If you open your eyes you can catch lightning in a bottle and make a million dollars with what you already know and already have. That is what Steve Henson did.
Steve was going broke running his dude ranch until he found a new opportunity for an old idea of his.
During the late 50s and early 60s, his dude ranch was a favorite of University of California at Santa Barbara students who flocked there on weekends to party.
It became a cross between a nightclub, a motel, and a dude ranch. It was a fun, loud and lively place. Steve entertained the guests with his stories. His wife, Gayle, cooked steaks (sometimes as many as 300 for a big party). After dinner, she would play the organ and she and Steve would sing.
Steve Henson, was born in Thayer, Nebraska, about as close as you can get to the middle of the United States. He left home when he was 19, riding the rails, and hitchhiking the highways before winding up in California, where he got a job driving trucks in Hollywood for 25 cents an hour.
�Go ahead and laugh,� Henson says. �But a quarter was pretty good money in those bad days.�
In 1937, he married Gayle, his childhood sweetheart. They were married for 56 years before she passed away.
�She was my true and only love,� Henson says.
By 1949, he was in Alaska working as a plumbing contractor and in less than three years, he had made a small fortune. He headed back to California, and bought a home in Hope Ranch, an exclusive community near Santa Barbara.
Henson had a dream of owning a dude ranch and bored with living in the suburbs, started looking for land. He found the perfect place. In 1954, he bought 120 acres with natural springs, a waterfall and surrounded by a creek. It was called Sweetwater Ranch and had once been a stagecoach stop between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The first thing he did was rename it Hidden Valley.
Henson was the ranch�s main attraction. A raconteur, he told stories about his hobo days riding the rails and his time in the frozen Alaskan outback. He also sang and cooked. Steve�s reluctance to advertise and Hidden Valley living up to its name was quickly wiping out his savings. Only a handful of regular guests, the student parties and some company picnics kept any money coming in.
He had to sell all but 66 of Hidden Valley�s acres. Henson needed another way to keep his dream alive. He already had it. He just had to need it before he realized the opportunity.
While in Alaska, he had made a concoction to improve the taste of salads to keep the workers from grumbling.
�It�s tough to feed men in those bush jobs,� Henson says. �If they don�t like something, they�re as likely to throw it at the cook as they are to walk out cursing. I had to come up with something to keep them happy.�
Workers in remote places will endure most harsh conditions except for bad food.
What was this magic mixture that kept him from dodging plates? He mixed mayonnaise and buttermilk with herbs and spices, and whipped it into a creamy consistency.
Steve said, �Buttermilk is a good base for anything. You can use it to make a hundred things in the kitchen. I experimented with other mayonnaise-type dressings, too, but they just don�t have the consistency of a real mayo and buttermilk mix.�
It was the only salad dressing served at Hidden Valley and everyone loved it.
�So good,� claims Henson �that some people ate it over ice cream.�
Guests often took the stuff home in glass jars.
One day, he went down to the nearby Cold Spring Tavern, a popular local hang out, and barged into the kitchen to mix up some of his secret concoction.
He came out with a little white bowl, handed Audrey Ovington the owner, a spoon and asked her to taste it.
She said, �It took off in my mouth like a freight train.� She immediately put it on the menu.
Demand for the dressing grew. Some of the regulars at Hidden Valley wrote, asking for the dressing that Henson mostly gave away in quart jars.
Steve first realized the potential of his ranch dressing when a visitor from Hawaii wanted a take some home for a larger party.
Henson didn�t have anywhere near the 300 or so jars he needed for the order, so he prepackaged a bunch of envelopes with his mixture and instructed the visitor to mix each envelope with a quart of mayonnaise and a quart of buttermilk when he got back to Hawaii. The man called a few days later wanting more. Everyone loved it.
Henson wrote down a more exact formula for the powdered mixture than a little bit of this and a little of that. Soon, orders were pouring in from all over the country.
In the beginning, he packaged it himself. The business grew to two card tables and one helper. Then there were two helpers, then four, then six, then eight, then ten. Soon, he had a dozen people working for him, and the operation took up the whole room and the hall of the main house.
�It wasn�t nuclear physics,� Henson says with a laugh. �All it took was some salt, monosodium glutamate, dehydrated garlic, dehydrated onions, black pepper, dehydrated parsley and calcium stearate measured in the right proportions. All the customer had to do was mix everything with buttermilk and mayo and enjoy the dressing.�
Steve Henson still had some doubts about selling it in stores, so he decided to test-market his product. He talked Loyd Kelley, owner of Kelley�s Korner, a market in Santa Barbara, into putting up a display. Kelley would agree to take only four-dozen of the packages of ranch dressing mix. They sold so fast that Kelley thought his employees were stealing them. When a clerk told him that all 48 packages had sold within hours, at seventy-five cents each, Kelley called Henson and ordered a gross.
Steve converted Hidden Valley almost entirely into a salad dressing packing center.
He started making spin offs of his original recipe.
�The next item we introduced was a Hidden Valley ranch dressing with blue cheese. Then came the party dip, which was a cheese flavored seasoning for party crackers or potato chips. That caught on really well. Up until then, we were strictly a mail-order operation.�
He did little advertising and most of his customers came by word of mouth. Soon he was selling to customers in all 50 states and in more than 30 countries.
The vans they shipped the product in had problems with navigating the narrow roads leading in and out of Hidden Valley. So, he moved the operation. He, then, designed a machine that could fill thousands of envelopes in less than an hour.
As demand grew, Henson contracted a big food processor to mix and blend the dressing then it was trucked to Los Angeles in 65-ton trucks, where it was bagged in aluminum bags on huge machines that could turn out 35,000 packages every eight hours.
Henson�s son, Nolan, took over the business after a stint in Viet Nam. He incorporated the company, became the executive vice president and made his sister, Konni, an officer. They moved the company, again, to a more accessible location in Sparks, Nevada.
�The orders were humoungus,� says Steve Henson. �What started out almost as a lark became a multimillion dollar industry.�
Henson sold the ranch in 1973. He began jumping between his home in Nevada, a desert home in Palm Springs, and a hideaway in Costa Rica.
In October of 1973, Henson sold Hidden Valley to Clorox Corporation. It is almost impossible to walk into a grocery store without finding Hidden Valley's green-label bottles with the original artwork of his secluded little place.
Steve Henson copyrighted the Hidden Valley name, but never got around to protecting the word "ranch". You can find Ranch dressing at almost every salad bar next to the French, Italian and Thousand Island but not necessarily made by Hidden Valley.
Ranch dressing is now the most popular salad dressing, has gained popularity as a dip for finger foods, and replaced other condiments one sandwiches and hamburgers.
His success proves that everyone has their own hidden valley, they just may not realize it yet.
"Think of it. I gave it away for 10 years before I knew I could sell it."