You’re probably familiar with Little Creek Dressing. In fact, if the name rings a bell, you very well might also be a fan; one of their beautifully illustrated labels already lighting up the contents of your fridge. If you try their tangy, creamy dressings just once, it’s likely you’ll become a repeat buyer. With an ingredients list composed of organic, vegan, GMO-free and handcrafted vinegars, it’s the closest thing to a homemade dressing you can get, without using your own kitchen ingredients. OH, and it tastes even better. (Sorry, Ma!)
Little Creek started as a neighborhood crowd favourite, whipped up legendarily by Donna Denison in her own Okanagan kitchen. It was when it became clear that it would bring value to kitchens beyond her block, that she started making moves. The truth is that once you have it, you can’t give it up. It’s an instant staple.
This year, Little Creek celebrates 25 years in business. Donna and her daughters, Kerisa and Amber excitedly told us this news as we Facetimed them in sunny LA about their grassroots, homegrown story. Their story–Donna’s story, is one that would make a seriously good book. The kind that makes you feel good after each chapter of your read–and after, when you put the book down, inspired. This is her story.
Where does the name Little Creek come from?
In 1969 my parents bought the property–the land we call Little Creek, from my great aunt and uncle, who originally purchased the 30 acres in 1947. They named the land, Little Creek after a little creek that runs through the property that flows in the spring. Eventually my parents subdivided the land amongst myself and my three siblings, so we all have property on the lake.
I was living in Summerland, with my son, Jubi–where I met my husband Dale Ziech who is the father of the girls. I was a potter, and he was an orchardist.
In 1984, Dale, Jubi, who was 11, and I decided to move to the land. We literally cleared the forest and built a house. The idea was that I was going to set up a pottery studio, and Dale was going to plant an orchard. After we moved into the house, I found out I was having twins. Our plans changed.
Dale started growing and selling salad greens. He was the first grower of certified organic salad greens in the Okanagan! For years I worked off the property to support the farm but decided to do something creative and be at home with the girls who were 9 years old. I had made my dressing in a jar for many years, and I thought, ‘I’m going to bottle it.’ At that time, the government wanted to help farmers in their efforts to create value added products from the farm. My dressing was a great complement to Dale’s salad greens and I used some of the produce he grew. I contacted the Summerland Research Station, and had a scientist come out. She tasted it & took it to test for shelf life evaluation and then told me what I had to do. That’s how it all started.
What was your transition into retail like?
I started out slowly but surely. I purchased 5 cases of bottles, filled 5 cases, and sold 5 cases.
Then I bought 10 cases, filled 10 cases, sold 10 cases and so it began. I had my whole family helping; Dale grew the basil, garlic, & raspberries which I made into vinegar. Dad peeled the garlic which I processed in my blender for the dressing. My neighbor had a computer so he helped assemble the first label that I had drawn which we then printed on regular paper, which we cut to fit the bottles. The girls and anyone visiting hand coloured the labels which we then glued onto the bottles.
That same neighbour would take home bags of fresh basil that he and his wife would strip and then return to me, then I took it to a commercial dryer in Peachland and would pick it up dried, bring it home and grind it in my blender. My brother would take deliveries to the Kootenays for me, and my sister to the coast. My parents and I would drive to the coast, make deliveries then pick up bottles and ingredients.
We originally tried selling the dressings at the Farmer’s Market, but in those days there wasn’t a lot of consumer support at the markets. I decided to approach some smaller local stores to sell the dressings. I had a few odd stores in the lower mainland that also carried the dressings, because the managers had tried it in the Okanagan and wanted to carry it in their stores.
My parents lived on the land, and they were a great help. My first facility that was originally supposed to be the pottery studio became the kitchen “studio”, but it burned down in 1998. I would have quit, because making the dressing, selling the dressing and all just wasn't making a profit. And then I lost everything in the fire. My Dad, who was such an inspiration to me came up the hill the morning after the fire and said:
‘So kid, I hear you’ve had some bad luck. Well, don’t even think of the shoulda, coulda, woulda...what do we need, let’s get going?’
That is what inspired me to continue making the dressing. My dad is the original Ice Road Trucker, and there is a book written about him. In 1998 he received the Order of Canada for opening up the north, which was the same year my kitchen burned down and my first grand-son was born. The Denison family motto is “Persevarando” and I do believe the family carries that drive within us.
It just so happened that Jubi is a builder, so he built my kitchen. Many friends and neighbours helped in many ways with the dressing business. We had a very simple set up which was extremely efficient and worked really well. The girls and other summer visitors would help over the summer holidays and my parents and other family members took over in the fall.
I would mix, Dad would fill using a small wine filling machine and Mom put on tamper sleeves which she shrunk over the steam of an electric kettle that I purchased from the thrift store.
I had the business on the farm for eighteen years but in order for it to grow and for me to step back from all the work, I decided to move it into Kelowna to a larger facility which is now run by my son, Jubi Steinhauer.
The dressing really grew quite organically. I never had a lot of money for investing, so I was thrifty and resourceful. I grew it slowly but surely with more and more stores coming on-board. I had two small distributors a few years into making the dressings but when the Canadian dollar hit a low, I was in the negative and had to drop the distributors. They helped with getting into some stores, but I had already established a decent market which they serviced and helped expand. We were a bit ahead of the curve, because we’ve always been organic and we didn’t officially have the certified organic stamp until last year. That made us the only certified organic salad dressing made in Western Canada.
On community, connection and support:
Because we lived so far out of town, I felt kind of isolated already. I had tremendous support in Kelowna, though. The grocery industry is very male-dominated though more women have gotten into the food industry since I started. It’s a tough industry in a lot of ways, margins are low in the food business and there’s lots of competition in the salad dressing department for conventional dressings. I was lucky that everybody loved the dressing and wanted the dressing. So many people say it helped their families eat healthier foods. I had a lot of support in terms of the business itself due to the nature of the dressing & the unique taste that people just love.
I’ve got to say –it’s so cool when I’m in a parking lot and my car has the logo on it, and people come up to me. To be honest, I’m blown away by the respect and admiration people give me. I suppose it’s because I took an idea & worked hard at making it a success. I didn’t have a lot of financial support but developed the business slowly but surely. It was just the timing that was right. I had thought about bottling it for years, but the timing wasn’t right, until it was.
If you believe in intuition or divine intervention, or guidance... I just, I just did it. I received a lot of support from the community in terms of people buying it, or lots of people coming to help me. For example, my 85 year old neighbour fixed all of my machinery. And then there were the kids, and anybody visiting. Everybody pitched in and it really is a dressing made with love. That’s the first thing I say on the bottle. I’m so thankful.
What was the first store you got Little Creek into?
Our first store was Nature’s Fare because Dale sold greens there. I asked if I could do a demo and they said, ‘sure.’ And I sold a case. And they ordered a case. Those were with the hand colored labels we glued on. My Uncle was in the printmaking business, so he made the first “real” labels which were also paper, but we had to dip them into water, then apply them to the bottle.
I feel that my story inspires others. Many people are so proud of me–mainly women. It was just an idea, and I did it. Lots of people have ideas, but it’s hard to follow through. I’m hard working and with all of the help I had with the dressing, and people loving it–it worked. A lot of people say they make their own dressing but if they need a go-to, they use ours. Most commercial dressings have emulsifiers, and we don’t so the dressing really has that “homemade” taste.
We use recycled packaging for shipping mail orders, thinking of the planet. It’s a priority.
This business really is all about the future, you guys, your children...and the planet itself.
My garden & the lake are my downtime places. We planted 300 daffodils for this season and it’s a simple thrill for me to see plants come to life and my garden grow! Many of my plants were given to me by my Aunt who was an avid gardener. I have my great grandmother’s peonies that my Aunt passed on to me, and I just love having that connection to the past through plants. I can imagine my great grandmother picking bouquets for her home & gatherings and now I am picking bouquets from her plants for my home & gatherings...this means so much to me!
I’m really humbly proud that what I created has integrity and is ethical - the business supports a healthy planet, healthy eating, and healthy living.
Tubify is a community-centric brand. Our relationship with this community is how we truly measure our company’s value and growth. So. we thought – why not interview some of the people who inspire our community impact? And so was born this series, #HumansofYVR.