Olivette, Darien's new secret ingredient
Updated 2:18 pm, Friday, February 3, 2012
Like the ingredients in your favorite meal, events throughout the past several months have blended into a winning recipe for Dee and Alina Lawrence, who opened the doors to Olivette, 1084 Boston Post Road, on Dec. 27 last year.
Alina was struggling to find a job when she was inspired to open Olivette, a specialty food store and tasting room to 46 varieties of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
"My mother-in-law has the same store in Virginia Beach," Alina said. "We went down to visit her and to help her, so that's when I got to learn about the business."
Dee and Alina signed the lease on Nov. 1, 2011 after several months spent searching for a property. Alina, general manager at Olivette, went to the store's main supplier in Oakland, Calif., a place called Veronica Foods, to finalize her education.
"I tried a lot of the products there and I picked the ones I want to carry in my store," she said.
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In addition to olive oil and balsamic vinegar, Olivette sells bread, olives, sea salt, toffee, honeycombs, sauces, preserves, honey grown in Weston, and other gourmet foods.
But perhaps the secret ingredient of their success is Dee and Alina's product knowledge. Less than a month after the store opened, it helped them book three private parties in February and they began to see returning customers.
"I always tell my customers, `Whatever is in this store I try, and I can stand for that product,' " Alina said. "I will never look in the eye of my customers and say, `Oh, you should try this; this is great,' and have no idea what I'm talking about."
Customers are allowed to try the products on their own, however. Each olive oil and balsamic vinegar lives in a stainless steal dispenser on tables that line the shop walls and comprise a center island. Labels inform the customers what type of olive or grape the product is made of, where it was produced, the bitterness level, and nutritional information.
"What happens is, you come, you try everything if you want, you pick the one, I pour the product in the bottle in front of you, cork it, and put it in the bag," Alina said. "Some people want to listen, some people just want to go through. But I'm always trying to guide my customers, trying to find what they like, just explaining how this works (and) what flavor they should expect from olive oil."
The olive oil dispensers are arranged from "mild" to "robust." Using the small tasting cups, Alina said, the best way to try olive oil is to drink it.
"You have to start with the mild olive oil and move your way into medium or the robust in order not to kill your taste buds," she said. "Exactly like with spicy foods. Once you have something spicy, you won't be able to taste something else."
The stronger the spiciness, called the "pepper finish," the healthier the olive oil.
"These days, everybody's into health and they want to eat healthy," Alina said. "Olive oil screams of health. I don't have anything on the floor older than May 2011. You cannot find anything like this in any supermarket anywhere."
Olivette's olive oils are produced in Australia, Europe, North and South America. Alina noted an olive oil she found at the nearby Whole Foods store that was labeled "Packed in Italy."
"Just because it was packed in Italy doesn't mean that they are Italian olives," she said.
The majority of Olivette's balsamic vinegars are from Modena, Italy. Dee and Alina said theirs have a lower acidity level than balsamic vinegars in grocery stores, making them healthier.
"We're trying to look at it from a health perspective and a quality perspective," said Dee, who occasionally manages the store. He added that gourmet balsamic vinegars at fine Italian specialty markets are often $20 to $60, more expensive than Olivette's products.
Olivette offers prices as low as $11.99 for a 200-milliliter, UV-protected bottle.
They have 375- and 750-milliliter bottles around $20 and $30 respectively, but each product is individually priced and the olive oils tend to be more expensive.
Once the product is chosen and the bottle is prepared, it goes into a small brown paper bag with decorative green tissue paper that adds to Olivette's charm. The store's name has a similar effect.
"When we saw it with the green awnings, it reminded me of a 1940s or 1950s small store called a `superette,' " Dee said.
Alina added, "It was probably the most difficult decision. It's like when you have a kid and you're trying to find a name. That's what happened with us. This is our kid."
For more information, visit www.olivettect.com.