Thursday, October 30, 2008

Specialty Foods Retailing Memo: A Love of Good Italian Olive Oil Leads to A Thriving Business For Two Specialty Foods Entrepreneurs

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Editor's Note: Lea Ann Vessels, a former employee of consumer packaged goods giant Proctor & Gamble, and Marta Miranda, a University professor, have turned a love of good Italian olive oils and good food in general into a thriving specialty foods store, along with their own brand of award-winning premium Italian olive oil that has developed a cult following, and a line of Italian tomato and pesto sauces.

The partners operate the Abbondanza specialty foods store in Lexington, Kentucky USA, where they also bottle their Oliva Bella brand (which means beautiful olive) olive oil and a recently introduced line of Italian tomato and pesto sauces.

The two specialty foods entrepreneurs started out in 2004 bottling some olive oil they imported from Italy and then selling it at the local farmers market. They built a customer following, then opened their specialty foods store. They added additional varieties of olive oil under their own brand, then expanded the inventory in the store into other specialty and gourmet foods categories, along with creating their own line of Italian tomato and pesto sauces.

Business is booming. But they are keeping the store small and niche-oriented by design. It's their point of differentiation, along with marketing and selling their own brand of Italian olive oils.

The food-loving partners are branching out into offering food education classes and seminars through the store, allowing them to not only put a focus on their olive oil line and the other products they offer for sale in the store, but to also further explore and share with customers their love of good food and the good food lifestyle.

Writer Cynthia L. Jones has a profile of the two owners of Lexington, Kentucky's Abbondanza specialty foods store in Southsider Magazine, a publication that focuses on lifestyle and other topics in the Lexington region. Read Ms. Jones' feature article below:

A Bottled Bounty
Abbondanza owners know how to keep customers coming back
Southsider Magazine, Lexington, Kentucky USA
October 30, 2008

When Abbondanza co-owners Lea Ann Vessels (at left in the photo) and Marta Miranda began peddling their extra virgin olive oils at the Lexington Farmers' Market in 2004, they dreamed of its success, but never expected the cult following it has acquired.

Today, the savvy co-owners have customers calling them at home after hours for oil. "One customer called and said she had an olive oil emergency," Vessels said. "She said even if I could put some in a mason jar that she would pay whatever." Vessels sent the customer home with olive oil in an empty wine bottle.

Vessels, who has even received calls on New Year's Day from customers, says she tries to be accommodating. Another customer who was having a dinner party called on a Sunday asking for oil. "She apologized for the Sunday call," Vessels said. "And I told her to meet me down at the shop."

The two began their venture by importing 200 liters of olive oil, which they sold in two months time. With a growing customer base from the farmers' market, Vessels and Miranda opened a tasting room, located at 406 S. Broadway, for their Oliva Bella oils imported from farms in southern Italy. Since opening last summer, the owners have expanded their products to include fine balsamic, pastas and specialty cheeses. Last year, the company began selling their homemade pomodori agrodolce (slow roasted tomato sauce), cipollini (roasted onion) and pesto sauces that have also become wildly successful.

The idea for bringing olive oil to Lexington began when Vessels' work with Proctor & Gamble took her to Italy. She began tasting oils that her colleagues would bring to her from their own family groves. Vessels explained that the difference in quality was striking. "I had always loved olive oil," she said. "But I realized I had never really tasted fresh olive oil until then." As Vessels began tasting fine oils, she began to realize there was a need in Lexington for oil of this caliber.

Vessels then joined with Miranda, a friend and partner in other business ventures. "We are people who are passionate about good food," Miranda said. "We love to put things together in a healthier way." Miranda is an associate professor and director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Women and Gender Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Miranda grew up cooking with her father in his restaurants' kitchens. At age 5 she had a special stool in order to be tall enough to stir the pots.

The owners have purposely kept the shop small and quaint to give it that corner store feel. "People are starving for the old fashioned way of the community or neighborhood market where they can visit and talk about food," Vessels said. She explained that the customer base is very diverse. "It's not just high end," she said and explained that the store attracts everyone from cancer patients looking for the medicinal benefits of fresh olive oil to retirees and college students.

Vessels and Miranda came up with the name, Abbondanza, because it means "abundance" in Italian. Vessels said the idea of fullness or having enough for everyone at the table fits perfectly in description, value and name for the company. "Since we were importing olive oil from Italy," Vessels said, "we wanted to weave in the beautiful Italian language as well." The two named the oil Oliva Bella, which means "beautiful olive"–a name they feel is easy for customers to remember.

Miranda and Vessels believe it's important to teach their customers about the differences their fresh olive oils provide not only in taste, but also in healthful benefits. "A big part of our business is educating people," Vessels said. "Once people taste it, they can't go back to their supermarket bottles."

Anyone who wanders inside the tasting room will be invited to try their products and learn about the advantages of using oils made from hand-harvested olives. The nutritive benefits of the olive oils remain in their high antioxidants and low acidity levels. As a result, each bottle has the harvest date on the back to help customers understand the importance of keeping it fresh. To ensure their commitment to selling fresh oils, the owners keep the oil shipments to a minimum and bottle the oils themselves. Loyal customers, however, have been disappointed when the supply was gone. Ralph Brown, a Lexington customer, said he ran out of oil before the next shipment. "I came into the store every day asking, 'Okay, where's the oil?'"

The oils recently won the 2007 silver medal award at the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. Oliva Bella competed against over 400 oils, most of which came from outside the United States.

Vessels said that the company does very little advertising and added that most of their business is from word of mouth. Many new customers also stop in as a result of seeing displays on white butcher paper. Each day, Vessels writes catchy, hand-written signs inviting them to stop into the store. After taste testing their products, customers will be offered a small cup of Miranda's Cuban coffee.

The most recent venture of Abbondanza is their cooking parties that take place in the tasting room kitchen. "The idea is to teach people how to creatively put things together," Miranda explained. "Cooking for people is one of the most important ways to love and nurture them."

Miranda explained that the secret is having few ingredients and putting them together in a way in which most people hadn't thought. For instance, Vessels came up with the idea of using peaches wrapped in prosciutto or adding a tablespoon of cream cheese into their tomato sauce to make a very rich and creamy rosato (pink) sauce.

Before opening Abbondanza, Vessels says she would spend her Sundays cooking all day and delivering food to friends. "Food is my therapy," she said. "It's what I think about all the time, it's how I de-stress; it's my nightly entertainment."

She says she loves reading food magazines and cookbooks and watching the Food Network; the food is what she wants to talk about most of the time. "When I greet friends," Vessels said, "I am more likely to ask, 'What did you eat last night' than 'How are you?'"

Several Kentucky restaurants are already using the oil in their recipes. Holly Hill Inn, in Midway, and several others in Louisville are among them

[Photo Credit: Photograph above by Robbie Clark for Southsider Magazine.]

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