Thursday, February 22, 2024

What’s Next for Dorsey Green Sauce? Neils Cotter and the High School Students Making Culinary Waves in South LA

Dorsey Green Sauce

Dorsey Green Sauce is a condiment with a difference. It’s green, packed with flavor, and the brainchild of an entrepreneurial student group from Dorsey High School in South LA. All proceeds from sales of the sauce go directly to the students, many of whom come from challenged backgrounds.

Neils Cotter founded the Dorsey Green Sauce nonprofit program. An investment and real estate development expert, Cotter started volunteering at the high school around five years ago. Here, he reveals the Dorsey Green Sauce backstory. He also shares what’s next for the program and the students involved.

How Neils Cotter Started Volunteering at Dorsey High School

Located in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, Dorsey High School has an ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse student population. A high percentage of the school’s students are below the poverty line. Many live in group homes or foster care.

Several years ago, former Dorsey High School principal Willard Love gave Cotter a tour of the school. Love, who Cotter calls “an inspiration and the kindest person,” is a special advisor to the school. Love asked Cotter if he would volunteer his time to teach the students, and Cotter agreed. He was soon leading a weekly business elective class with anywhere from 25 to 35 junior and senior students.

In the beginning, Cotter’s class focused on entrepreneurship and the theory behind how to launch a business. He brought in guest speakers and taught students about entrepreneurial mindset. The aim was to give Dorsey’s young people the knowledge to create a start-up after high school or a side hustle at college.

However, Cotter noticed a gap between the students’ engagement with the class and the reality of their situation. Some students were “worried about where [they were] going to sleep that night.” Others faced food scarcity and challenging home lives.

As a result, many students didn’t have the mental bandwidth or physical resources to put Cotter’s entrepreneurial advice into practice. So he formulated a plan involving avocados.

Developing The Green Sauce

Several years back, Cotter bought a 50-acre avocado farm in Ojai that the Thomas Fire in 2017-2018 had been damaged. Cotter describes himself as something of a “nature lover” (he co-founded Basecamp Hotels, a family of hotels inspired by exploration). He also thought the farm could be a place for his children to “get closer to nature.”

One day, Cotter realized he could use the avocado farm to help his Dorsey High School class launch a business. On the first day of his class in January 2022, he told students they could have all the avocados they wanted for an entrepreneurial project. One young student raised his hand and said: “How about we do a green sauce?” Even students who weren’t interested in culinary arts liked the idea.

Cotter had already helped the school establish a culinary arts program by securing some grants and a kitchen space. Sonia Briscoe, head of the Culinary Arts Department and a good friend of Cotter’s, encouraged him to help the students start a company and develop an avocado-based sauce.

Students tried hundreds of recipes in the school’s commercial kitchen, searching for the perfect flavor. 12th grader Aniya says they kept adjusting the recipe until they “got the nice green color and… a nice taste.”

Brisco helped the students create the perfect recipe for a fresh avocado sauce that had the right balance of cilantro, spices, and lemon. They also had assistance from Mel Nicola, a well-known LA chef who was volunteering at the school.

Neils Cotter Secures Support From Deutsch LA

Next, Cotter invited three executives from the advertising agency Deutsch LA to visit Dorsey High School. After meeting the students and learning about the green sauce project, the company (which works with major brands like Nintendo and Taco Bell), decided to partner with the program.

Deutsch LA created and presented three branding packages to the class. The agency also helped the students develop a logo and build a website for Dorsey Green Sauce.

“We worked with the kids the same way we work with our clients,” says Deutsch LA’s Chief Design Officer Adhemas Batista. “We made sure they were immersed in the project by asking them for their ideas and comments on the designs for the bottle. We also taught them how to be a designer and gave them background knowledge of marketing and what careers can come with working in marketing.”

Cotter says even students who didn’t often participate in class contributed to the branding discussions. Students learned about creative careers they “didn’t even know existed.” For Aniya and her classmate Juan, the experience was “life-changing.”

“Looking back before I started the program, I felt like I didn’t have many options,” says Juan. “But now I know there are countless opportunities for me in the culinary and business world.” Juan has even switched his college major so he can pursue a career in video production or graphic design.

On top of this, Deutsch LA invited students to the ad agency’s headquarters in LA, which is a short drive from the school. It was another eye-opening experience for the students: Cotter recalls how the young people sat at a conference table and pretended to be company executives.

Taking The Sauce to the Farmers Market

In July 2022, Cotter and the students took 200 bottles of Dorsey Green Sauce to the farmers market in Atwater Village in LA. Although the students were nervous, Cotter encouraged them to share their story with shoppers. It didn’t take long before passers-by started speaking to the students and buying the sauce. Cotter helped by talking to customers.

“I wasn’t selling the sauce” he says. “I just said, ‘You should hear these kids. They started this company, they did this, they made this sauce, and it’s delicious. And every bit of the money that they make goes directly back to them.’”

The students sold out on their first day, shifting 200 bottles in 3 hours. They made around $2,500, which the students split between them. “It was amazing,” Cotter says.

Scaling The Dorsey Green Sauce Program

Cotter personally covered all the costs of the program in 2022 so students could take home the gross income. The next step is to scale up Dorsey Green Sauce so the program becomes self-sufficient. Cotter’s goal is for the project to support future generations of Dorsey High School students.

Initially, students made the fresh, avocado-based sauce themselves in the high school Culinary Arts Department kitchen. However, because avocados aren’t particularly shelf stable, the sauce didn’t have a long shelf life.

Now, Village Green Foods, which produces sauces for restaurant chains like Chick-fil-A, has come on board. The company is helping students develop new green sauce recipes and secure the certifications necessary to ship the product.

One of the new Dorsey Green Sauce recipes has a shelf life of up to one year and is shippable throughout the U.S. Cotter says the updated recipe is closer to a hot sauce with Indian-inspired flavors. “The sauce I think is legitimately really good,” he enthuses. “It’s one that fits a lot of palettes.”

Village Green Foods is also providing sauce bottles for the farmers market and will take students on a virtual tour of its factory.

Neils Cotter on the Next Steps for Dorsey Green Sauce

Zazzle, an online marketplace company, has also joined the Dorsey Green Sauce project. Zazzle’s founder, a college friend of Cotter’s, has offered to set up a screen printing program for the project.

Now, students are creating high-quality skateboards, hats, t-shirts, and other merchandise for free. Students can keep these items for themselves or sell them to make more money.

In addition, students are hoping to partner with local restaurants. These various revenue streams will ensure students continue to profit from the sauce. In addition, students can make investments and grow the business as they see fit.

“A lot of kids in our program deal with some level of financial insecurity,” says Briscoe. “This program will help many of them break the cycle of poverty in their families.”

Describing Dorsey High School as a “gem in South LA,” Cotter calls the students “amazing, resilient, beautiful spirits.”

“These kids come out of these experiences with a totally different level of confidence,” Cotter adds. In many cases, this confidence “equates to happiness” and could lead to “the next step” in the students’ lives.

About Neils Cotter

Neils Cotter is an investor, real estate developer, and philanthropist. Before starting his real estate career, he was a captain in the U.S. Air Force.

Aside from his voluntary work with Dorsey High School, Cotter is guiding the expansion of Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times. The camp is the largest in the U.S. for children who have or have had cancer and their families. He is also a former member of the camp’s Board of Trustees.

Learn more about Neils Cotter.