“I always had it in the back of my mind that I was going to start some kind of business on Martha’s Vineyard, my happy place,” says Susanna Herlitz-Ferguson.
But what kind of business? One day a little voice brought her back to her kitchen in Larchmont in 1995. There her sister-in-law, who was helping her prepare a family dinner, asked, “Why don’t you whip up the dressing?”
“I must admit that I’m not the best in the kitchen or in love with dressing,” Herlitz-Ferguson remembers. But she didn’t want to disappoint her sister-in-law, so she made a vinaigrette of oil, balsamic vinegar and herbs that family and friends said was “marvelous. It became known as Susanna’s dressing.” For years, though, she resisted requests to bottle it, not seeing herself in a food-related business — just yet.
But on the Vineyard, to which she moved four years ago, that little voice said, “What about the dressing?” Thus MV Salads, which opened in 2019, was born. The salad shop, which was named “Best New Restaurant” by Martha’s Vineyard magazine, has indoor and outdoor seating and features branded products that include the dressing born in Westchester County 27 years ago. MV The Dressing comes with a recipe tag that allows you to spice it up or turn it into a Green Goddess iteration. As with the dressing label, MV products — including T-, golf and sweatshirts, hoodies, pullovers, tote and insulated grocery bags and to-go utensils — are graced with leaning coral hearts, because Herlitz-Ferguson says she wants to be an entrepreneur with kindness, something that’s apparent from the warm, welcoming attitude she conveys in our phone interview.
The design also speaks to a graphics background honed in what was West Berlin, where she was born, raised and imbued with the shame and guilt of Germany’s Nazi past, “even though my family was on the victim side of things.”
Wanting to leave, she came to the United States and settled on the west coast of Florida. But though she found it “beautiful,” it didn’t have the culture she was seeking so she came to New York City, continuing her work in graphics design. She also went to work for the now-defunct Herlitz International Inc., a paper and pulp trading business in Greenwich.
A short-lived marriage left her a single mother of four in Larchmont. She continued to work with the paper company as a consultant and to make her dressing for fun. But eventually with her youngest grown and her life centered on the Vineyard, she decided to embark on a business in which she had no expertise. She began with the dressing itself in 2018, producing a small, shelf-stable batch that met with U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approval, as well as her own, at a bottling plant in Watkins Glen in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Ready to give the dressing a permanent home in an eatery, she turned to Ronald Levine of RL Hospitality Network for the kitchen design and James Beard Award-winning chef Bradford Thompson for the farm-to-table salad menu that includes vegan and gluten-free offerings. The designs of MV Salads — right down to the succulents on the communal tables — are all her own.
“The first year of MV Salads looked amazing to the outside world. We were crazy busy and excited to get rave reviews from customers,” Herlitz-Ferguson has said of the spring 2019 launch. “However, behind the scenes there was a lot of commotion as I learned how to run a food business. The good news is that we didn’t lose any money and we actually made some.”
When the seasonal salad shop closed for fall and winter, Herlitz-Ferguson expanded production of the dressing, using a co-packing manufacturer in New Haven. Adding online food ordering got her through the pandemic summer of 2020. The restaurant flourished once again this year, although it had to close for the season earlier than planned, because of the labor shortages that have plagued so many other businesses.
“When customers left the Vineyard this season, many purchased cases of MV The Dressing to take with them,” Herlitz-Ferguson says. “That’s when I knew my salad dressing had truly achieved success and that I needed to ramp up production for the upcoming holiday season.”
To date, she has sold more than 3,500 bottles. Herlitz-Ferguson wants to continue to grow her business slowly. She’s considering putting the dressing on Amazon and opening another shop on the Vineyard.
Though she is moving cautiously, she has big dreams for her baby: “The plan is to make the dressing famous.”
For more, visit mvsalads.com.