One might call it a date with destiny.
When Army veteran Chris Whitehurst stepped into a Whole Foods Market for the first time on a quest for healthier meal options, he met his new favorite snack — a stone fruit that inspired his successful salad dressing and sauce business.
“I was doing research, looking around and came across dates,” said Whitehurst. “I didn’t even know what a date looked like, but I bought them and started putting them on my salads because I was becoming more cautious about the ingredients in products and food I was putting into my body.”
Soon after he began “dating,” Whitehurst got the idea to boil the fruit and turn its naturally sweet syrup into a salad dressing. Experimentation led to his post-military entrepreneurial endeavor — CW Dressings — a business offering Date Balsamic Vinaigrette and Sweet Date Hot Sauce (with more products on the way) to consumers looking for flavorful dressings, sauces and marinades made with a few simple and select ingredients.
Whitehurst says customers love the taste of his creations, used on everything from salads and sandwiches to eggs and grilled meats, and he owes his success to more than fate or good luck. Inspiration came from his father, a cook in the Marines, and Whitehurst developed his own culinary skills during a 20-year-plus military career.
The business of service
Whitehurst joined the Army in 2001 as a culinary specialist, working in the dining facility at Fort Riley, Kansas, for nine years before becoming a food service instructor at Fort Lee, Virginia. He managed his own dining facility during a tour in Korea and then led the dining facility at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2012. Here, he decided to work on leadership skills along with cooking.
“I always wanted to make rank fast, which I did, and I always wanted to be in charge,” Whitehurst said.
He spent several years as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he took an interest in fitness, adopted a Mediterranean diet and had his chance encounter at Whole Foods. When he returned to Fort Bragg in 2020, business and his next move after retirement from service were at the forefront of his mind.
“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since I was young,” Whitehurst said. “I wanted to be able to do my own thing. I had no idea at the time what it was going to be, but I knew that owning your own business gave you a sense of freedom.”
Whitehurst brought a sample of his date dressing to a work potluck, and when more than a few people began begging him to bottle it, everything clicked. He researched how to start an LLC on YouTube, and went official with CW Dressings in September 2020.
A new mission
In his first year, Whitehurst produced the product by himself at home and made about $600 in profit, but that wasn’t enough — he said he didn’t want to stay a “mom-and-pop shop” and found a co-packer to take things to the next level. This year, he’s on track to end with a $45,000 profit; his Date Balsamic Vinaigrette was a finalist in the 2022 Our State Magazine Made in NC Awards; and the products are shipped to the U.S. Military Academy and more than 20 independently owned stores from Virginia to South Carolina.
Future plans include partnerships with Food Lion, Giant Food and Lowes Foods. Three additional (top secret) products have been tested and are ready to launch. Whitehurst said the military taught him that discipline is key to getting things done, and advises other veterans to prepare as much as possible prior to transition.
Though he remains committed to keeping his ingredient lists as small as possible, Whitehurst has big plans for his business.
“I am on a mission,” he said. “I want to be a household brand. I want a product on every aisle in the grocery store.”