`Are Olive Oil Tasting Bars Just a Trend?

N. America

Are Olive Oil Tasting Bars Just a Trend?

Jan. 24, 2015
Leah Dearborn

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Olive oil tast­ing bars may have orig­i­nated in Europe, but their pres­ence in the U.S. has been expand­ing rapidly over the past sev­eral years. There are esti­mated to be over one thou­sand such spe­cialty stores and spe­cially-equipped tast­ing areas in gourmet mar­kets across the coun­try. Instead of directly pick­ing a bot­tle off a shelf, cus­tomers are able to sam­ple oil on-tap” (typ­i­cally stored in tra­di­tional Ital­ian con­tain­ers called fusti) before mak­ing a pur­chase.

This thing’s gone full throt­tle. It would be very dif­fi­cult to go back now.- Veron­ica Bradley, Veron­ica Foods Co.

This thing’s gone full throt­tle,” asserted Veron­ica Bradley, CEO of Veron­ica Foods Com­pany, when asked about the future of so-called on-tap’ olive oil tast­ing. It is the way for­ward, and I think it would be very dif­fi­cult to go back now.”

Veron­ica Foods is one of sev­eral busi­nesses cur­rently sup­ply­ing olive oil tast­ing bars within the United States. From their first store in Fish Creek, Wis­con­sin, the importer now works with over 600 loca­tions, with more to come.

Bradley’s com­pe­ti­tion includes the Vom Fass and Oil & Vine­gar fran­chises, which boast hun­dreds of stores around the world between them. Both com­pa­nies were estab­lished in Europe before approach­ing the U.S. mar­ket. Another fran­chise, Cal­i­for­nia-based olive oil retailer We Olive, opened its first East Coast store in Brook­lyn last month.

Even as on-tap tast­ing bars have begun to take off in North Amer­ica, health offi­cials in the UK announced a ban on aspects of the prac­tice in 2014. The Rural Pay­ments Agency (RPA) cited the sale of unsealed olive oil as a breach of Euro­pean reg­u­la­tions. In a later inter­view with Olive Oil Times, an offi­cial clar­i­fied that allow­ing cus­tomers to sam­ple oil prior to pur­chas­ing a sep­a­rate, sealed bot­tle was not a breach, but only if the con­tents of the bot­tle matched those of the sam­ple exactly.

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Randy Her­nan­dez, for­mer owner of Oliana Pre­mium Olive Oil and Vine­gars in West Hol­ly­wood, described the process of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with local health depart­ments about his tast­ing bar as a try­ing one. Reg­u­la­tions on retail food sam­pling vary on a state-by-state basis in the U.S., he said, which could make obtain­ing a per­mit dif­fi­cult. Her­nan­dez was quick to empha­size, how­ever, that Oliana’s recent clo­sure was the result of leas­ing issues and not a lack of faith in the pop­u­lar­ity of the prod­uct or tast­ing bars.

Mountain Town Olive Oil Co. in Park City, Utah

Crit­ics of on-tap olive oil also raise ques­tions about stor­age prac­tices, and whether retail­ers can pos­si­bly keep their prod­uct fresh through­out the year. When asked how long oils might remain in a fusti before being exchanged, Veron­ica Bradley said it var­ied. Not all oil tast­ing bars are equal, Bradley acknowl­edged, and there have been attempts to use the pop­u­lar on-tap tast­ing model to sell sub-par prod­ucts. We pay very par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the chem­istry of the oil. Peo­ple lie, bot­tles lie, but chem­istry doesn’t lie.”

Despite a num­ber of sim­i­lar­i­ties regard­ing how the prod­uct is served to cus­tomers at oil tast­ing loca­tions, there are dif­fer­ences in oper­a­tional choices between com­pa­nies. Direc­tor of oper­a­tions at Vom Fass, David Eis­ner-Kleyle, cred­its advanced pack­ag­ing tech­nol­ogy with the fresh­ness of their on-tap oil, allow­ing the qual­ity of the fruit to be frozen in time,” he said. Con­tain­ers, once sealed, are never opened to trans­fer their con­tents, poten­tially expos­ing them to light or oxy­gen, Eis­ner-Kleyle said.

But are olive oil tast­ing bars the kind of busi­ness that Amer­i­cans have an inter­est in fre­quent­ing? Loca­tions have cropped up across all the largest met­ro­pol­i­tan areas of the coun­try, but what about the small towns and cities?

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Some have argued that the prices in such spe­cialty shops, which can be as high as $60 per liter, are more in line with an extrav­a­gant sou­venir than a daily sta­ple, and it’s no won­der the shops tend to be in tourist-cen­tric loca­tions.

Eis­ner-Kleyle is con­fi­dent that the model can work in either an urban or rural set­ting, and believes that qual­ity is a bet­ter indi­ca­tion of suc­cess than afford­abil­ity. He doesn’t fore­see many changes in the way that olive oil tast­ing bars con­duct busi­ness in the near future. These prod­ucts are very tra­di­tional prod­ucts that have been around for a long time. As Amer­i­cans get used to them, they’re going to see why they’re so pop­u­lar.”



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