Executive Spotlight Q&A: Richard Hanley, Hanley’s Foods

(Photo by Don Kadair)

Name: Richard Hanley
Position(s): Founder, CEO, maker, delivery and demo guy
Age: 32
Hometown: Baton Rouge
Education: AS in Computer Information Systems, Baton Rouge School of Computers

Hanley’s Foods began with a light bulb moment in the grocery store almost six years ago when Richard Hanley was picking up ingredients to make a classic south Louisiana Sensation salad. Hanley wondered why the popular salad topper couldn’t be found in stores. He set out to fill the void—but with locally sourced ingredients and without all the preservatives and additives. After a year of development—and eating Sensation salad at least three times a week for over a year—he found a recipe that was a hit at parties, at home and at the Red Stick Farmers Market. He and his wife Kate quit their jobs, and they’ve been growing their business slowly and profitably ever since. Richard Hanley attributes his company’s existence to the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator, and he wants to share his experiences with other entrepreneurs in an effort to pay it forward. And yes, Hanley still eats a salad every day.

What was your very first job, and what did you learn from it?

My very first job was shucking oysters at Jones Creek Cafe & Oyster Bar. It sucked, but it taught me about discipline and good work ethics. I still can’t eat oysters to this day.

How did you go about beginning your career, and how was your business born?

The business was born on my kitchen table. My wife, Kate, and I were making our favorite salad—Sensation, a staple dressing in Baton Rouge. It can be found in several restaurants, in cookbooks from famous chefs, but not in grocery stores. After throwing a salad party where family and friends could vote on their favorite version, we brought the best one to the Red Stick Farmers Market in November 2012 and it was a hit. We quit our day jobs and went all-in, taking it from the farmers market to over 400 grocery stores in three years: The Harvest (our first store), Calandro’s (our second), Alexander’s Highland Market, LeBlanc’s, Calvin’s Bocage, Matherne’s, Hi-Nabor, Bet-R, Rouses, Winn-Dixie, Whole Foods and, recently, Walmart (coming in early 2017).

What are some of the challenges of being a startup?

Keeping up with demand. The world has enough good products, and these days good isn’t good enough. You have to make something great. And when you do, you have to be able to keep up with it. With that said, we’ve had some huge challenges with creating products—like our Avocado dressing, for example. If you look at an avocado, it turns brown. How do you think we were able to keep it green in a bottle for a year without using artificial colors, preservatives or flavors? A lot of testing, research and late hours is how. If you have a great product, it will market itself and it’s worth it. The second part is keeping up with demand. I’ll admit: We’ve failed at this many times (just ask Calvin’s Bocage about car-full midnight deliveries)—and still do. We don’t have millions of dollars to build our own facility and pump dressing out every day (yet). So we have to work with co-packers and manufacturers to make sure they can make our premium dressings perfect and on time, every time.

What was your experience like with the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator, and have you had a chance to mentor other entrepreneurs there?

Our company would not be in existence if it wasn’t for the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator. It has played a major role (and still does) in our ability to get started and get to market. Louisiana is known for great food. And now with a resource like the food incubator, you’re going to see a spike in great Louisiana food companies. It is the go-to resource for anyone who wants to make and sell a food product. Several food entrepreneurs have helped me grow my business, and they still do. One is Gaye Sandoz, the director of the food incubator, who has been in the food industry for 35+ years. Her insights and feedback are invaluable. I will forever remain in debt to these amazing mentors and hope to pay it forward any way I can. I’ve talked to several food companies about our screw-ups and triumphs to help them the best I can. If anyone wants to talk about food/business, they can feel free to email me anytime at rich@hanleysfoods.com.

What is one thing about your job people don’t know about or expect?

One of the biggest assumptions is that once you make something great and get it on the shelf, you’re set. The truth is that is the easy part. The hardest part is getting it off the shelf and then back on again—fast.

Your products have truly been a family affair. How many people are involved in your business, and what types of roles do they have?

My family and friends are everything. As cliché as it sounds, it takes a village to start a business. … And that is true. My mother, Julie Hanley, watches my kids while I make, market and sell our dressings. My sister, Katie Hanley Dunlap, has capped, sealed and shrink-banded 300,000+ bottles of dressing. My brother-in-law, Scott Hallett, and I have weekly strategy calls on growing the company. My kids compete on selling the most dressing at farmers markets and go to several events with us. Dozens of family and friends (I could go on for days) help me at events and demos, and they make and deliver dressing. And then there’s my wife, who first questioned the idea of leaving a paycheck to make a salad dressing and then later quit her day job and now puts in 100 hours a week with me to grow this thing. It has definitely spiced up our marriage, and I think every couple should start an adventure together. I do the sales, marketing, production, R&D, demos, deliveries and accounting. Kate does the online order fulfillment, events, manufacturing, buying, quality control and customer service. It’s just two of us full time.

How challenging has it been to market against the big, established brands, and what is the key to your growth?

If I had a million dollars in marketing, I would put it all in store demos. That’s going to the grocery store, making samples and talking about the company. Nothing moves product like having people taste it. I can’t compete with Kraft on the TV, but I can in the store.

What have been some of the unexpected trials you’ve faced in running your company?

Don’t rush similar products to market. We debuted our Ranch dressing in November last year, and then we came out with our Creole Ranch dressing three months later. That caused our sales to slump with Ranch because everyone wanted to try our Creole Ranch first.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

Two things: The fact that people spend their hard-earned cash on something that I created with my hands and love it. Words can’t describe how amazing that feels, and I’m proud of that. The second is that the manager of a Winn-Dixie loved our dressings so much that when they were out, she bought some from a competitor’s grocery store to restock hers. And it just so happened that we were doing a demo the next day and the CEO of Winn-Dixie walked in the door. He loved our whole line and put us in 150 more stores. And if things go well, we could be in 750 stores in about six months.

There is a health-conscious movement, so your “no junk” philosophy is timely. How do you go about sourcing fresh Louisiana products for your dressings?

No Junk! That’s what we put on every bottle, and that’s what guides us. We want the best, and Louisiana has remarkable resources we use like cayenne pepper mash, strawberries and cane sugar/syrup we get directly from the farmers. We always look for local ingredients first—it just makes sense.

What are your short- and long-term goals for the business?

In the next 10 minutes, I need to go make a delivery of our Sensation to LIT Pizza. They use it for their salads and toppings on pizza. In the next 10 months, our goal is to have a successful launch with Winn-Dixie and Walmart in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. In the next 10 years, our goal is to be the go-to natural dressing company in every grocery store and salad bar in America. The goal isn’t to be the biggest salad dressing company on Earth—just the best.

What is a typical day like? Specifically, what was it like when you were just starting to produce your first dressing?

Wow, those days were hectic. They still are. A typical day started at 6 a.m., heading to LSU’s food incubator to prep and get everything ready for a batch, typically Sensation. The days prior, I would drive from Lafayette to New Orleans gathering ingredients (in an old pickup truck) of oil, vinegar, garlic and Romano cheese. Then I would call on five or six family and friends to come out there and help me out. It would take us eight hours to make about 1,500 bottles in one day. Then we would load it up in a pickup truck and drive it to AG, Associated Grocers, to deliver it at midnight. AG’s receiving hours are in the graveyard shift, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. After that, Kate and I would wake up at 6 a.m. the next day to head back to the Red Stick Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to noon and then to a grocery store like Alexander’s Market from 2 to 6 p.m. We’d sleep a little and repeat.

What is your favorite part about what you do?

First, I love building a brand. I did it in the day job I quit before making dressing. I was the art director for GMc+Co. Advertising, based out of New Orleans. Brand building is my thing. I do all the photography, marketing, website, coding, social media—and love it. The second is my kids. They know exactly how a dollar is made. Once we were at the farmers market and my daughter wanted some of City Gelato’s ice cream. I told her that it cost $5 and that I would give her $1 for every bottle of Sensation she sold. After about 10 bottles I stopped her and said her quota for the day had been met and to go get some ice cream and enjoy it. Both my children have business ideas they’ve already started and I’m an adviser in their company. Nothing makes me more proud in the business than that.

Are you tired of eating salad?

Ha! You would think so. I’ve eaten my weight times two in Sensation dressing alone, and I still eat a salad every day. A lot of times it’s with dressings that we’re experimenting with and need to test out.

Your newest product is just launching. What has been the reception, and what is next?

Right now we have the Hanley five: Sensation, Avocado, Strawberry, Ranch and Creole Ranch. We have about 20 products in two different categories (not just dressing) in the works. You’ll have to stay tuned to the Business Report to find out.

What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you have overcome?

Discipline trumps motivation. I’ve had more obstacles come at me than I can count. When you have to defy the odds, staying clear minded, organized and disciplined is everything. Put a deadline on the calendar and work backward to what needs to be done and when.

What other leadership roles do you hold in the community and/or what volunteer efforts do you support?

I have two daughters in school. The school’s food system is horrible and lacking local produce. My goal in life is to get a salad bar in every school, starting with my children’s.

What is a great piece of advice you have personally received? Did you have occasion to put it to use?

This one came from my good friend and adviser, Kevin Holden of Hola Nola. “Say no, and stay focused.” It’s very hard in business to say no to growing sales. But if it’s not in line with your current goals, you have to say no.

What gets your workday off to a good start?

Every morning I head outside with a cup of coffee and my notepad to write down the top five things I need to do that day and how long they will take, and I prioritize them. Then I get to work scratching them off the list.

How do you like to spend your free time?

When I’m not making dressing you can find me mountain biking at the trails at Hooper Road Park, running around the LSU lakes or at a park with my family.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Most people don’t know this, but I dropped out of high school to join the National Guard’s YCP boot camp to graduate earlier. They shaved my head and “smoked” us (intensive physical training) every day—from running five miles with 20-pound backpacks at night to rappelling down towers at the age of 17.

What is an item on your “bucket list”?

Cross-country biking down California’s coast.

Where is your go-to spot in Baton Rouge?

Lunch: The Salad Shop or LIT Pizza—you can’t go wrong with either. Plus they both carry our dressings. Coffee: Magpie Café. Their lattes are the best in town.

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