Some of you may remember during the holiday season, that we gave our members infused olive oils as a little gift from SnapSuites. We had both Meyer lemon and Greek garlic infused oils, and our members raved about them! The oils came from a local store in Brookline, called Olive Connection. We’re big fans of theirs, so we decided to sit down with Carol Sapoznik to learn more about the company.
How did you come up with the idea to open Olive Connection?
Well, I’m a foodie. I love to eat, I love to cook, and I’m a retailer. I love to go to food shops and get inspired. When you travel in Europe, you see these beautiful unique shops in all of these little towns, and they are selling all of their olive oils and vinegars, and crafts, it really inspires you.
So, throughout the years, even when I was still working at Crate and Barrel, I would think oh, we can do this! We didn’t want to just open a little shop, we wanted to do something really special.
Then, when I stopped working at Crate and Barrel, my husband was retired, and our son had gone to culinary school and he came back from living in Colorado for 9 years, I thought, maybe we should do something as a family and open up a business.
I didn’t know the food business, so we spent a year studying, looking at all of the competitors, seeing what the prices were, seeing if we were going to go with one distributor, do a franchise, or produce it ourselves. At the end of the day, we said that resourcing it ourselves and learning who the vendors are is incredibly fun. We weren’t going to pay someone else to do that. Then, we got all of our ideas and our business plan together. We polled all of our friends, we had our flip charts with every category and idea. By that time, I had put together photographs with the vision we had for the store. So, then we started looking for space. We had figured out how much we could spend. We found some spaces, but we weren’t ready to go right away. It was really a process of figuring out how much money we needed and getting all of our resources together so that once we had a space, we could be ready, set, go.
What makes your store special?
We carry product that you can’t find in the supermarkets. We buy from a lot of vendors in California, which you have to pay extra for the freight, but they’re unique and you don’t see those products all over the place. We also know all of our producers for olive oils and vinegars. There’s that vendor relationship which is really nice. We know we’re selling really good, fresh product.
How did you feel when you were in the process of opening the store?
If I really thought about it seriously, now I’m like “What did we do?” It’s a huge undertaking and a huge investment. You probably wouldn’t do it if you really, really thought too much about it. We just said “Oh, we’ll take a risk and have fun!” We signed a 5-year lease. We could have gone to Newton Highlands or Somerville. We looked all over, and then settled in Brookline. It was a good thing we did because we know everybody here. There is major benefit in that, and there’s also foot traffic. Brookline is probably the best demographic you could imagine.
How did you go about finding your producers?
You just have to be in the market, and ask a lot of questions. For example, I had saved a clipping from the Globe about a fellow from Sicily who had been putting all of his time in to his family groves and they were really excellent. Then, someone in the restaurant industry told me about him again, so I called him, and then he won all of these awards with his olive oil. He lives in Lexington. It’s a 5-generation production, so we’ve now become friends. One of our Greek producers we found at a farmer’s market in Vermont and her husband’s family owns all of the orchards. I always go to the award-winning events in New York where the super tasters taste ~800 different oils from around the world and you get to meet some of the winners.
How is it working as a family?
Well, [giggles] 90% of the time, it’s awesome. Our family meetings now are business meetings, and we don’t have them at home, we have them at the store. There are times when we question “Who makes the final decision?” because we discuss everything. The lines of responsibility are pretty organized, but we still have issues. When we first started, one of my friends gave me the name of a shrink, who specializes in family businesses, and I questioned, “Why should I have that?”, and now I understand. I am really the CEO and CMO; however, we all make decisions together. It’s a process, but we talk to each other every day.
Do you have any plans of expanding?
No, that wasn’t our desire. Perhaps if our son wanted to do something with that. It takes three years to make it work, break even, and figure out if you’re going to make any money. There are other opportunities we could do. We did the farmer’s market and we work with the Boston Wine School. So, we’ll see!
Do you have favorite products in the store?
Oh yeah, for sure. On our website, we have staff favorites, and customer favorites. I like Hacienda Guzmán, a line of olive oils from Southern Spain. It’s really special, private reserve stuff. It’s a little pricier, but it’s really delicious. There are other products from Spain that are really outstanding.
How much of the business is through ecommerce?
Not that much. You have to have it though, because people go there for ideas with gift baskets. The gift basket business is where there is a huge opportunity for personalization, brand awareness, and they have to be beautifully put together and priced right. I would like to have the reputation of the ‘go to’ place for the perfect gift.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Our customers are really awesome. The goal was to have a lot of repeat customers, and I’m thrilled that we have so many repeat customers. Not that all of the statistics give me that information, it’s when you see it, all of our friends, all of the people that you know.
Also, our landlord, he is a young Italian guy who had just bought this building, and most landlords wouldn’t talk to me because we were a new business. They didn’t want to take the risk. I had put together a vision package of what I wanted the store to be and pitched it like adding value to the community. He loved it, and that’s how we got the space. Having your vision, with pictures, you can make a presentation to a landlord. You have to have a landlord that will listen and help support you.
We will be going into our 4th holiday season and we’re constantly learning, which makes the business vibrant, creative and challenging.
But most importantly, we are having fun.