Small Spaces: Pairing for Success
By Heidi Staseson Fourteen years ago, when South African residents Awie du Toit and his wife Isabeau moved to Saskatchewan, little did they know that in a few years time they’d be striking oil—sraight out of Moose Jaw. Their business is called Oliv Tasting Room.
Having left behind some acres of land in South Africa’s Paarl/Franschhoek wine country, the du Toits, land-developing entrepreneurs, had every intention of turning their hobby farm into a vineyard but soon realized that the mechanics and regulations behind such an endeavour were too complicated and expensive.
Further, as a practicing physician, Awie felt that profiting from alcohol and its societal negatives didn’t exactly fit with the ethics of medicine.
So they packed up their home and, as pop culture Italians would say, “Fuhgoddaboudit.”
A few years later and well-settled into his radiology practice on the prairies, Awie travelled to a conference in Italy. Forget about praying and loving, he quickly became immersed in Italy’s “Eat” factor that dominated the Mediterranean culture.
Becoming acquainted with the unique taste and regular consumption of olive oil – the “proper kind” he emphasizes – the good doctor was hooked. The more he learned about olive oil’s unique health benefits that differ from, say, its Canola and company counterparts, the more intrigued he became.
“Olive oil is the healthiest oil that’s available,” says Awie. “It’s the only vegetable oil that’s produced without any chemical intervention–when it’s proper and true olive oil–the health benefits you gain from it are huge.”
Two years ago, Isabeau du Toit was driving home from a road trip with girlfriends to visit her son in Arizona. The group made a pit stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they happened upon a boutique. The shop’s product was based on two simple ingredients: olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Customers were encouraged to taste from among a variety of blends, much like you’d do at wine tasting in Nappa Valley.
Isabeau was impressed and brought home a pair of oil and vinegar bottles for her husband to sample. Soon the couple, having held on to their South African farmland, traded in their grape idea for olives and planted some trees.
The next step was patience; pure, extra virgin patience. Olive trees take up to seven years before producing the liquid goods.
The du Toits hadn’t heard of the oil and balsamic taste-and-tour concept in Canada but learned that a similar concept store opened in Halifax just last year, with others in Edmonton and Penticton, B.C.
Still, a “more the merrier ” mindset prevailed and the du Toits jumped on the condiment bandwagon.
In the last year they’ve opened stores in Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and Calgary (last month) as well as Phoenix, Arizona, where their son runs a store.
“From a health perspective and the health consciousness that’s taking root at the moment in North America per se, we’re probably well-positioned to fill that niche,” says Awie, noting his future plans to open more stores across Western Canada—but all in good time.
“One of the things we decided on was to keep it simple and straightforward, at first, from a stock control and shop management point of view,” he explains.
Eventually, the entrepreneurs plan on importing oil from their own trees but until those are harvest-ready, their oils come from California and Europe, and balsamic vinegars from Modina, Italy. With 90 different flavours of both oil and vinegar—the most expensive oil being the porcini and truffle blend—products range from between $22.50 to $32.00
“The most expensive product is our 25-year-old balsamic,” Awie notes.
Drizzle that aged puppy on a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and “you will be amazed at the taste – it’s wonderful,” he adds.
Olive oil does a lot more than dress up bread from a checkered-cloth basket. Considered one of the “good fats”—it can be used for everything from a hangover cure—“a little dab will do ya”—to a fabulous hair day (Awie mixes a half-teaspoon daily in with his shampoo).
Sprinkling the seeds of startup fees was the easy part, says Awie. That’s what South African land-developing side businesses are for. He estimates the opening of one store cost about $100,000 and figures next year’s returns on the combined stores will provide enough to finance a fifth, likely another Calgary shop.
Customer response to date has taken the du Toits by surprise and business has been jam- packed. In the Moose Jaw shop, for example, customers take the taste tour and leave with at least a bottle each of oil and vinegar. It’s an interactive and educational experience as he or she picks a pairing, or blend of the two products.
So what’s been the plain-and-simple secret to their start-up success? “You have to do your market research. You have to know your product before you embark,” Awie explains.
“There are lots of things that we learn as we go and we convey that knowledge to the client. It enhances the food experience,” he adds.
Indeed, being the olive-oil-town-crier-doctor, spouting volumes of knowledge includes explaining what “pure, extra virgin and unadulterated” means.
Sounds spicy? According to Awie, 63 per cent of the olive oil one buys at the supermarket is actually “adulterated,” which means it’s been put through a rigorous chemical process.
In other words, it’s been sullied, tampered with, de-flowered.
Basically, Awie explains, only true extra virgin olive oil is that which simulates manna from heaven from among culinary connoisseurs.
But most importantly, all these olive smarts must be passed on to the “faces of the stores,” the employees–whom the du Toits liken to “family.”
They take pride in the fact that their stores are helping contribute to the economy. And when their olives are ripe for the picking back home, they’ll be employing the South Africans there to help in the harvest.
“From a small business point of view, I think it’s pretty important and satisfactory to do that,” Awie remarks.
Other success gems he points to are risk-taking and business fervour.
“We took a bit of a chance…but if you don’t have that energy, passion and enthusiasm—if you just do it for the money – I don’t think you’re going to make it.
But above all, the du Toits say they’re having fun.
Says Awie: “Can you imagine you have a startup business in Canada, in 2012, with a product that’s more than 5,000 years old? No new technology; no new stuff. How cool is that?”