By Cristin Nelson / Photos by Katie Noble
Gordon Crane loved to cook. He was a World War II serviceman from Massachusetts, and after the war, he remained in Europe working for the United States Embassy in Paris. During his time in the City of Lights, Crane collaborated with a chef to create the perfect recipe for salad dressing. It was garlicky and tangy, more oil than anything else, a sublime coating for tender leaves. And upon returning stateside, Crane bottled his elixir and gave it as gifts, which became fabulously popular. So popular, in fact, that in 1978, Crane’s niece used his recipe to start a business. It was called Crane Crest Real French Dressing.
Fast forward to today, and now the company is headed by Sam Perry, a Harvard man and investment counselor with gold-rimmed glasses and a resonant voice. Over the years, the recipe has changed only a bit; at some point—it isn’t clear exactly when—MSG made an appearance, but was phased out, replaced by salt. Today, the recipe’s short ingredient list includes just corn oil, vinegar, onion, garlic, salt, sugar, and spices. People occasionally ask Perry why he doesn’t switch from corn oil to olive oil. “For two reasons,” he says. “First, corn oil is not that unhealthy. And it doesn’t impart a taste like olive oil does—it really lets the dressing shine.” The dressing isn’t homogenized, and it won’t ever be, says Perry, because it changes the flavor too much.
After Perry purchased Crane Crest in 1992, he bottled the dressing in his own kitchen, three jars at a time. Standing in his kitchen, Perry stoops and opens a cabinet, revealing the old Waring blender that used to do the mixing. Not long after purchasing the company, Perry consulted with a facility in Stoughton, which for the last 20 years has produced the dressing on a small scale.
In 1992, sales hovered around $10,000 per year. This year, Crane Crest recorded 18 times that amount, but, despite the increase, very little about the company’s old-school operations has changed over the years. Up until a few months ago, all invoices were handwritten. Perry chuckles about that, saying, “I never knew what I’d get for payment because people couldn’t read my writing.” These days, bills are typed in an old-timey script; they, and the answering machine, are reluctant concessions to modernity. And though Crane Crest owns a domain name, there won’t be a website, at least not within the next few years. Too much change would make Crane Crest lose the classic character that it’s known for, says Anne O’Keefe, one of the company’s part-time employees. She and Perry have each adopted an alias, which they use on written correspondence, to keep the feeling quaint: Perry’s is Elizabeth, while O’Keefe goes by Jane, after her mother.
The order process is simple, and dependent on the honor system: call a number, leave a message, and, a week or so later, you’ll receive a box in the mail. Inside the box are jars of the dressing, and an invoice for $4.50 a jar, plus shipping. This system, built entirely on trust, is akin to doing business down at the general store, back in the days when “just put it on my tab” was an acceptable guarantee. For the most part, it seems to work—for 14 years, Crane Crest had exactly three bad debts. Since then, perhaps three or four invoices go unpaid each year.
Perry estimates that between a quarter and a third of all orders are from new customers, a remarkable accomplishment for a company that invests no money in marketing. Crane Crest has amassed a loyal following, and celebrities like Brooke Shields, George and Barbara Bush, Gary Trudeau, Henry Winkler, and Al and Tipper Gore have all bought the dressing. In February, when the salad dressing was featured on the blog A Cup of Jo, Crane Crest received over four hundred orders within four days. Says O’Keefe: “We found out the space limit on the [answering] machine!”
Business may be booming, but for the moment, at least, this company isn’t planning to change a thing. Perry likes the familiarity that he can maintain with his customers by doing things the old-fashioned way. He often receives handwritten notes enclosed with payments, and a couple of customers have even admitted to Perry that in their homes, Crane Crest is served out of a cruet, as if homemade. Perry laughs, delighted at this intimate revelation. “They won’t tell anyone else, but they’ll confess it to Elizabeth,” he says.
Crane Crest Real French Dressing is available by the jar at John Dewar & Co., Kurkman’s Market, Allandale Farm, American Provisions, The Concord Cheese Shop, Volante Farms, and various other retail locations. Or, call 617.277.1325 for wholesale orders (6 jars per box) shipped via USPS. To save on shipping, locals can collect their box from Perry’s doorstep by calling 617.566.3454.
Cristin Nelson is a freelance food writer whose recipes and writings have appeared in various publications, including The Boston Globe. She is the author of The Four Seasonings, a blog about restaurants and seasonal eating. Cristin lives in Boston with her husband and her enthusiastic appetite.