“Like every mom, I wanted to feed my kids healthy foods,” explained Karen Binno Akouri, a Bloomfield Hills Schools graduate from the class of 1987 (Lahser). “About five years ago, I started paying attention to labels and couldn’t believe all the chemicals I found in salad dressings. The one that stuck out the most was the titanium dioxide, but I also saw things like polysorbate 60 and disodium inosinate.” Akouri would then research the ingredients, finding that FDA regulations approved them as safe in small quantities. Still, Akouri was convinced that there were healthier options and started making salad dressings at their home in West Bloomfield.
The dressings might have stayed within the family, but Akouri frequently volunteered to make food for school and sports events involving the family’s three children. “I always would make salads, and I would get so many compliments,” said Akouri. “Then I was getting requests to make them all the time! People would ask for my recipe, and I would have people say they would buy my dressings.”
Akouri, who spent five years as a Certified Public Accountant and a Certified Internal Auditor, realized this could be a business venture and started measuring the ingredients for each creation. “When I told my husband I was seriously considering bottling my dressing, he said, ‘Just add it to the list of all the other ideas and inventions you have.’ That really fueled me. I had all these ideas over the years, but never really followed through. I proved him wrong in this one!”
The company is called Drench because Karen loves to drench homemade salads with dressing. And, it’s a family affair with a college student, a recent high school graduate, and one still in high school. “My kids help with deliveries and social media...wherever I can get help, I take it,” laughs Akouri.
The only cooking class Akouri ever took was home economics at Lahser through Bloomfield Hills Schools. Akouri notes that the educational experience in Bloomfield was exceptional, “You were always held to a high standard in every aspect,” said Akouri. “I see that now that I've gotten older.” And that’s the same standard that Akouri uses for Drench. “It does retail between $8.99 and $9.99 per bottle, but I use the higher quality ingredients like olive oil, avocado oil, and grapeseed oil. Probably 99 percent of the dressings out there use soybean and canola oil which is all genetically modified.”
At the beginning, Akouri didn’t have a specific marketing strategy, but the all-natural products were a hit with consumers. Akouri noted, “A lot of the questions I got from my farmers market and food demos were about food allergens. Drench dressings are free of the most common allergens; they are dairy-free, nut-free, soy-free, gluten-free, plus there are no refined sugars and they are non-GMO. That just happened naturally because of the way I like to cook and eat. We are very proud of our ingredients. We put them right on the front of the bottle and you can pronounce everything.”
There are three Drench flavors currently sold in stores in the area and even on Amazon: citrus honey, Mediterranean lemon, and balsamic fig vinaigrette.
Locally, Drench has partnered with Beyond Juice for a vegan caesar dressing which is now in production for commercial food services. “I had just walked in there one day. I am very particular about my dressings, so I asked them if they made them in house and where they got their dressings,” said Akouri.
Other dressings coming to market soon are a yet-unnamed southwest vinaigrette with ingredients like cumin and honey, a pomegranate vinaigrette, and Italian red wine vinaigrette, and a Greek. All can be used for salads or for marinades.
Akouri is fearless when it comes to getting her products to market. “If I had one suggestion for students today it is to focus on perseverance. Never give up,” said Akouri. “I never take no for an answer.”
Akouri continued, “I remember calling Nino Salvaggio when they were just opening up in Bloomfield. The buyer was a little reluctant because they were ready to open in two weeks and didn’t really want to introduce a new product at that point. So, I did something unconventional. I went directly to the store while construction was still going on. My husband was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I told him that they had to have everyone there...all hands on deck because they were opening soon. I said I was sure I could speak to someone directly, give them samples of my product, tell them that I lived in the area, that my products were on the shelves of other stores, and that they should stock it. I walked in, and the president was there. He told me, ‘Oh, yeah, I have that product in my refrigerator. Done. You’re in.’ So, had I not done that, I might have gotten in there eventually, but I believe in persistence. I have so many stories where people have been reluctant, and I’ve turned that reluctancy into a yes.”
The other thing Akouri recommends for students in this generation is that phone calls are important. “I would encourage all kids to not be afraid to call,” said Akouri. “It makes a huge difference! It’s immediate, and they can hear the emotion and passion in your voice that they can’t hear in a text or email.”
It took Akouri about a year of calls and perseverance to get into Whole Foods, but Drench will be on shelves in the seven Michigan stores soon, with the hope that endeavor will translate into a nationwide presence. Besides current places like Beyond Juice, Clean Eats in West Bloomfield, and Planted Detroit, an opportunity to work with a local hospital food service also is in the works. And, there is free, local contact-less porch delivery through the website. Store locations, recipes for salads, as well as information on the product is available at www.idrench.com. Akouri also makes the rounds of radio shows, local television shows, and local stores providing product demos and talking up the dressings.
Akouri doesn’t plan to stop expanding the Drench line, with an idea for sauces already being formed. “I love being in the kitchen, I love cooking, and I love creating,” emphasized Akouri. “It’s just like everyone says, it’s not a chore if you follow your dream, and it’s not work if you love doing it. I can’t wait to spend time in the kitchen every day and create a new dressing.”