Half a dozen students line up at a stainless steel counter in the Culinary Arts Department kitchen at Dorsey High School, chopping, pitting, and pureeing ingredients for an avocado sauce. It’s all part of a business elective class that has them launching Dorsey Green Sauce, which shares a name and likeness to the school's colors. The students started with avocados and over the past two years have grown a business that sells thousands of bottles of the stuff in person and online.
California wants its public schools to prepare students for careers after graduation, not just college. In South LA, these teens are getting a head start by building a business — and it’s taking off.
It all started in 2021 when Sonja Mason Brisco, the head of the Culinary Arts Department, was preparing to bring students back into the kitchen after the pandemic shutdown. She tells KCRW that she asked herself, “What else could be offered to students, for them to learn things that they can use post-high school?”
The answer came when she was talking to a volunteer named Neils Cotter, who teaches a weekly class at Dorsey. They decided the best way to prepare students for a career was to build an actual business with them.
The plan was to start with 11th graders and give them the option to continue the elective into their senior year. Any profits from the business would be kept 100% by the students — an important part of the plan, says Mason Brisco, because almost 70% of the students she serves live in a group home or foster care.
With a concept in place, she handed over control to Cotter, a real estate developer from Pacific Palisades who had recently bought a 50-acre avocado orchard up in Ojai that was badly damaged by the Thomas Fire.
On the first day of the new elective in January 2022, Cotter walked in and told his 30 students they could start whatever business they wanted, but to keep in mind they could use his avocados for free. “And then it was like, boom, just these ideas are coming out,” Cotter says.
The students started offering up ideas for recipes and then worked in the kitchen with another volunteer instructor, Mel Nicola, to perfect a fresh sauce. No one remembers exactly how many recipes they tested but it felt like hundreds, says 12th grader Aniya Brown. Where their first recipe was lacking, she says, “Our next recipe we added on and added on until we got the nice green color and … a nice taste.”
The sauce is light and crisp, the avocado base supported by cilantro, spices and a tang of lemon. With a recipe perfected, Cotter dipped into his business contacts and got the advertising firm Deutsch LA to volunteer to help the kids build a website and develop a logo. The final version is an avocado seed made to look like an alien head.
Then it was time to cook, which was more effort than some students expected. Twelfth grader Juan Morales recalls a day the students planned to make 100 bottles of sauce in about three hours. Five hours later, they had only managed to make 70. He remembers leaving for home feeling “so tired.”
The next time the class worked out an assembly line inspired by a behind-the-scenes video of a McDonald’s kitchen Morales found online. They were able to pick up their pace, until the large commercial kitchen blender blew.
By last July the students were ready for a big launch at the farmers market in Atwater Village. They brought around 100 12-oz. bottles of sauce with a price tag of $10 each.
Brown was there that day and says she was so nervous, she felt unable to speak as shoppers walked by. But after some encouragement from Cotter, she found speaking to one person can attract more customers, and then “you go from not having nobody to a crowd of people,” says Brown.
She sold Dorsey Green Sauce to customers by telling the sauce’s story, explaining that the students cut and grind up everything with their own hands. Her pitch: “You could put the sauce on anything. You want to put it on a burrito? You put on a burrito. You want to put it on a taco? You can put it on a taco. You want to put it in cereal? You can do that too,” she says with a smile and laugh.
Customers bought the pitch – and the sauce. The students sold out on their first day.
This academic year, the students now have a plan to fulfill online orders.
The food and dining website Eater LA got wind of the new sauce, and when it came time to publish their holiday gift guide, Dorsey Green Sauce was one of 30 items featured on a curated list. Within one week of that article the students had to cap the orders at 1,000 bottles and list the sauce as sold out on the website.
This semester the students are working on two more versions of the sauce including a shelf-stable one. They are also selling branded merchandise and they are setting their sights on a potential partnership with local restaurants.
“These kids come out of these experiences with a totally different level of confidence, which, in a lot of cases, equates to happiness, and sort of the next step for them,” says Cotter.
The end of senior year is on the minds of several students these days.
Juan Morales says he got an idea for his future when Deutsch LA met with students, they did an ad presentation for marketing the sauce. When Morales got to see what the graphic designers were doing and how they think through social media campaigns, it changed his ideas about life after high school.
“I didn't know what I wanted to do for college,” says Morales. “But once I saw how Deutsch LA works, I literally switched my whole major to … graphic design or video production.”
To sign up for updates on when the next batch of Dorsey Green Sauce will be for sale visit dorseygreen.com.