A Dipper’s Delight, St. Paul’s Villager

By Nancy Crotti. Published in the Villager, Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Robust oils & vinegars from around the world are on tap at Olive Grove

Natalie Jaeger knew it wouldn’t be easy to land a new job when her husband was transferred to St. Paul from Chicago last year. Jaeger had been managing the conversion of old buildings to condominiums in downtown Chicago. Because the real estate market had soured, she decided to play off her love of cooking and tried to get a sales job with a food distributor. With no prior food business experience, her attempts fizzled.

She was still unemployed in January of this year when a visit to an Appleton, Wisconsin, store that sells imported olive oil and balsamic vinegar in bulk sparked a new idea.

“The wheels were spinning. I’m like, ‘I can do this,’” she thought during the drive home to her West End condo. “I spent that 4 1/2 hours thinking, ‘How can I set up my store?’ and ‘How can I pitch it to my husband, who’s really conservative?’”

Her husband, Drew, a vice president with a local insurance company, challenged her to come up with a business plan. Jaeger spent the next six weeks researching similar stores around the country and figuring out a strategy. With a solid business plan finally in place, Drew advised her to start looking for financing.

“Every bank I talked to was on board,” she said. “The hardest part was finding a location.”

Jaeger scouted for sites in Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Woodbury and on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. When the latter site fell through, she considered giving up, but the owner of that space offered to show her a spot in the Village at Mendota Heights on Highway 110 and Dodd Road. With some plumbing work to comply with food safety regulations, the space was a good fit.

Jaeger’s experience selecting flooring, fix – tures and appliances for Chicago condos is evident in the decor of the Olive Grove Olive Oil Company, a specialty food store that she opened last month at 720 Main St. The 1,100 square feet of retail area has warm wood-fin – ished floors and walls painted to evoke sunny Tuscan olive groves. Stainless steel casks (called fustis in Italian) filled with extra vir – gin olive oils, flavored oils and aged balsamic vinegars are lined up along two islands and a counter. Customers may sip samples from tiny cups or dip bread cubes into them.

The olive oils come from Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Australia, Chile, Tunisia and California, and vary in availability depending upon the season. Flavors also vary based on when the olives were picked and whether they were pressed with fruits or vegetables, such as garlic, lemons, blood oranges or Persian limes. With the exception of one 18-year-old specimen, the balsamic vinegars are 12 years old and come in flavors such as red apple and black cherry.

The store also carries gourmet mustards, stuffed olives, spice mixes, olive oil-based soaps and lotions, fresh baked bread, import – ed Italian pasta and cooking accessories. (A full list of products and recipes may be found at www.theolivegroveoliveoil.com.)

Jaeger compared olives to grapes in terms of variety and the timing of their harvest. “Early harvest always will be green and have a very pungent, robust flavor,” she said. “It could be grassy or it could be peppery. If you do a late harvest, it gives you a milder, mellower taste. It could be buttery or fruity.”

Customer Jim Thoreson of Inver Grove Heights was prompted to visit the Olive Grove after sampling its wares at the nearby Wine Market. “(Jaeger) gave me a sample of garlic olive oil, and I could almost drink it, it was so good,” he said. “My kids love it. I’m totally impressed with the market there.”

Customer Travis Anderson of Minneapolis said he also appreciated the quality. “The one that I was blown away by was the pomegran – ate balsamic,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a balsamic that was that flavorful. The truffle oils were particularly amazing. The porcini oil tastes like straight mushroom oil. The flavors are so strong.”

Because Jaeger buys in bulk, the extra virgin olive oils sell for $14.50-$15.50 per 12.7-ounce bottle. Vinegars are priced from $13-$18 per bottle. Though the prices are comparable, she said, the difference between her olive oil and supermarket brands is freshness.

“Olive oil has a relatively short shelf life,” she said. “As soon as it’s exposed to heat, light and air, it starts becoming rancid. More important, as it breaks down, it loses all of its health benefits as well.”

Those health benefits include antioxidants that benefit the heart, reduce cholesterol levels and may prevent cancer. “We bottle it in these green bottles so there’s no direct exposure to light,” Jaeger said. “You’ve got a good nine months to use it before it’ll be completely void of its flavor and its health benefits.”