“What kind of dressing would you like with that?” It’s a common enough question. But if you take a moment to wonder about your dressing of choice’s origins, then the question becomes more intriguing. That is especially true if the dressing is Riverhouse.
Founder and artisan salad dressing innovator Steven Neufeld never thought the food industry was his calling — this despite Austrian roots that were firmly planted in his family’s kitchen. “From the time I was able to walk, I stood at the stove next to my parents,” he recalled.
During his time studying oceanography at the University of Washington in the 1970s, he found himself working at a coffeehouse with a unique menu that catered to ravenous students — soups, sandwiches, and desserts. Although he “loved the work and the people, I still didn’t see it as my vocation.”
While visiting friends in Oregon, Neufeld discovered boat building. He landed in Pacific City and took to crafting commercial fishing dories. After the passing of his employer, Neufeld decided to travel the world. Eventually, the call of the Pacific Northwest pulled him back to the Oregon coast.
It was an entrepreneurial streak passed down by his father that drove Neufeld to seek a means of self-employment. He settled on opening a restaurant and found “a beat-up old place in desperate need of an upgrade.” That four-table establishment was transformed into the Riverhouse Restaurant. Going back to what he knew, the eatery was initially a sandwich shop — an unusual enterprise at the time. Along with its gourmet knife-and-fork sandwiches, everything at Riverhouse was homemade, including its blue cheese vinaigrette.
“There were no other recipes like it on the market at the time; a buttermilk base was typical of blue cheese,” Neufeld noted. “The Italian-style vinaigrette changed the character of the blue cheese completely.”
Soon after the restaurant opened, patrons began bringing their own Mason jars to be filled with the unique recipe. It became clear there was a market for the dressing, so Neufeld decided to bottle the beloved blue cheese and put it on refrigerated shelves.
“It was very difficult to get into stores back in ’88,” he explained. “But small, independent, high-end stores — those were the kinds of places that would take a chance on us. Every week I’d go into Portland to personally service the stores our products were in.”
Once a track record was established, it was time to vie for larger retail partners. After initial conversations with Fred Meyer, it was decided that a hand-picked half-dozen stores would serve as a test for Riverhouse’s signature salad dressing. Within the six-month timeframe, Fred Meyer decided to put the blue cheese in every store in Oregon and Washington.
Until then, the salad dressing had been made on the premises at the Riverhouse Restaurant during down time. Production was moved to its current facility in Oretown, and some of the restaurant employees went to oversee manufacturing.
“It was a significant boost for us, as we were also continuing to build business in independent stores,” Neufeld said.
As business continued to grow, Neufeld decided to develop some additional dressings. His wife, Joy, developed Riverhouse’s second offering, Honey Dijon. Steven then created the Parmesan Herb, Greek Feta and the most-recent Cheddar & Chives. “We keep trying to develop something better than anything else on the market,” he noted.
The unique qualities of Riverhouse dressings lend to diverse culinary uses. Whether as a marinade for chicken or fish, a topping for steak or potatoes, or the perfect finishing touch to pasta salad or slaw, the dressings can be used in a multitude of ways.
Neufeld retired from the restaurant business in late 2011. It would be several years before the Riverhouse Restaurant finally sold, which left another decision to be made about Riverhouse Foods and its line of dressings. “I felt I had reached a point where I could take it as far as I could without a major infusion,” Neufeld relayed. “I really wanted to sell to somebody local so that the crew who had been with me for so many years could keep working.”
As it turned out, there was a local interested. In fact, he had been selling Riverhouse Dressing for years in his own business, The Blue Heron French Cheese Company. Owner Denny Pastega had previously expressed interest in acquiring the local dressing company that moved so well in his own establishment. The sale of Riverhouse Foods was finalized in the spring of 2013.
I really wanted to sell to somebody local so that the crew who had been with me for so many years could keep working.
The small-batch dressing is still largely handcrafted, and its creator Steve Neufeld is still personally servicing accounts and doing demos to promote his flagship product. He still looks after his “family” of employees and serves as a business consultant.
“When you’ve been an employer for 35 years, it can be hard to back off,” he chuckled. “But they’ve given me the opportunity to stay involved and, I’m glad for that.”