At this specialty shop in Fish Creek, Wisc., the owners pour oil and vinegar from gleaming stainless-steel tanks into glass bottles for their customers to take home. Although just seven years old, the company has already begun adding franchises nationwide.
By Liz Ozaist
Curt Campbell thinks his company has all the makings to be the next Starbucks. But this entrepreneur isn’t in the business of brewing java beans. At his Oilerie shop in Fish Creek, based in Wisconsin’s Door County, people stand shoulder to shoulder to sample olive oils and Balsamic vinegars poured directly from the spouts of more than two dozen old-fashioned, stainless-steel tanks.
“When my wife, Amy Jo, and I started this business, we didn’t have anything, but we got lucky and captured lightning in a bottle,” says Campbell. “From the beginning, my unofficial slogan has been ‘changing the way America buys olive oil,’ because if you don’t taste it first, then you’re not doing yourself any favors,” he continues. “There’s so much more to olive oil in terms of flavor and nuance than what you get from a bottle bought at the grocery store. It can be buttery, sweet and even spicy. It’s all about your individual appetite for olive oil.”
Campbell and his wife were on vacation in Europe in 2003 when inspiration struck but, contrary to what most people would assume, the couple wasn’t touring the sun-kissed hills of Greece or Italy. “We were in Krakow, Poland!” Campbell exclaims. “We’d rented an apartment near the old town square and I popped into a neighborhood store that was selling honey, liqueur, olive oil and vinegar out of giant glass containers. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and I immediately turned to Amy Jo and asked, ‘Why is no one doing this in the U.S.?’”
The couple wasn’t exactly in the best financial shape: Campbell’s wife had just been laid off from her job as a dietary manager at a nursing home. Despite this, Campbell thought it was the perfect time to launch a new venture because they’d always talked about running a business together. After flying to Milan to purchase their signature 10- to 30-liter stainless-steel drums, the high-school sweethearts found a third-generation producer an hour south of Rome who would provide them with extra virgin olive oil made from leccino, moraiolo and frantoio olives and also source their Balsamic vinegars, eliminating the need for a middleman. These are sold under the house label as are most of the products in the store.
In July 2003, Oilerie opened for business. By October 2004, they had to move to a bigger space, outfitted with eight gleaming tanks lined up side by side. “Not only did we have no time to hire people that first year, but we kept running out of product,” says Campbell. “In 2009, we sold 38,000 bottles of olive oil and vinegar in our retail store alone.”
Campbell wanted to model the Oilerie after Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., the kind of neighborhood institution where “you may have to stand in line for half an hour to order on the weekends, but once you’ve tried their sandwiches, you can’t wait to get back in line,” he explains. While Zingerman’s has many employees, Oilerie is still very much a mom-and-pop operation: The couple has just two full-time employees—a store manager and an assistant store manager—and two seasonal employees, one who helps out during the hectic holiday season and a bottle boy who fills the shop’s generous 12.7-ounce olive oil and Balsamic vinegar containers, all of which sell for under $19.
Oilerie’s line consists of five straight extra virgin olive oils—Italian (mild), Greek (medium), Spicy Italian (robust), Primaiolo (fruity) and Fior Fiore (buttery). Campbell also sells four nut oils, a sesame oil and 10 flavored oils, such as Lemon, Porcini, Dill and the top-selling Garlic. Campbell’s eight Balsamics originate from Modena, Italy, including his bestseller, a 25-year-old pour that’s thick and sweet like a liqueur. “I call the Balsamic section my ‘When Harry Met Sally’ corner because all you can hear coming from the customers is oohs and aahs,” he says.
As for other wares, Campbell prefers to focus on food items, so you won’t find ceramic decanters or wooden dipping bowls. The store has fewer than 300 SKUs; however, he does stock some whimsical edibles, like custom-made chocolate fettuccine. Other products include: Curt’s Spice Co. and Oilerie brands of sea salts, olives, spices, tortilla chips, seasoning blends and chipotle bean dip.
The extra virgin olive oils range from $13.50 for a non-flavored oil to $15.50 for the truffle-infused oil. The Balsamic vinegars average $18, including flavored ones like Apple and Blackberry. Campbell also sells Oilerie-exclusive jams and sauces for $6.99 that are made with his recipe and his 25-year-old Balsamic.
“Everyone from a local pig farmer to a sitting federal judge,” says Campbell. “This is Door County for you. In the summer, we also get a lot of tourist traffic. I think our appeal has partly to do with the fact that so many people now watch Rachael Ray and the Food Network, so they’re hearing about the benefits of using high-grade olive oil every day.”
Virtual customers can purchase most of Oilerie’s goods on its website, oilerie.com, along with gifts cards. There’s also a recipe section that highlights dishes made with Oilerie branded products, like Curt’s Curried Crimson Lentils and Oilerie Artichoke and Sundried Tomato Fettuccine. Next up for the website: video, including some featuring the owners.
“We’re serious, but not snobby,” says Campbell. “I want to change the impression most people have that you need to spend a fortune for quality Balsamic and extra virgin olive oil. My wife never liked the taste of supermarket-bought olive oil until she tried our stuff and realized, ‘Wait, it can have flavor.’” That’s exactly why Campbell stacks mini paper cups beside each of his tanks, instructing customers to sample just a few drops at a time to decide whether they prefer a fruity, spicy or bitter oil. “In general, our fruity bar is high,” he says. “A too-intense flavor can scare people away, and I don’t believe that olive oil should be an acquired taste.”
In December 2008, the Oilerie’s first franchise debuted near Milwaukee. Last summer, Campbell’s former store manager opened another shop on Hilton Head Island, S.C. There are now a total of four satellite franchises—and he plans to help launch four more in 2011. “It has to be smart, controlled growth,” he says. “I don’t buy the oil as a commodity, so I can’t oversell the product and overtax my producer.”
The franchises are set up like the main store in Fish Kill with all the buying for the small shops being done centrally through Campbell.
Square Feet of Sales Area
The original Fish Creek shop has a sales area of 325 square feet. And Campbell prefers it this way: “I don’t want a bigger shop because I like the cozy, popcorn-popper energy of the place,” he notes.
Though reluctant to name any competitors, Campbell affectionately refers to them as fakeries. “When we launched, our producer had found these great corks with built-in spouts, and within three to six months, the fakeries had them,” he says. “I take pride in the fact that I’ve not only hand-picked every item we sell, but that I’m selective in what I pick, which separates us from the competition. The Oilerie is like my little magic shop.”
In 2010, sales will exceed $1 million with 10 percent wholesale, 10 percent from the web business and 80 percent from the store. |SFM|
Liz Ozaist is an editor who has written for various publications
including Time, More and New York Magazine.
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