City Tech Grad Is ‘Goddess’ of Natural Food Industry

Brooklyn, NY — November 12, 2005 — “If it weren’t for City Tech, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” said alumna Annie Christopher ’83 on a return visit to her alma mater, New York City College of Technology/CUNY (City Tech).

Today, Christopher is co-owner of Annie’s Naturals, the leading natural foods condiment and salad dressing brand in the United States. Her products are carried in most supermarkets and health food stores across the country. Neilsen ratings state that Annie’s Naturals has a 47% market share in natural salad dressings, an extraordinary figure for a small company. A hospitality management major while at City Tech, her business grew out of a barbecue stand she opened in Vermont one summer between semesters.

Rejecting the barbecue sauces then on the market as being loaded with preservatives and artificial coloring, Christopher decided to make her own, armed with what she learned about sauces and recipe development at City Tech. Upon graduation, she moved with her husband, Peter Backman, to Vermont to start a family, closed her stand and began bottling the barbecue sauce in their 1813 farmhouse in rural Vermont.

“I started by making the sauces on my stovetop and bottling them and labeling the jars while watching TV,” Christopher said to City Tech students in a culinary workshop she conducted recently on campus. “But eventually, the volume of requests overwhelmed the equipment. I felt like Lucy in the chocolate factory!”

Twenty-one years later, she and Backman still run the business out of the farmhouse, but now feature 39 products, contract with food processing plants on both coasts, and employ a staff of 16.

Christopher’s business really took off when she landed her first big retail customer — Bloomingdale’s — in the mid-eighties. She notes it was a natural progression for her to expand into salad dressing at that time. Not surprisingly, one of the first dressings she produced was a raspberry vinaigrette, her own variation on a recipe she had been introduced to in her culinary classes at City Tech, which then and now emphasize classic French cuisine.

Equally influenced by her City Tech experiences and the new American cuisine movement that stressed the use of local, ethnic, “real” ingredients and light sauces, Christopher created dressings that were distinctly American and were free of chemical additives. For instance, her version of raspberry vinaigrette contains raspberry concentrate instead of just raspberry flavoring. According to her, this dressing was the first of its kind on the market and is still a top-seller today.

In 1993, she introduced her original Goddess dressing with its distinctive tahini and lemon flavors, and it quickly became her most popular, a position it holds to this day. In fact, her collection of salad dressings is the number one seller in the natural foods market and she introduces two or three new products a year.
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“At City Tech, I participated in new recipe competitions sponsored by major food companies,” she explained. “The experience taught me to write down the exact measurements of the ingredients I used instead of just indicating ‘a dash here or there.’ I learned to meet deadlines, and it’s where I first became interested in recipe development.”

For Christopher, like many City Tech students, enrolling in the hospitality management program marked a career change for her. She had already earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Colorado Women’s College in Denver in 1968 and moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist. Her medium was gold leaf on wood, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, bought one of her works for its permanent collection.

Living in SoHo, she began wandering through the food markets of Little Italy and Chinatown and discovered she received more satisfaction from the culinary world than from her art. “I got so distracted by the incredible concentration of aromas that I spent most of my time grocery shopping and cooking and not painting,” she said.

Her husband, whose family printing company published the City Tech course bulletin, told her about the College, and she enrolled there in 1981. “I fit right in — many of us came from other professions. One had worked for NASA, another was an art historian, a third a kindergarten teacher, and several others had worked in another capacity in the restaurant industry.” In fact, she added, she met her best friend in the program and still keeps up with two classmates who went on to become City Tech faculty members, Elizabeth Schaible and Julia Jordan.

While at City Tech, Christopher interned with Kevin Zeraly at Windows on the World, thinking her career path was going to lead to a restaurant job. An apprenticeship with Curtis’ All-American Ninth Wonder of the World barbecue stand in Putney, VT, turned that assumption on its head.

“Keep an open mind,” Christopher told City Tech students during her recent workshop. “Don’t decide early on in your hospitality management studies what you’re going to do. Explore as many opportunities as possible.”

Over the years, Christopher kept up her interest in the fine arts, working on her own pottery and painting. Her artistic flair comes out in her product labels, which she helps design, in the coffee mugs used by employees at the farmhouse, and in her watercolors of flowers.

As for some ‘trade secrets,” Christopher had this to say: “Water is my secret salad dressing ingredient – it brings to life the dried herbs. We also primarily use canola oil, rather than olive oil, because it has no recognizable flavor and allows the other ingredients to shine.”

Speaking of ingredients, when Christopher spoke about her newest product, a salad dressing called “Woodstock,” someone in the back of the room, to the amusement of everyone present laughingly asked aloud, “Any ‘herbs’ in that one?” To which Christopher immediately responded, “Only legal ones.”

Founded in 1947, the hospitality management program at New York City College of Technology/CUNY was the first in the metropolitan New York area to offer a degree in restaurant and hotel management. Its students are proficient in all areas of the diverse hospitality industry, from the culinary arts and lodging management and marketing to all aspects of travel and tourism. It remains one of City Tech’s flagship baccalaureate programs.

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Contact: Michele Forsten or Dale Tarnowieski at 718.260.5109 or mforsten@citytech.cuny.edu.