Obituary: Renée Unger, queen of the salad dressings

Renée Unger, whose gourmet salad dressings have graced veggies and tickled palates for a generation, died in Toronto on July 3. She was 78.

A “fabulous” cook, as her obituary pointed out, she launched a successful business by making all-natural salad dressings for family and friends in her home kitchen. In 1985, she and her husband Arnie created Renée’s Gourmet Salad Dressings. The couple and their daughters conducted in-store tastings, selling at first to small grocers like The Kitchen Table and Sunkist Market, then to Rabba’s Fine Foods and Mr. Grocer.

The products acquired boutique status when they appeared at Holt Renfrew and Pusateri’s. Word of mouth, so to speak, boosted sales, and soon, the dressings hit the shelves of Loblaws, A&P-Dominion (now Metro), Sobeys and other large chains.

By 2005, the company was enjoying $44 million in annual sales. At the time, Renée’s was the largest maker of refrigerated dressings in Canada, with 68.5 percent of the market.

In 2006, by which time there were about 30 flavours under the Renée’s Gourmet brand, the family sold the business for an undisclosed amount to Heinz Foods of Canada (now Kraft Heinz) and Unger continued to be involved in the development of new products.

“Renée’s vision was to see her salad dressing on every family’s table, and we work hard every day to fulfill that vision,” said a statement from Kraft Heinz sent to The CJN. According to the food giant, Renée’s Caesar is “by far” Canada’s favourite variety.

The family agrees. Caesar is the most popular—and it’s available in four flavours: Regular, Light, Mighty, and Parmesan Vinaigrette—followed by Greek, Ranch, and Poppy Seed.

Unger “revolutionized” the salad dressing industry and was a “worthy competitor” to actor Paul Newman’s line of dressings and sauces, Bonnie Stern, cookbook author and food maven, told The CJN. “I had a great deal of respect for her. She really was ahead of her time—an entrepreneur, a woman, successful and hardworking,” Stern said. “She set a standard and an idea for people who followed suit.”

Unger was born in Toronto on Dec. 11, 1942, the youngest child of Faye Shankman, an immigrant from Odessa, and Albert Mendelson, who was born in England to Romanian parents. After majoring in mathematics at the University of Toronto, Renée went on to earn a teaching degree and taught for several years. After teaching full time, she started her family and worked part time substitute teaching and selling jewelry. She also opened her own designer clothing store.

Cooking was her way of relaxing. In the evening, she read cookbooks and was always thinking of something new or interesting to make. School lunches for her daughters consisted of salads, with homemade dressing poured into old film canisters.

The Ungers were members of Beth Tikvah Synagogue, where Renée made her dressings and cooked for the sisterhood years before her products were launched.

“I was fascinated by presentation and taste,” she recalled in a 2009 magazine profile. “I found out at a young age that I was one of those people who is a super taster. I have a very sensitive palate—I know when something’s good or something’s off. With every blessing, there’s a curse. When I went into restaurants, I could tell when they had just cleaned the utensils or washed the floor, so there’s a downside to my heightened senses.”

In the winter of 1984, Unger bottled some of her poppy seed dressing and labeled it, “From the Kitchen of Renée.”

“We gave them out and about three weeks later, people started to say they wanted more,” she recalled in Canadian Business in 2008. “I’ll never forget one girl at the bank who said, ‘I’ll pay anything.’ That was like a light bulb went on. I remember going home that night and saying to Arnie that this is going to be a good business because there is nothing else like it. I went to bed that night and I saw my bottle on tables.”

That winter, she made her first large batch of poppy seed dressing while her husband hammered together wooden crates to carry the bottles. “After much research, our mom and dad knew there was a market out there for their dressings,” recalled their daughter, Lori Unger-Gutmann. Caesar, Greek, and Blue Cheese came next, and Renée never looked back.

The couple opened a plant in Toronto in 1987 and expanded to another in 1993, employing at one time 100 people. A divorce and a cash crunch around this time slowed Unger down, but not much.

Recalled as feisty and headstrong, her business sense came from her gut. “If it feels right, I do it,” she said flatly. “One of the things entrepreneurs have that others don’t: they don’t wait to hear about the trends through statistical data. They themselves drive the trends.”

After establishing her line, the company branched out to make sauces, dips and dressings with fruit (“Ravin’ Raspberry” was one). “We were 20 years ahead of what other food companies were doing,” she told Canadian Business Journal.

So what was her secret? Simple. “We absolutely taste better,” Unger pronounced. “The ingredients are healthy for you, and we’re at a level that no one else is at. You can see this in our sales.”

Unlike conventional dressings sold on grocery store shelves, her line is still made with fresh ingredients, with no preservatives or additives, and is sold in the produce section of food stores. “That product positioning next to fresh vegetables was also key in increasing sales,” the Globe and Mail noted in 2005.

Just as importantly, she never changed the recipes. “You start changing your formulas, and then you’ve lost the reason customers are buying the product,” she reasoned.

She was a savvy businesswoman, to be sure, but was also “extremely eccentric and marched to the beat of her own drum,” said her daughters.

“She never followed the norm and was a true leader. She never cared about race, social status, or background; everybody was equal. When she asked you how you were, she sincerely was interested in the answer and everything else you had to say. Our mom listened intently and gave every person her full attention. She always had the innate ability to make those around her feel special, as if they were the only person in the room.”

Her plainspokenness was legendary. “The funny thing was that after you walked away, you actually thanked her for telling you like it is and you actually learned from it,” her children recalled. “You came out a better and wiser person for having known her.”

Unger’s philosophy, her children noted, was perhaps best seen in her inscription in United Jewish Appeal’s Book of Life, a program that recognizes donors who leave a charitable legacy through the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto:

“Be a mensch in life, in business and in community. This is what my mother taught me and what defines my Jewish identity.”

Unger is survived by her daughters, Alysse Unger Luepann, Lori Unger-Gutmann and Karen Unger Burstein, and 11 grandchildren.