How I Stumbled Into the Olive Oil Business


I never really wanted to be in business, especially anything that had to do with selling. I fell into the olive oil biz to supply my own habit.

We took our first trip to Italy more than 20 years ago because my wife Judith is Italian-American. We loved the countryside, the food, and especially the people. And I had my olive oil epiphany. Most Americans never taste the kind of olive oil that really makes Italian food what it is.

I realized that the best olive oil is rarely exported. It’s not really economical since the good stuff is mainly produced in small quantities and can’t supply the demand of a mass market like the entire US. I knew I couldn’t go back to supermarket oil, so I carried home several liters, planning to hoard it until we could afford to go back to Italy.

We did make it back, and in 1999 we were driving from Sicily to Rome to catch a plane home. We had to spend the night someplace, and even though the restaurant was closed that particular night, we stayed at Don Alfonso. The next day chef and owner Alfonso Iaccarino showed us around the family farm, and we left with pasta, tomato sauce, and extra virgin olive oil.

We had to rush off because the road down to Sorrento was under construction and would be closed for the afternoon. In the car, Judith turned to me and said, “you should import that olive oil.” So it started.

On later trips I met Marco Bettini in Umbria, and decided to offer his family’s incredible olive oil. I was also able to finally start importing Olio Novo from Chianni, the little town in Tuscany where we stayed on our first trip. The Sicilian oil has special meaning for us, since Judith’s grandmother was born there in 1887. The California olive oil industry has matured and offers extra virgin olive oils as good as any produced in the old world.

My business plan was simple:

- Don’t lose any money.
- Have plenty of good olive oil in my kitchen.
- Go to Italy more often.

It's worked so far, although we don't go to Italy as much as we'd like to. Over the years I've found other things I want to eat, and I've added them to the Real Good Food offerings. What started as a way to keep my own kitchen supplied now provides extra virgin olive oil and other ingredients to Portland's best restaurants and home cooks. But I'm still my own best customer.