Many products today rely upon fictitious founders and histories to build their brand image. Not Hidden Valley® Original Ranch® salad dressing - the Original Ranch® dressing.
Hidden Valley® Original Ranch® dressing was developed by a real rancher at a real ranch - the Hidden Valley® Guest Ranch near Santa Barbara, California.
In the late '50s and early '60s, Steve and Gayle Henson's 120-acre spread was a dude ranch favored by weekend visitors, among them boisterous University of California at Santa Barbara students who flocked to the ranch for parties. Hidden Valley® Ranch in those days was lively and loud, described by a former ranch hand as part nightclub, part motel and part dude ranch. Guests brought with them huge appetites and Gayle often cooked up to 300 steaks an evening.
The ranch menu often included salad - topped by a dressing that Steve had begun developing during his years living in Alaska. It blended a dry mix of herbs and spices - the original dressing came in dry mix form only - with mayonnaise and buttermilk into a creamy consistency. In Alaska, Henson served earlier versions of the dressing to rough-and-tumble workers looking for something to make lettuce taste better. In California, Henson further tweaked his formula and used it to please his many guests' more refined palates.
Hidden Valley® patrons loved the dressing. Soon it became the only dressing served at the ranch. Some people, Henson said, even ate it over ice cream!*
Word of mouth spread rapidly about Henson's incredibly tasty and different dressing. Many guests took the dressing home in glass jars Henson gave them. Others urged Henson to market the concoction. When a visitor from Hawaii pressed Henson for a batch to take back to the islands for a large party the guest would be hosting in Oahu, Henson knew he was on to something big.
"I didn't have anywhere near the 300 or so jars he needed to take all that dressing with him, so I told him to give me a few hours while I prepackaged a bunch of envelopes with my mixture," Henson recalls. "I told him how to use the mix to make the dressing when he got back to Hawaii. He called a few days later wanting more. He said everyone had gone wild over the thing."
Encouraged by the comments of his Hawaiian guest, Henson developed a more exact formula for the powdered mixture and started marketing the dressing. Soon, orders were pouring in from all over the country. In the beginning, he packaged it himself. Within months, 12 people were helping him mix the dressing in the main house at Hidden Valley®. Eventually, the Hidden Valley® Ranch was converted almost entirely into a salad dressing packing center. The new enterprise was named Hidden Valley® Ranch Food Products, Inc.
Soon, Henson decided to expand the Hidden Valley® product line. First was Hidden Valley® Ranch Dressing with bleu cheese. Then came the Party Dip, which was a cheese-flavored seasoning for party crackers or potato chips.
The mail-order enterprise that had begun so humbly now reached more than 30 foreign countries. Henson found it necessary to move his operation from the ranch after learning that the vans needed to ship the dry mixture had problems on the narrow roads leading into Hidden Valley®. Meeting demand for the dressing became easier after Henson had a machine developed that was capable of filling thousands of envelopes in less than an hour.
However, even these efforts weren't sufficient to satisfy customers' needs. Henson initially contracted with outside businesses to blend and distribute the dressing, then in 1971 moved the entire operation to larger quarters in Sparks, Nev.
"The orders were humongous," says Henson of those days. "What started out almost as a lark became a multi-million dollar industry."
The Henson family sold the salad dressing business to The HVR Company (later renamed The HV Food Products Company) in 1972.
The recipe lives on. Today, it's almost impossible to walk into a grocery store without finding the green-labeled bottles bearing the name of the secluded place called Hidden Valley®. Inside each bottle is the legacy of a rancher with a palate for great food - and a small bit of Hidden Valley® Ranch history.
*alex, maybe that ranch shake would sell after all!