Dressing stirring Sensation

A visit to the grocery store three years ago changed the direction of Richard Hanley Jr.’s life.

“I’m a foodie, a health nut,” said the 28-year-old Hanley, who began cooking three years ago when he decided to lose 50 pounds. “Do what’s worth doing. That’s my motto. That’s what I live by. Instead of going to fast foods, I started making my own foods … and I created my own Sensation salad dressing.”

The dressing has been a favorite in Baton Rouge since the late Jake Staples introduced the original recipe at Bob & Jake’s restaurant on Government Street in the 1950s. Hanley was in a grocery store buying ingredients for his version of the dressing when he realized no one was making it commercially.

“I experimented with salad parties. I had friends and family over to taste-test different batches. I had my preference — with blue cheese — but I went with the majority vote,” he said.

“I went and tested it at the Red Stick Farmers Market in October. I had five cases and sold out in two hours. And we’ve been selling out ever since. That’s when I went back and quit my day job.”

Hanley, who had been an art director for an ad agency, took out a $3,000 startup loan and established Hanley’s Foods Inc. in July.

“I felt very passionately about it. My wife, Kate, has been my No. 1 supporter. She was a stay-at-home mom, but got a job to bring cash into the house. Without that support, there is no way I would have been able to do all this. Growing a company business is a lot of hard work.”

Hanley, a Prairieville resident, takes every opportunity to market his products, Hanley’s Sensation salad dressing and the seasonal Hanley’s Louisiana Strawberry Vinaigrette. On Saturday, he sampled the Sensation salad dressing at the annual Garden Fest at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden.

“The young man with Sensation salad dressing sold everything he had brought!” Pam Hodson, of the LSU AgCenter, exclaimed after the event. An 8-ounce bottle is priced at $5.

Gaye Sandoz, a 37-year veteran of the food processing business, wasn’t surprised. Sandoz, who heads the new LSU AgCenter food business incubator, until recently ran the state’s other food business incubator, Edible Enterprises in Norco, where Hanley Foods prepares its products.

“The stores are buying his dressings by the 20-case orders, which in my history is unbelievable,” Sandoz said.

“The demand is here; we just can’t make it fast enough,” Hanley said. “We are trying to scale it up” and double the current production of 100 cases a month.

The dressing is “made of authentic ingredients you’ve heard of — no gums, preservatives or additives,” says the company’s website, http://www.hanleysfoods.com.

Hanley said he hopes to move to the LSU incubator, where the company will have access to larger equipment.

At Norco, the operation is “very small-batch and hands-on,” he said.

“We have to put the caps and stickers on by hand. Someone else puts the shrink wrap on. My older sister, Katie Dunlap, does that. Stefanie Henderson, my wife’s best friend, has been helping from the beginning. She’s kind of like the office manager. She helps organize, takes online orders and helps with every batch.”

Hanley’s brother-in-law Scott Hallett has come in as a partner to handle the business side of the company.

“He’s a smart, logical thinker. I’m more the creative, marketing side,” Hanley said.

Their products are available in Baton Rouge at Alexander’s Highland Road Market, Calvin’s Bocage Market, Calandro’s Supermarket and Our Daily Bread’s downtown location.

They’re also at all three Ralph’s locations and LeBlanc’s in Prairieville.

“The next big step is to saturate Baton Rouge,” he said. “We’re trying now to get into Associated Grocers, which distributes to some 250 stores, and hoping to move into New Orleans within the next two months.”

Hanley has ideas for other products “and we’re asking customers to vote for which product is marketed next. Go to our Facebook page, Facebook.com/Hanleysfoods.”