13 Dec

Offering a taste of Chilean gold

Judith Snively, importer, promoter and distributor of the Kardámili line of olive oils, holds a tasting demonstration in the specialty foods section of Spec’s in Midtown. About $340,000 of Chilean olive oil was imported to the U.S. this year through September.

By Jelania Moreno,

At the Spec’s store in Midtown, Houstonian Stefanos Giannaris tasted bread dipped in Chilean olive oil.

Giannaris, whose family hails from Greece — a nation that knows something about olive oil — liked the Kardámili brand of extra virgin olive oil. But he was surprised to discover that Chileans make “liquid gold,” as Homer once called it.

“I’ve never tasted an olive oil from South America,” Giannaris said. “I’ve tried olive oil from California, but this has a similar taste as olive oils from Europe.”

Judith Snively, the importer, promoter and distributor of the Kardámili line of olive oils, is introducing Chilean olive oil to one consumer at a time.

“Some people think if it’s not Italian, it can’t be good,” the Houstonian said as she handed sample cups containing olive oil and bread to shoppers at Spec’s.

Chilean wines have been talked about and promoted for years, but Chilean olive oil is another story. It’s a relatively young industry, with its first plantations sprouting up less than a decade ago. Parts of Chile have an almost Mediterranean climate ideal for not only vineyards, but also olive trees, Chileans reasoned.

“It’s a new industry, an emerging industry,” said Alicia Moya, project engineer for Chile Oliva, the Association for Olive Oil Producers, whose 38 members are expected to export $1.5 million in olive oil this year, up from $1 million exported globally in 2005.

Trade shows first
In an effort to promote the fledgling industry, Chile Oliva officials began attending trade shows this year in the U.S., where Americans imported more than $340,000 in Chilean olive oil through September.

Snively, a local attorney, spends every weekend and most evenings giving olive oil demonstrations at Nundini Enterprises or Spec’s.

“I’m starting from zero,” Snively said.

But she decided to take a gamble on bringing a new product to market to benefit from the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Chile that took effect two years ago.

The pact cut tariffs paid on goods shipped between the two countries and has helped trade soar to $11.9 billion last year from $6.4 billion in 2003, before the agreement was implemented. Trade between Houston and Chile also increased to nearly $1.9 billion last year from $69 million in 2003.

As negotiators hammered out terms of the trade deal, Snively and her business partner, Stephen Buchanan, mulled over what products they could import from the South American nation.

“I always wanted to do this,” said Snively, whose interest in importing began when she lived in Peru for six months 13 years ago. “I had always had an interest in Latin America.”

The longtime lawyers decided to dabble in importing. They first considered bringing in wine but figured they would face too much competition from other Chilean wines already on U.S. store shelves. Buchanan, who lives in Chile, mentioned olive oil, and shortly after that the team was touring olive groves.

They chose the Kardámili olive oils produced by Valle Arriba, a seven-year-old company with more than 1,100 acres planted with olive trees on two plantations in Chile. One of the pioneers of Chile’s fledgling olive oil industry, Valle Arriba owners decided to take a risk planting Spanish and Italian varieties of olive trees, said Viviana Vergara, marketing manager for the Santiago-based company.

Valle Arriba was already exporting to Canada, Japan, South Korea, Germany and several South American nations, with Venezuela being its largest market, when Buchanan and Snively visited the groves.

“We were interested in exporting to the United States because it’s a very large market,” Vergara said.

So Snively and Buchanan, of TLC Trade Co., brought in their first shipment of olive oils through the Port of Houston last fall. By December, she began stocking shelves at the grocery store in her West University neighborhood, JMH Market & Cafe.

Now she’s sold olive oils to small businesses like Salento in Rice Village as well as large grocers like Whole Foods Market and some Fiesta Mart stores in Houston. And she’s hoping to import more products from Chile.

Several shoppers put bottles of Kardámili olive oil in their shopping carts as Snively handed out samples recently.

But even as she persuades more and more people to try the olive oil, she doesn’t expect to be profitable for another two years.

“This is a challenge,” she said.

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