, Hanley’s Dressings

“We went from the farmers’ market to the grocery store with a smile and a bottle of Sensation,” says Hanley. “I was begging taco truck owners, saying, ‘Hey, I’ll wash your truck if you let me make some dressing in it on the weekends.’ I was just trying to find a way where I could mass-make this.”

He eventually teamed up with the Louisiana State University AgCenter’s food incubator, a business support center for new food ventures. There, he found access to such hardware as 100-gallon vats and special refrigerators to test shelf life, as well as on-campus food scientists and nutritionists. “We got our start here, and we’ve taken it from farmers’ markets to about 800 stores across the United States. We want to be the global leader not only in specialty salad dressings, but to make Sensation the next big flavor: Ranch. Sriracha. Sensation.”

It wasn’t as easy as that, of course. Developing a recipe is hard. Scaling it is harder. Hanley says it took a lot of mistakes and a lot of experiments. “I had many late nights of oil and vinegar stacked to the ceiling. Me, just playing around with it, hacking things, testing different techniques, experiments, trying different ways of cooking it, making, it stirring it, tweaking it, until I got the flavor profile I was looking for.” From there, he moved to spreadsheets to figure out how to turn a recipe for one bottle into a recipe for 10,000. How much oil is necessary? Vinegar? Cheese? How do you make every bottle taste like the first one?

As the company has grown, the process, while refined, remains the same. Kate has the critique chef’s palate of the team. Once a product makes it past her, it goes to focus groups for testing. When they added a honey mustard salad dressing to the lineup, for example, it took three months of work before Hanley found the right recipe — the best in the world, he says. A batch involves four days of preparation. The seeds have to be fermented for 72 hours. They are then ground, and from that, a paste is made. From that, the dressing. They started making three bottles at a time. They ramped up to a gallon. Then five gallons. They went to the farmers’ market for further feedback and testing. Soon they were at 20 gallons, then 40, 50 and then 100.

Every bottle has to taste the same, but sometimes ingredients change. When the Hanleys developed a strawberry vinaigrette, obvious things in a home kitchen became interesting challenges in the food lab. Sometimes strawberries are sweet. Sometimes they’re sour. Sometimes they’re in-between. Every 100-gallon batch is thus carefully made with an eye toward consistency. However, the strawberries’ taste, in every bottle of dressing, must be the same. It’s not a problem that can be solved on a spreadsheet. Hanley and his team taste every batch to ensure that it meets scientific standards like pH, as well as an internal checklist of taste, texture and consistency. It has to be as thick or as thin as designed, and has to move properly in the bottle. “There’s no way of writing that down on paper,” says Hanley. “You know how it should look. How it should pour out. It’s an art form and a science to get it right every single time.”

Five years after opening the company, Hanley still puts in over a hundred hours a week. Getting a product on store shelves is only the start. A food entrepreneur then has to get the product off shelves (i.e., sold) quickly, and also must have follow-up batches ready for stores to stock shelves again. The path from the food lab to the kitchen table, once the product is produced, runs from convincing stores to sell the product to negotiating with distributors and overseeing marketing efforts. If business is good, products put on a store shelf by stock clerks get taken off by buyers. When enough products are sold, though, big brands notice and start targeting the upstart. Not only, now, is the battle about getting on and off of shelves, but also about fending off billion-dollar competitor companies. To handle the onslaught, Hanley says, the product has to be made well, shipped efficiently, sold and restocked quickly, and marketed effectively.

In Hanley’s case, it’s all done by hand. The ingredients added to the mixing vats. The dressing poured into the bottles. The movement of bottles down the line. The capping, labeling, sealing, boxing — every step is done by gloved human hands in a sterile facility. The ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible. The employees are Baton Rouge’s very own. “There’s a lot of work that goes into every bottle on that shelf,” says Hanley. “As a business owner I’m extremely proud that people share their hardworking dollars for something that we’ve created. To have that kind of validation is very rewarding.”

Everything had to be learned. Even a salad savant would still have to figure out the tiny things, like, how do you get a barcode? How do you get the FDA and Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals to come out and permit your process? In terms of logistics, it’s about getting the raw materials. Getting the people. And once you’ve packed a case of dressing, where next? Delivery by truck to an offsite warehouse where distributors pick it up and carry it to stores.

Locally sourcing clean food and all-natural ingredients is part of the DNA of the company. Sensation came from Baton Rouge, and Hanley is making sure it goes back into it. “As the business grows and becomes more profitable, we can really start making the community better,” he says. “Not only an economic impact in the city, but real change. Everything starts with food. It’s something you vote on three times a day. And if we can make better, healthier products and give back to the community, that’s more than enough for us. We want to make Sensation the next big flavor in food. From potato chips to dressing to croutons, we want it to be the next big flavor, and maybe put Baton Rouge on the map for that.”

A casual walk through Downtown Baton Rouge is eye-opening. At some point between the relighting of the famed Coca-Cola sign in 2002 and today, the city’s culture changed. Maybe it was the infusion of talent and fresh ideas following Katrina. Maybe it was the city’s investment in art and its efforts at economic revitalization, but Downtown went from a decaying memory in the shadow of the state capitol — a vestigial part of a city sprawling ever outward, from College to Bluebonnet to Siegen Lane — to a hive of entrepreneurship. It’s what the Hanley family is doing on a citywide scale. Sixty-one restaurants, 21 bars, hotels, art galleries, coworking spaces, business incubators — the city is booming in ways few could have predicted. And in a very real way, that has become the new identity of Baton Rouge: scrappy young entrepreneurs reshaping the city for the better.

It is sensational to see, so why wouldn’t restaurants sell a salad to honor that spirit? Why wouldn’t an artistic young couple make a salad dressing with that very name, part of a growing food empire with plans of going national? Everything about what’s happening is sensational, contagious and, like the salad, seems unlikely to end for a very long time.