Sophia Maroon: Founder & CEO of Dress It Up Dressing

Episode 313

Thrilled to have Sophia Maroon, Founder & CEO of an incredible food brand called Dress It Up Dressing with us here today. Her idea came to life in 2012 when she decided to take the recipe her mother made and served the family for years to her local Whole Foods Market. And the rest is history! Well sort of. While their clean, delicious dressings are reason enough to love the brand, there are more reasons to be inspired by Sophia and her company. Hear more about their B Corp initiative, her transition from being a documentary filmmaker to creating a food product, her journey over the last 10 years in becoming an entrepreneur in the food industry and all the lessons she learned along the way. Get ready for a super discussion on this incredible episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m absolutely thrilled to have my next guest. Here we have Sophia Maroon, who is the founder and CEO of an incredible brand, called dress it up dressing and our mutual friend Alex Wallace introduced us. And thank you so much, Alex, if you’re listening, Sophia is, as I mentioned, the founder and the CEO of an incredible food brand called dressing up dressing that you all need to try. It is so so good. You can find it at Whole Foods and sprouts and others that are really focused on providing great products for consumers like you. And she has such an interesting story, in addition to creating an amazing product, she was actually documentary filmmaker before. So we’re going to talk about the differences that she sees in careers, the similarities as well. We’ll hear more about their B Corp initiative. And overall, what the journeys been all about over the last 10 years and becoming an entrepreneur in the food industry. So I’m super, super excited to talk to Sophia. And without further ado, welcome. How are you? Hi, Kara,

Sophia Maroon 1:57
I’m fine. Thanks. Thank you so much for having me on.

Kara Goldin 2:00
Very, very excited to have you here. So let’s start at the beginning. Or I should say let’s start at the beginning of dressing up dressing. So I’d love for you to share with everybody. What is dressing up dressing when you have to describe it to people, maybe you’re describing it to friends, especially in the early days. What are you doing Sophia, you’re going and starting a dressing company share sort of like what it is that you’ve done?

Sophia Maroon 2:29
Sure. So salad dressing is the sleepy part of the supermarket. But I think of it as being like Cinderella’s fairy godmother. When you put a good dressing on your food, it can transform it, it can take something that is otherwise like, you know, just a bowl of leaves and turn it into what feels like a gourmet dish. But it’s got to be a good dressing. And when I looked at the salad dressing aisle, I didn’t see anything there that I wanted to eat. It didn’t look like what I made from scratch at home. And I didn’t buy it for that reason. And so I tried to create a salad dressing that was the same as what you would make from scratch.

Kara Goldin 3:03
So it’s olive oil. And what is kind of the main difference between what you wanted to create and what you saw on the shelf. Well, so

Sophia Maroon 3:11
most salad dressings, like it’s so funny because you go to the salad dressing aisle and there are just hundreds of bottles. But if you turn them over, they’re all exactly the same. It’s canola oil, usually. And then water, and Xantham Gum and sugar and salt and and all of these ingredients. It’s like they took what was olive oil, and then they got the cheaper substitute. And they took vinegar and they got the cheaper substitute. And for all of these things, they just kind of diluted it and then they literally diluted it by adding a lot of water. And in order to get all of that dilution to substance it was more like a sauce. They add gums and starches and sugar and salt. And so what we do is completely different. It’s olive oil, vinegar, good balsamic vinegar, mustard and fresh garlic. And that is the recipe that my mother made for us every night when I was growing up. She had a vinaigrette recipe that she thinks she got from her cousin Bridgette but Bridgette thinks that she got her recipe from my mother, but nobody really knows where the recipe came from. But but now I seem to be taking all the credit for it. It was just simple ingredients and and I you know this is where sort of if you’re, if you’re completely naive, you’re able to walk into the store and or walk into a co Packer in my case and say like, Hey, I want to make a dressing with olive oil, vinegar, mustard and garlic. And they say no, that’s not how you make it. You use canola and water and Xantham Gum and sugar and salt and all these other things and I just kind of naively went in and tried to create something that resembled homemade and and that was how we got here.

Kara Goldin 4:47
I’d love it. I’d love to hear a little bit more about founding your company. You had been a documentary filmmaker you had also done some other things prior to that and now you were gonna go on and start a consumer products company around an idea that you had a love and a need that you saw, but it was definitely different. So how did you think about that?

Sophia Maroon 5:11
Well, so it didn’t really happen in that order I was. So my brother has always held that there was a business to be had in the salad dressing that our mother served us every night growing up. And, and he would always talk about it, like who’s going to sell them on salad dressing. And so I feel like it started as a bit of a dare to keep been talking about it for so long. And in 2012, I wanted to go back to work. And I had three children under the age of 10. And so I couldn’t go back to filmmaking, filmmaking is fantastic work, but the hours are not really amenable to raising three children. And I was a single mother too. And so I had a lot on my hands, but salad dressing I could make. So I started floating my brother’s idea. And I started sharing dressing with friends who then shared it with their friends. And they all encouraged me. And soon I was running this little kind of black market salad dressing company out of out of the back of my car. And I would go every week to Whole Foods and pick up empty Clementine boxes. And that’s what I used to deliver the dressing around the neighborhood. And one day, the guy from whole foods that gave me the clementine boxes just said what are you doing with all of these boxes? Because clementines season is ending. And we’re not going to have any more but maybe we have something else that we that you could use. So I told him that I delivered salad dressing. And he’s like, Well, if you make salad dressing, why haven’t you shared it with us. So I gave him some dressing. And I didn’t know it. He was the Store team leader. I thought he was just the guy in back that handled the boxes. But he was the team leader. And he had a background in in, he’d been a chef. And he said, when we made a vinaigrette in the restaurant, like we tried to, we tried to make this every single night and some days we got it some days we didn’t. He’s like you’ve nailed it, you’ve nailed the balance, can I take it up to headquarters and share it with them. So he took my dressing up to headquarters and and shared it with the grocery team. And they liked it. They said that they would put it on their shelves. They they placed an order for one case of of the I was the four flavors that I made. So I had four cases that was the order in one store. And I thought I had made it’s like this is it, we’re off, you know, we’re look out Paul Newman. And so with that with Whole Foods is like my first customer. That’s when I said about trying to figure out like, okay, you know, how do you make salad dressing legally, because we were making it in my kitchen and my daughter was peeling the garlic and finding out about food licensing and cottage laws, and all of these other things that are part of a food business. And so like when Whole Foods gives you an opportunity like that, like you just you don’t say no. And so the company came about as a result of all of these other things. My brothers dare my mother’s recipe that one question from the guy at Whole Foods, which I still feel like it was this serendipitous moment where he said, What do you use all these boxes for and changed my life?

Kara Goldin 8:18
That’s, that’s amazing. Well, and I think every great founder has that kind of story where it’s sort of, you know, accidental entrepreneur, so to speak, but lots of things the stars align. And clearly that’s what happened for you. So you talked about your brother and his Dare and obviously your mom and her recipe and but you had to have money to create this product. So funding is something that I think many people talk about, especially female entrepreneurs, actually, somebody was just sharing the stat with me that for venture capital, which is not the only way that people raise money to fund their company, but it used to be 3% of venture capital was given to women, it’s now 2%. So not great statistics. But in the early days, you had friends and family I loved the story. So tell me a little bit about how you initially funded what you were doing.

Sophia Maroon 9:17
It was the Seven Samurai I had. So I started the company I was in the middle of a divorce and it was it was not a good financial picture for me. And I wasn’t gonna I knew that I needed to, to work with a co Packer because my dressing is really really easy to make, but it’s hard to get in the bottle. It’s thick, and it’s emulsified. And so getting it in the bottle is the hard part. And I was going to need $6,000 to to do a round of production and so I started just asking friends and and seven friends said that they would come come forward and they think each one gave me $5,000 And that was my nest egg with which I could make the first round of production and maybe a second round of production. My Seven Samurai made everything possible. I mean, they were they were the people who really believed in me. And they helped me name the company, they would be testers and they, they looked at the labels and helped me make all sorts of decisions. And like one of them had an organic farm and her farm through the farm, she knew a chutney company in the chutney company knew a co packer and CO Packer also worked with whole foods, they knew Whole Foods requirements. And it’s like that it just became this kind of red thread that everybody contributed a little something like they love a stone soup of salad dressing.

Kara Goldin 10:38
You’re always grateful for those early people who showed up and who believed in you and what you were doing. And and obviously, that’s the story, I think, also for so many founders too. So how did you come up with the name, then dress it up dressing.

Sophia Maroon 10:54
So like all great ideas, it was at a boozy dinner party. When when the guy from Whole Foods said that they were going to bring it in, I thought I needed to like get get a nice coat of advisors around me. So I invited three couples over for dinner. And it was it was like a lawyer. It was a guy who had started his own company. And it was another one who had been who had worked for several startups, it was the brain trust. And I told him what I was planning on doing. And at the time, because I knew nothing about food and packaging food, I thought we would put the dressing in bottles that were shaped like iconic dresses. And so that way it would you know, that would be your way of distinguishing yourself on your like, I was thinking, you know, and your Mimas and Mrs. boudoir and, and not thinking about how much it cost to make a customized bottle. But that was the idea. And so while we floated it around, my friend Jim came up with the name dressing up dressing. And for the rest of the night, we tried to come up with something better. But but that was stuck.

Kara Goldin 12:02
I love it. No, it’s such a great story. So you created your company and have scaled it. It’s 10 years in the making what what is kind of the big differences between you know what you were doing before? And what you’re doing today? I mean, do you think that there’s any similarities and being a documentary filmmaker, versus actually going and creating a product. I mean, obviously, you need to educate people about how you’re different. But I’d love to hear your response to that.

Sophia Maroon 12:34
There probably are more similarities between making a film and making food than you would expect. There’s a adage in filmmaking garbage in, garbage out. And, and the idea is that if you’ve if you don’t have good materials, a good script, good cameraman like all of these components is, it’s a place where a weakness would then end up diluting the quality of the final product. And it’s exactly the same with food. It’s like you need good materials handled carefully, carefully chosen, treated with respect and then and then put out into the world like how you how you source, it has a really big impact on the final product. And, and then there are the other and like that’s about the product itself. Then there are all these intangibles because filmmaking is about collaboration and problem solving and creating what you have within a budget. And food is to food is incredibly collaborative, and you can’t do it by yourself. You’re constantly trying to solve problems because problems keep on arising like in any business. It’s I mean, I don’t think you really traipse from success to success, you go from overcoming one problem to overcoming the next problem. And you have to think on your feet especially with filmmaking, you’re on set, the problem arises right then in there, and we have been on the floor at the manufacturing facility and the problem will arise right then and there and you have to address it then. Like that’s one of the many ways in which they’re similar but but then at the end of the day, you also are taking your product and putting it out to the public. And and you you know, wrapped in a story but then also it becomes something else in the audience’s hands and you know, I can give you salad dressing, but But what salad are you gonna make with it? It’s really like there’s a point at which you have to let it go. And it takes on a life of its own.

Kara Goldin 14:26
Absolutely. How have you gotten the word out about the product?

Sophia Maroon 14:29
We were working primarily within the Mid Atlantic region for the first six years and so word of mouth we I sold at farmer’s markets, I stood in the aisles doing demos I’ve I’ve been at every single race and place where people were, who are healthy and who have healthy initiatives might be gathered. And now as we’ve gotten more broad distribution, which has only happened in like the last three years that we’ve had national distribution, it’s really been word of mouth as well because we’re small we can’t afford to do the the marketing that a lot of other companies are doing. And, and I mean salad dressing in particular, when you look at the salad dressing aisle, every other brand there on the shelf is owned by a large multinational. I mean it’s very I can maybe think of one. But they’re, they’re well invested in but they’re not owned by a by a multinational. And so a lot of these brands that we’re competing with are established brands that have been in people’s pantries for years and years. And salad dressing as a place where folks are extremely loyal. They, they get their brand, and they stick with that their brand. And that’s wonderful when it’s our brand, because we found that people try ours and then all of a sudden, they realize, you know, it tastes completely different from everything else that’s on the shelf. But for us to get the word out, it’s a struggle. It’s absolutely a struggle.

Kara Goldin 15:53
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Sophia Maroon 17:58
Yeah, so we did start with retail almost exclusively, because that’s where that’s where Whole Foods was. And I guess I didn’t know any better. I think if I’d had more awareness about online and Shopify when I started the company, then then maybe we would have focused on online earlier than we did. It’s something that we really only started to focus on in 2020. And then for food service, we launched a product for food service in February of 2020. So we got a loan from Whole Foods to produce individual serving sizes of salad dressing, and these were going to be on every salad bar in the mid Atlantic region of Whole Foods, but they were also going to be at schools and universities and corporate campuses. We had I think, like five big customers, and they hit the shelves February 1. Six weeks later, all the schools closed down. All the corporate campuses closed down, everything shut down. So we had a long standing relationship with DC public schools. Because one of the things I did like to build awareness was I started partnering with schools, I figured children like vegetables that taste good. And when when you use a good dressing your vegetables taste better. Yeah. So we partner with schools. It’s actually my favorite fact is that the consumption went up when they started using our dressing rather than the competition at DC public schools. But we had this long standing partnership with schools in 2020. And so we knew that they were going to be feeding more meals than ever before, in wake of the pandemic, because kids who rely on school meals for their food, still were being supplied. And so we ended up at first we were giving salad dressing away. Then we partnered with Jose Andress and world central kitchen, and we were able to give away something like 30 or 40,000 meals to first responders, the elderly and children in the early days of the pandemic, and That like, I mean, it was wonderful to have a place to put the dressing. But really, we had no other place for that dressing to go. And so I’d say that my first foray into foodservice was was the victim of just unbelievably bad timing. I’m also happy to say that we’re about to relaunch the packets. And hopefully we’ll do better.

Kara Goldin 20:20
I love it. I’m sure you will. And I think food services once again, starting to kick into gear as people are starting to go back into the office and frankly, wanting to go back into the office too. I think that it’s definitely something for corporate cafeterias that is absolutely happening. And obviously schools too. So I’m excited about that for you. Is there something as you look back on, you know, the journey that you wish you would have done? You know, thinking back on, I don’t know, some people have said, I wish I would have raised money sooner I wish I would have, you know, not put all my eggs in one basket, I wish I would have fired faster, there are a number of TQM, like

Sophia Maroon 21:02
Check, check, check. Yeah.

Kara Goldin 21:06
That I think I was just interviewing somebody. And they shared that, you know, when you’re working in a large company, and it’s not your idea, when you have to let somebody go, or somebody decides to leave on their own, you take it a lot less personally. But when it’s your idea, that first person who leaves you it’s like, what did I do you blame yourself? I think it’s like this consistent thread along the way. But anyway, I’m curious if there’s something that you felt like you didn’t do soon enough.

Sophia Maroon 21:38
Yeah, well, start the salad dressing company, I think I should have been, I’ve been making this recipe since I was 20 years old, and I only started selling it at 40. I love it. I do. I mean, I do often wish that I’d had the opportunity to like that I’d done this as a as a younger person that I started the company when I was in my 40s with a family and a mortgage and, and a lot of responsibility. And I do sometimes get a little envious of you know, the college roommates that then start their company or that, you know, they’re living out of their dorm room or in their parent’s garage, I took out an SBA loan in year two of the business. And I took out $150,000 because it costs more to take out $151,000 After 150, you you hit this point at which it was going to be more expensive. So I stopped at 150. And I shouldn’t have I think that that was a really big, that’s a big regret, because I think having more money in your pocket is always helpful. Just because things happen. Accidents happen. And so I would kind of also say that I wish that I’d realized a little bit sooner that if you don’t ask you don’t get it sometimes you you’re you have to be so bold in in some of the things that you ask people to do. And and whether it’s as I don’t think it’s because I’m a woman, but I think that sometimes just out of being polite, you don’t say the things that you feel like you ought to say. And and so I have kind of trained myself to ask things that I would be so uncomfortable having asked otherwise or previously. And I I find that now I’ve got a boldness about the business that I also wouldn’t have in my personal life. Right. If I did, like, I don’t think I’d have any friends. But no, I love that. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 23:33
I mean, it’s so true. Because if you don’t ask, it’s not going to happen. Right? And so you can’t be procrastinating about it or never saying it because you don’t want to impose on somebody in some way. So I absolutely agree. And I think it’s something that maybe women are are worse at that than men are. But I think it’s it’s something that is consistent amongst founders for sure. So what have you enjoyed most about creating? I mean, I can’t imagine doing anything else, right? I’m a builder, I’m a creator. So for you, I mean, what do you like most about it?

Sophia Maroon 24:11
I mean, I really love the fact that it tests you on every level and that you do have to be you have to be creative, not just artistic creativity, but but in how you how you brand, your product, how you finance things, I love being able to bring that creativity into everything that we do, that we that you can make your company be anything you want. And for me, I always like I knew what the product was because I had the recipe for the product but being able to create a company that then shared those same characteristics with the product. And by that I mean like we that we try to be authentic and to have integrity and that your your brand can represent so much more beyond the obvious and that you can use it in order to promote the missions or the ideas that are important. you and for me, like I care about sustainability. And so from day one, we had sustainability woven into our into into everything that we did. I care about healthy food for for children. And, you know, I’m a mother so I’m feeding children but I also look at school lunches and realize that school lunches are woefully inadequate. They don’t have fresh fruit and vegetables. And so that prompted me to go and partner with schools and say we will give you dressing at cost will give you dressing below cost, if it will help you provide something fresh and healthy on the salad bar lunch, then also like being able to offer employment to women in particular, like I started dressed up because I couldn’t find some why. couldn’t imagine who would hire me for five hours a week on on Mondays and Thursdays on the days that I didn’t have carpool. And so being able to hire people and hire people with skills, but in schedules that perhaps are Nonconformist, but that work for them and for their priorities. I think being able to fold all of these aspects that are important to into a business and give that business life and give it a personality beyond just a product looking for a price is is one of the most exciting things about starting a business.

Kara Goldin 26:17
Yeah, definitely. I think people who have not started businesses to maybe don’t understand I mean, oftentimes there’s no picture, there’s no roadmap, right? A lot of what you’re doing to others might be creating an another salad dressing, but to actually walk into, you know, a whole foods and not only get it on the shelf, but learn all this new stuff about slotting fees and about how do you compete? But then how do you educate people? And how do you have your why and all of the things that you talked about that are really important to your company to? There’s no, like, this is what you have to do. This is what you decide you want to do. And you put stakes in the ground around it. You’re also a B Corp, which is great. How did you make that decision to actually go that route?

Sophia Maroon 27:09
Well, it happened backwards. Like everything else who addressed it is I was already doing these things. I was already like I wanted every demo we did I want it to be zero waste. And I wanted the company to like I looked at what’s the what’s the lifecycle of the products that we’re using? And how do we use the most sustainable things. And then learned afterwards that there was this thing called a B Corp that kind of graded you and looked at those characteristics and said, Okay, these are the standards we expect you to meet. These are the standards we’d like you to meet, and then it raises the bar, because you then look at at how are you going to treat your employees, you know, and you see that there are criteria for treating people whether it’s that you’re going to have the the obvious ones health care and paid time off. And and then the perhaps the less obvious ones, like a day for everybody to volunteer and to have a day or a time where they can pursue other interests and do do their own professional development. Like, I feel like all of the criteria of within B Corp just helped us be better about the things that we didn’t know about and helped us validate the things that we didn’t know about. And I also think that like, back to what I was saying about a company having a personality, like it makes it so that you you have things that you really believe in, and those things that you believe in then become sometimes they become the thing that keeps you going. And I know that for us like in the pandemic when we were facing facing the worst time with the with the schools closing, like the fact that we already had that relationship with schools actually is what kept us in business. And so it’s like sometimes your y becomes your lifeline. Yeah. And

Kara Goldin 28:49
keeps you motivated. I was going to ask you as your last question, like what keeps you motivated on those hard days, those low spikes, right? You definitely have the high ones. When you get into Whole Foods, you’re selling lots of products, but what is it that keeps you motivated on those hard days.

Sophia Maroon 29:06
Um, so we’ve already exceeded what I ever expected to be able to do with this company. And we’ve gotten farther than I could have possibly imagined. And dress it up sort of came into being at a time when I wasn’t at my very best at all. But it got me out of it. And it provided this sort of new path. That was not the one that I was expecting. And what motivates me every single day is the fact that like it gave me a purpose that I wasn’t seeing it at the time. And then it gave me a work tool by which to plow all of my passion and all of my energy into something that was bigger than just me and that now hopefully is doing everything I would want it to do. It’s feeding children in schools. It’s promoting health and wellness. It’s protecting the environment. It’s like I can’t quit. Yeah, Oh, no, I live there days when I really really want to, but I can’t We We’ve come too far. And I feel like it’s it’s, it would really be doing a disservice to all of the opportunities that have been given to me to stop

Kara Goldin 30:14
well, and I think you touched on this employees that you’re giving jobs to also consumers who write to you who say, finally, there’s a dressing that I want to buy that is yummy. Obviously, you’re, you know, I think feedback is so critical. I always tell people, especially people who are in in the food industry that, you know, that’s what keeps people going. So if you love a product, definitely tell people that you love that product, because it’s hard being an entrepreneur. And I think people really do need that feedback. So I absolutely love everything that you’re doing. If you have not tried Sofia’s product, definitely go to your local store. Also, you mentioned you’re doing direct to consumer now, I wish we had more time to talk about all of this, but dress it up dressing is absolutely terrific. So thank you so much for sharing everything with us, Sophia, I really, really love it. Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally our listeners keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug if you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening