11 Mar

Shoppers import fresh olive oils from around the globe to their kitchens

Sunshine in a bottle

By Kim Mikus

Shops devoted to fresh olive oils and balsamic vinegars are ripening.

The number of stores featuring a wide variety of extra virgin olive oils is increasing as shopper’s look for healthier alternatives and more flavorful oils for cooking.

Food celebrities hyping the virtues of EVOO — extra-virgin olive oil — are another factor contributing to the recent popularity.

“It’s catching on like wildfire,” said Ed O’Connell, co-owner of The Olive Mill in Geneva, one of the first tasting shops of its kind in the area. The Geneva store has seen about 25 percent increase in sales this January over last, O’Connell said.

Oils and vinegars are the primary product at these new stores. Shoppers are able to taste the various selections, from pomegranate vinegar to basil olive oil, before they’re bottled and corked.

The specialty stores growing throughout the suburbs boast they offer the freshest olive oils from Italy, Spain, Australia and California. A franchise, Oil & Vinegar, is also moving into the market with stores in Algonquin Commons and Westfield Old Orchard in Skokie.

“People enjoy coming in and being able to taste the oils. It’s like wine; you have to find a flavor that fits your taste,” said O’Connell, who has operated in Geneva for 16 months and is soon expanding to the tourist town of Saugatuck, Mich.

“We find that the oils appeal to people who enjoy art,” O’Connell said. He sold his product at all the local festivals and found that the art festival did the best.

The most common customer tends to be about 50 years old. “We see all ages, but the person with a higher income, we tend to see more often,” he said.

The owners of The Olive Tap in Long Grove are also growing their business. Rick Petrocelly opened his shop less than a year ago and plans to launch another store in Downers Grove within the next two months. He’s also looking to expand in Highland Park and Evanston.

Because of the recent popularity of the stores, Petrocelly is having a difficult time finding fustis, the imported stainless steel tanks in which the oil is stored.

Consumption of olive oil in the United States has risen 272 percent since 1991, according to the International Olive Oil Council.

Shoppers are going for more exotic, fun flavors. Blood orange oil and tangerine balsamic vinegar is the number one combination at Petrocelly’s Long Grove shop.

Garlic olive oil tops the list at most stores, including the newest retailer of its kind to open, The Olive Oil Place at Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg.

Televisions at the store are tuned into food programs and recipes are available.

Co-owner Shannon Gagliardo believes the Food Network is one of the main reasons for the recent interest in the oils that range from $9 to $14.95 for a 12.7-ounce bottle at her store.

She is finding brides buying the smaller bottles for wedding favors.

“Our olive oils make wonderful housewarming gifts,” said Debbie Gokhan, director of U.S. operations at Oil & Vinegar, based in Holland.

“People are really interested in the health benefits of olive oil,” she said.

Nutrition experts consider omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fish and some plant foods, to be a “smart fat.” The other “smart fat” is monounsaturated fat — the type olive oil is rich in. Some olive oils come with phytonutrients that may offer their own disease protection benefits.

The Mediterranean diet incorporates olive oil, rich in antioxidants, as a key ingredient in a large number of food preparations.

The trend is continuing to grow. Gokhan said more of the Oil & Vinegar franchises are being planned for the area.

“People really enjoy the entire experience of coming into the store,” she added. Shoppers are able to smell, taste and touch the oils and vinegars. Music is playing and recipe ideas are flowing.

She added that shoppers are encouraged to try a small bottle that’s about 3.5 ounces. Gokhan said: “If you fall madly in love with it, you can come in and buy a liter.”

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