Since 2006, when Veronica Foods opened the first stand-alone olive-oil store in the U.S., more than 300 such stores have opened nationwide. But what many consumers don't realize is that at least 99 percent of them are supplied by Veronica, the brand behind an olive-oil shop readying to open this weekend atop Queen Anne Hill.
"It's not a franchise, but it's sort of like that," explains Curtis Cord, publisher of the Olive Oil Times.
Veronica, now based in Oakland, Calif., traces its history to 1924, when the grandfather of the company's current CEO began selling olive oil from Verona in his New York City shop. The business later relocated to California, focusing primarily on canned fruit and tomatoes. But Veronica shifted its emphasis to bulk gourmet olive oil in the 1990s, building a Tunisian mill to process olives from Australia, Morocco, and Argentina, among other countries. The resulting oil sold for about half of what premium California olive oil commanded.
Although sales were initially confined to the restaurant industry, Veronica later introduced a retail format in which sellers, trained by the company, keep "over 50 estate-produced, award-winning extra-virgin olive oils and naturally flavored and fused olive oils" in spouted stainless-steel canisters.
What worries Cord about the Veronica model is its reliance on heavy traffic. Olive oil kept in vessels is likely to age quickly if not purchased, and Cord says he's never seen a customer in the bulk olive-oil store near his office in Newport, R.I., one of the many touristy areas where such stores have sprung up. "I think they're getting very good olive oil," Cord says of Veronica's quasi-franchisees. "The issue is how long does it stay in the store? How is it handled? Olive oil has to be handled like fresh fruit juice, which it is."
Larry Graham, a hydraulics-industry veteran, is opening Queen Anne Olive Oil with his brother, Gary, a commercial fisherman who was the best man at the wedding of Veronica's owners. Before deciding to open a permanent location, the Grahams intermittently sold their friends' products at the Fremont Sunday Market under the name Olympic Olive Oil. Larry Graham says he takes all the precautions he can to keep his stock in good condition. "We like to buy every six months," he says. "I know that doesn't sound fresh, but that's about as fresh as you can get."
Graham emphasizes that the oils are of very high quality, contrasting them with the oils made on the Bay Area farms where he worked as a teenager, scrambling up thin ladders with an olive basket clasped around his neck. "The olives would sit in baskets all day," he says. "We know now that's wrong. It's amazing how far we've come. We like to think we have the world's most premium olive oils."
An olive oil's shelf life varies according to its grade and harvest season, but most experts agree an oil can last a year from its date of pressing if properly stored. Yet many casual shoppers understandably fail to ask the pointed questions which would help them assess an oil's prospects for longevity—especially in under-patronized Veronica stores.
Cord suspects Veronica's strategy has succeeded because interest in olive oil is booming, but product knowledge has flatlined in the general population. Customers who would loudly object to buying wine from a vat often don't have the confidence to challenge olive-oil salesmen. Appreciative of the one-on-one attention they receive when shopping in a dedicated olive-oil shop, they're apt to overlook bulk-oil flaws obvious to more experienced tasters.
"The thing that nobody understands is that olive oil should be bitter," Cord says, adding that it took years for Americans to appreciate bitterness in coffee and dark chocolate. "We've become accustomed to olive oil that has no flavor. You should taste green, you should taste olives. You shouldn't taste staleness or age or cardboard."
The Grahams' shop will carry 30 flavored vinegars, 30 olive oils, and various balsamic vinegars. A grand-opening celebration, complete with hors d'oeuvres and olive-oil cake, is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15 at 1629 Queen Anne Ave. N. from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Queen Anne Olive Oil's regular hours are 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Monday–Saturday and noon–6 p.m. Sunday.