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Jimmy's, the popular dressing and dip maker, is growing and plans to continue to spice up the area economy

Jimmy’s Salad Dressing & Dips, which was born in Stewartville’s popular Fish House restaurant, recently more than doubled its production capacity by moving into a new facility. The more than 31-year-old company is preparing to grow as the Slightam family hands off the leadership to its third generation.

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Austin Fate works to package jars of Jimmy’s Cole Slaw dressing Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Jimmy's Salad Dressings and Dips in Stewartville. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

STEWARTVILLE -- After adding flavor to southeastern Minnesota for close to one hundred years, the Slightam family is ramping up Jimmy’s Salad Dressing & Dips for the next one hundred.

Jimmy’s, which was born in Stewartville’s popular Fish House restaurant, has grown so much in recent years that the business needed more room -- a lot more room.

Tom and Sam Slightam, the father and son who lead Jimmy’s, remember meeting with a customer about a large contract that was “a tipping point” for the company.

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“On the ride home, we sat in silence for the first 20 minutes. Then we looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to need a bigger building,'” said Tom Slightham, the president and founder of Jimmy’s. “We were bursting at the seams.”

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That led to discussions with a corporate neighbor, high-end furniture maker Halcon , which is led by the Conway family. Jimmy’s 17,000-square-foot facility, plus a large piece of open land at 1711 Second Ave. NW, occupied a corner of Halcon’s growing campus.

And Halcon happened to own an empty nearby industrial complex that had once housed catheter maker Rochester Medical Corp.

The Slightams explain that they have been friends with the Conway family for a long time, so working out an agreement to help both Jimmy’s and Halcon grow wasn’t difficult.

A real estate trade was completed as “an old-school handshake deal” that resulted in Jimmy’s moving into the 70,000-square-foot former Rochester Medical facility at 1500 Second Ave. NW.

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Jars of Jimmy’s Cole Slaw dressing slide down a production line Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Jimmy's Salad Dressings and Dips in Stewartville. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

“It was a win-win. It was just good neighbors working together,” said Tom Slightham of the unorthodox property swap.

Operations manager Sam Slightam said Jimmy’s officially made the move in June, but they are still tailoring the site to their needs.

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“We’re still figuring out what our capabilities are here. We have been really dialing in on our production line times. There is a lot of evaluation going on right now,” he said.

This time of year is when things slow down a bit for the salad dressing and dip maker in the wake of its peak demand during the warmer months with graduations, weddings and other gatherings. It runs two shifts during that period, recruiting many players from the Rochester Grizzlies hockey team to work when they aren’t on the ice.

Jimmy’s has a team of about 20 employees, many who have been with the company for decades. The Slightams cite the great work ethic of the Stewartville area residents as providing them with a reliable team that have supported them through the years.

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Tom Slightam, president and owner, and his son Sam Slightam Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Jimmy's Salad Dressings and Dips in Stewartville. The Slightams are pictured in front of the stained glass windows that were originally housed at The Fish House restaurant owned by Tom’s parents Jimmy and Ella. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

While labor hasn’t been an issue, the pandemic and supply chain issues have spurred some adjustment at Jimmy’s. The dressing maker known for its glass jars actually ran out of the containers for three weeks. They had to shut down salad dressing production for those weeks, although dip production kept going.

“We have not been able to purchase a glass jar since June. The intent was to bridge the gap with a P.E.T plastic jar and then go back into glass for the start of 2022, but that plan has fallen through. So we're still kind of weighing options looking for different suppliers,” said Sam Slightam. “You combine that with a move to the new facility and it was one hell of a storm, but the team here did just a great job.”

Sam Slightam expects Jimmy’s to double its production in the new facility. He added that production had already increased by 35 percent since 2016.

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The company makes about 24 products ranging from its most popular coleslaw dressing to its tartar sauce to pineapple salsa to caramel dip. Jimmy’s typically introduces one new product a year.

Jimmy’s also contracts to make private label products for other companies. Illustrating how important family is to the company’s success, Sue Slightam -- Tom’s wife and Sam’s mom -- created a product for a private label company that has grown to be a significant contract for the business.

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Employees fill Jimmy’s Cole Slaw dressing on a production line Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Jimmy's Salad Dressings and Dips in Stewartville. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

“It doesn’t have a Jimmy’s label, but it’s available in 800 stores,” said Tom Slightam.

Looking at the automated machines in the processing area, Tom Slightam reflected that is was quite a change from the company’s roots, when he mixed up four signature dressings in 25-gallon Rubbermaid containers in the kitchen of his parent’s Fish House restaurant.

“We would then pour, by hand, into four jars at a time. Then we’d screw the caps on and pack them,” he said.

Selling the dressing was a side business at The Fish House because customers wanted to take the dressing and tartar sauce home. Jimmy Slightam , Tom’s father, crafted the recipes that are still used today.

Tom Slightam, who had been managing the DownUnder bar below the restaurant, purchased the dressing business from his father in 1990.

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Dry storage is seen in the new warehouse facility Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Jimmy's Salad Dressings and Dips in Stewartville. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

“I just went out and started hustling. I started calling on stores, listening to what the customers had to say ... coming back with ideas for different products. My dad was the guy that then came up with all the recipes,” he said.

In 1993, the business moved to its first production facility, which now is part of the Halcon campus. In the early days, t he labels sported the name, The Fish House . However, Slightam soon discovered that the name was confusing for people not familiar with the restaurant.

“Once I got outside a 25-mile radius of Stewartville, people would ask if it smelled like fish or if there was fish in the dressing. It was a very misunderstood moniker,” he said.

A name change to Jimmy’s proved to be a hit. More than 30 years later, the Jimmy’s brand is now a familiar sight in the produce area of grocery stores throughout the region.

That long history in the region will be recognized next week when the Rochester Area Economic Development Corp. plans to honor the Slightam family with a Lifetime Achievement award for its contribution to the area economy.

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Employees fill Jimmy’s Cole Slaw dressing on a production line Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, at Jimmy's Salad Dressings and Dips in Stewartville. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott

“We did not see that coming. That's a great honor that we’re really humbled by,” said Tom Slightam. “I was very surprised to get that contact. I had to read it twice.”

Now Tom Slightam is ready to step back and turn the leadership of the family company over to the third generation. He hopes to retire at the end of the year. Sam Slightam will then take on the role of CEO and majority owner.

Sam Slightam, who came to Jimmy’s after working for Hormel Foods’ Muscle Milk division for several years, has been handling operations at Jimmy’s for the past five years. Of course, his history with the company goes back to his childhood when he and his brother would sweep out loading docks.

“It's something that I've obviously been dreaming about my whole life,” said the younger Slightam of taking on the top role. “It really has been the ultimate privilege to grow up in the business and then to have this opportunity. It's something I take a lot of pride in.”

He acknowledged that the company has a lot of opportunities to grow through wider distristribution, the creation of new branded products and expanding its private label contracts.

While the exact path is not mapped out yet, Slightam stressed that the new facility, with the continued support of the City of Stewartville, means the company is well positioned to take advantage of any or all of those opportunities. That's some top dressing for a business that started in a kitchen on Main Street.

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