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Keeping it in family proves winning formula for Gazebo Room

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Their product is named after the restaurant from which it sprang, but really the Gazebo Room story is one of family and fans.

George N. Gekas — not the former congressman — emigrated from Greece in 1951, opened a restaurant in Harrisburg a few years later and developed an oil and vinegar dressing for cold cut submarine sandwiches. Later, he used the recipe as an official house salad dressing, and it acquired a following. By the 1970s, patrons were purchasing the dressing at the restaurant, and in 1989, Gekas' sons, Nick and Steven, formed Best Dressed Associates Inc. and started producing it for retail sale.

At first, they made the dressing in the restaurant kitchen in the mornings, doing sales calls and deliveries between their restaurant shifts and spending weekends on in-store demonstrations.

"Giant and a few other area grocery stores gave us an opportunity," Steven Gekas said. He described how family members set up displays with linens and garnishes, then tossed salads or made chicken in a wok and offered samples as the aroma spread through the store and 20-person lines formed. "It worked. We had some incredible success with it."

"If you can sell a kid that salad, you're golden," Nick Gekas said. "If the kid's going to eat something green, the mother's going to buy it."

By 1991, the company had its first major distributor and rented an adjacent property for its first independent production facility. Funding, the Gekas brothers said, was out of their back pockets; they were single and without homes or other equity necessary for startup loans.

Growth was slow but steady, starting with small stores and then, as demand in the area grew, moving to the larger ones. They avoided leaps, because the capital necessary for promotion in a big market was a problem, and because they knew there had to be a base of demand for an initiative to succeed. They rented trucks and made deliveries, then found that it worked better to offer retailers a discount for picking it up themselves.

Through it all, they remained mostly a two-man operation, and they made dressing. Today, Gazebo Room is a strong factor in the East Coast, boasting products in stores in 29 states and shipping mail orders across the nation, with annual revenues in the millions, and still they say no bottle has ever been filled without the two of them in their production room, and none ever will be.

"Because we're small, we have to be better at it. One big mistake can bury a company like ours," Steven Gekas said. "A bigger company can absorb a hit."

Being small also means that initiatives a larger operation could turn around in months takes them years, they said — but on the flip side, they also have the flexibility to start small with experiments and pull back without great loss if it's not working well.

They can also, in some ways, retool faster if needed. They've always been fanatical about safety and sourcing, but for the exacting new national standards that are coming, they had to do a lot more documenting. Nick Gekas wrote eight binders' worth of procedures over six months.

It was a long process, they said, but now they're ahead of the game, and they know the process would have taken a lot longer at some companies.

On the personal side, they like being their own bosses and treasure the ability to arrange their schedules to accommodate their personal responsibilities. Running a business definitely has its hard times, they said, but between the two of them they estimate that they've missed less than a handful of their children's games and special events.

During production, which runs two to three days a week during busy seasons, their workforce rises to about 11 and sometimes includes their father. When they're not in production, it's the two of them and their office manager and, just since February, their social media coordinator, Newell Rinehart.

An ad company once described their customers as "almost cultish," they said, describing people who write long letters lauding Gazebo Room, send it to members of the military overseas and order cases to split with others they've introduced to the products. There's one street in Longview, Texas, where they have gotten orders from about 12 consecutive houses — the brothers are pretty sure someone had a barbecue there and converted the neighbors to the Gazebo way.

"My father created something that is incredible. We hear it every day," Steven Gekas said.

Chris Brand is a spokesman for Giant Food Stores LLC, which the brothers say was a key early account. Brand said there's a reason for that: "They've long been a favorite of our customers."

In addition to Gazebo Room being a great product, Brand said, Giant and now its parent company, Ahold USA, value that it's local.

David McCorkle, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, said he enjoys Gazebo Room himself. That the product grew out of a restaurant and is now so successful is, he said, a testament to the Gekas family and proof that Gazebo "really is quite special."

Enduring popularity

In the past decade, Gazebo Room has introduced Lite Greek and Balsamic Vinaigrette products, but the original Greek Salad Dressing & Marinade remains the most popular.

Someday that may change. Lite Greek has been creeping up, Steven Gekas says, doing exceptionally well — “It’s a sign of the times, obviously.”

Gazebo Room stressed that all three products are gluten-free with no preservatives, artificial ingredients, trans fats, added sugars or colors.

Asked about future additions to their line, the Gekas brothers say they will be coming out shortly with small, portion-controlled packets they want to use for promotions and eventually get into salad bars and prepacked salads. They also will be working with a nutritional sciences intern to create a Gazebo Room Lite diet and fitness plan, which they want to make part of their increased focus on social media.

Beyond that, they declined comment.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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