Pam Powell might be the Picasso of salad artistry. Working from an ever-changing palate of produce, she creates colorful dishes that look almost too pretty to devour — but too delicious not to.
“We all naturally want to eat with the seasons. We can’t help but be inspired by the colors and smells,” said Pam Powell, 63, founder and owner of Salad Girl, her line of nine certified organic dressings.
The Mahtomedi resident has dreamed up a recipe box full of ideas for her products, beyond using them to toss tender, tangy green salads.
She coaches customers on how to whisk her Citrus Splash dressing with fresh lime to make a marinade, drizzle her Toasted Sesame Ginger over ramen for a chilled Asian noodle dish, or squirt her Apple Maple Vinaigrette on chopped veggies to punch some sass into slaw.
“I want to show someone who doesn’t know how to cook or is too busy to cook how to keep it simple, combine a few local ingredients and there ya go,” she said.
Fair and freckled with a ready smile, the grandmother of two is now relishing the success of the encore career she admits she started out of desperation.
“This is a dream I was forced into,” she said.
Now 150,000 bottles of Salad Girl dressings roll off the production line every other month at a renovated Wisconsin creamery, shipped to 400 Midwestern grocery stores and 100 Target stores on the East Coast. Three new dressing varieties are in the works. While many a small business would round up to proclaim itself a million-dollar company, Powell modestly said hers did $900,000 in sales last year — “but it took us 11 years to get there.”
From art to table
Powell’s story is rooted in her lifelong affinity for food and art.
As the second of nine children in a St. Paul Irish Catholic family, Powell’s earliest memories involve helping her mother in the kitchen, then stealing away to draw. She worked her way through the Minneapolis College of Art and Design as a server and caterer, then alternated an ad-agency job with a position as a personal chef for a wealthy dowager on the shores of White Bear Lake.
Powell shifted to decorative painting, and spent the next 15 years in demand as a freelance muralist. Her specialty was crafting one-of-a-kind nurseries full of whimsical marshes, cattails and frogs on lily pads, or woodland-themed children’s rooms with streams, bear cubs and fireflies.
“Then Target started selling stencils and Pottery Barn was in the picture and my work was going bye-bye,” she said. “For years I was booked months in advance but all of a sudden I had nothing on the page. I was scared.”
In 2006, she landed one of her last art gigs in the home of the late grocer Jim Kowalski. Brush in hand, she was perched on a ladder when he struck up a conversation.
“When I’m in a home, I’m quiet, but he opened the door,” Powell said. “As long as I had his ear, I told him about my background with food, and he wondered if I still cooked. ‘Funny you should ask,’ I told him, ‘I have a line of organic salad dressings I make for Christmas presents.’ ”
Intrigued, Kowalski followed up, referring Powell to his wife Mary Ann and daughter Kris Kowalski Christiansen, the co-owner and CEO, respectively, of the upscale Kowalski’s chain. Sampling her product, they encouraged her to proceed.
“They said, figure out how to get ’em to market and we’ll put ’em on the shelves,” Powell said.
Powell and her husband Jim, who had a painting business of his own, rented a commercial kitchen and went to work. To prove the viability of her concept, Powell successfully pitched her dressings to Brenda Langton, founder of Mill City Farmers Market, and in 2007 landed a spot at the influential market sandwiched between Langton’s Spoonriver restaurant and the Guthrie Theater.
“Her terrific style at her booth was one of the most inviting and professional [I’ve seen] to this day,” Langton recalled. “Pam’s salad dressings focus on the integrity of the ingredients. Most [others] do not use good quality oil, not to mention all organic ingredients that Salad Girl uses.”
Within a year, the first Salad Girl bottles were on refrigerated shelves at Kowalski’s, branded with the cheery logo Powell designed. The husband-and-wife duo hustled to build the brand through in-store tastings, food shows and clever marketing.
As Salad Girl grew, Jim managed the business side while Pam became her own art director. She “paints with food,” putting her dressings center stage in curated scenarios aimed at inspiring her followers on social media.
“I’m trying to evoke an event. It could be a simple supper at home or getting together with friends, a potluck, sitting down and sharing a salad,” she said.
With no office, she works out of her home, a 1925 Mahtomedi cabin. Every month she updates her imaging, producing short videos of new easy-to-follow recipes and snapping pictures of her crisp collages. She accents her stylish mini-tablescapes with classic plates and vintage fabrics she finds at thrift shops and ethnic markets.
“Pam has a certain brand aesthetic that comes through in her Instagram feed and literally makes your mouth water,” said Stephanie Hansen, host of the myTalk 107.1 show “Weekly Dish,” who assists with Salad Girl’s digital marketing.
“She’s nimble and always tinkering with images to make them irresistible. She’s taught herself how to tell a visual story that cultivates customers one-by-one,” Hansen added.
Powell’s frequent assistant is her 8-year-old granddaughter Hazel, who is often by her side during her monthly photo shoots and appearances promoting her products.
“She’s the best little salad maker and she says she wants to take over someday,” Powell said of Hazel, smiling. “I could see it. She could be the next Salad Girl.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.