Reflections on 45 Years Championing Italian Olive Oil in America

Nearly half of a century after a chance encounter with an Italian olive oil producer, John J. Profaci looks back on his role in the American market.

John J. Profaci at a salumeria in Italy circa 1979 (Images courtesy of the Profaci family)
By Daniel Dawson and Curtis Cord
Dec. 18, 2023 13:04 UTC
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John J. Profaci at a salumeria in Italy circa 1979 (Images courtesy of the Profaci family)

In his forty-five years as an importer, John J. Profaci has wit­nessed first-hand the mete­oric rise of the olive oil cat­e­gory in the United States.

As soon as I start talk­ing about the indus­try, my mem­ory starts reflect­ing back on all the things that have gone by,” he told Olive Oil Times pub­lisher Curtis Cord in an exclu­sive inter­view. And I’m amazed at some of the things we did.”

(Enrico Colavita and I) trusted each other, and we both had a vision. We knew what we wanted to accom­plish.- John J. Profaci, founder, Colavita USA

Profaci came from an olive oil fam­ily but did not become involved in the sec­tor until his 40s. He worked as a bro­ker, sell­ing imported Italian foods to New York and New Jersey stores, when a chance 1978 encounter with Enrico Colavita, a pro­ducer and bot­tler, began Profaci’s immer­sion in the olive oil trade.

The two met in New York while Colavita was on his hon­ey­moon and dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of import­ing Italian olive oil to the United States. The meet­ing, over lunch at the New York Athletic Club, led to Profaci’s deci­sion to go to Rome and meet Colavita to hash out the terms of a deal.

I’d never trav­eled over­seas before in my life, so the only prob­lem was I didn’t have the kind of money to fly to Rome,” he said. As for­tune would have it, Profaci’s friend was a travel agent for Eastern Airlines and agreed to get him a ticket on credit. Of course, we flew econ­omy class, and every­body was smok­ing,” he said. It was, after all, 1979.

Profaci found him­self in a hotel near the Via Veneto in Rome. I was sup­posed to meet Enrico the next day,” he said, Now, I had no idea where we were going. He even­tu­ally showed up at the hotel, and we started dri­ving to Molise.”

I thought we were going to drive for maybe 15 or 20 min­utes, I had no idea,” Profaci added. We ended up dri­ving for three hours.”

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Sant’Elia a Pianisi circa 1979

Along the way, they passed Monte Cassino, a his­toric hill­top abbey founded in AD 529 and bombed relent­lessly by Allied forces dur­ing the Battle for Rome in the Second World War, and a ceme­tery full of American sol­diers. That was very touch­ing for me,” Profaci recalled.

After more dri­ving, the land­scape changed, with fields of olive trees dot­ting the rolling hills around the road. He pulled his car over to the side, and we took a walk into the fields,” Profaci said. It was very untidy and had not been cul­ti­vated for years, but the trees were there.”

I said to Enrico: Why is this so unkempt?’ He said, John, there’s no place to sell the oil that we pro­duce here.’”

By some esti­mates, the United States, a sig­nif­i­cant mar­ket for Italian exports, was con­sum­ing 50,000 tons of olive oil each year, one-sixth of what it con­sumes now. With most con­sump­tion lim­ited to olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries, Italy had a sur­plus. Production exceeded con­sump­tion and drove down prices.

Colavita explained to Profaci that pro­duc­ing olive oil was not prof­itable, and the farmer could not afford to main­tain, har­vest, or fer­til­ize the trees. That was my first les­son about the indus­try,” Profaci said.

The two kept dri­ving, pass­ing through Campobasso before turn­ing into the moun­tains and arriv­ing in Sant’Elia a Pianisi, the Colavitas’ home­town about 200 kilo­me­ters south­east of Rome. There, Profaci was wel­comed by Enrico’s mother, sis­ter-in-law, and brother-part­ner, Leonardo.

We had din­ner. It was very nice, and they started to show me their plant,” Profaci said. They had a big facil­ity for pro­duc­ing olive pomace oil.” He vis­ited mills in the region, all of which employed tra­di­tional hydraulic presses to extract the oil.

The next day, we started vis­it­ing farms that pro­duced the olives for the Colavita fam­ily,” he added. Profaci said the Colavitas sold olive oil in 55-gal­lon (210-liter) drums to local pack­ers then. As it is known today, the Colavita brand did not yet exist.

This was very inter­est­ing to me because I had never seen this work done before,” Profaci said. That night, we were sit­ting in his office and talk­ing about future busi­ness in North America.”

He said, John, I hope you can sell more than one con­tainer a year in the United States,’ and I said, Well, I’m going to try’,” Profaci recalled.

Colavita asked Profaci if he had a brand in mind for the U.S., leav­ing open the option to use Colavita, which the com­pany was already using for some other prod­ucts. If not for his hum­ble nature, one of the largest brands in the U.S. would per­haps today be branded Profaci.

Profaci left Italy with a hand­shake and gentleman’s agree­ment to sell Italian extra vir­gin olive oil to con­sumers in New York and New Jersey. We were really unso­phis­ti­cated in that type of nego­ti­a­tion, but we trusted each other, and we both had a vision,” Profaci said. We both knew what we wanted to accom­plish.”

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John J. Profaci with Enrico Colavita circa 2012

After a quick trip to Sicily to meet his extended fam­ily, Profaci said he returned to the U.S. excited to start the new busi­ness and deter­mined to make it work. He made a good liv­ing as a food bro­ker and took a con­sid­er­able risk.

I placed my first order with Enrico for a con­tainer,” he said. At the time, the Italian gov­ern­ment was pay­ing all the com­pa­nies a sub­sidy of 25 cents per liter [to help farm­ers sell olive oil]. Every con­tainer had 18,000 liters, so right off the bat, they were prof­itable.”

According to Carl Ipsen, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Indiana University who has stud­ied Italian food and cul­ture imports to the U.S., the Italian gov­ern­ment sub­si­dized local olive oil pro­duc­ers to help them main­tain prices and com­pete with cheaper Spanish olive oil.

When Italy joined the European Economic Community [in 1957], they main­tained a high price for oil,” Ipsen said. Spain was­n’t in the com­mu­nity yet, and Spanish olive oil was much cheaper. The Italian gov­ern­ment was pay­ing grow­ers the sub­sidy so they could sell the oil and make it com­pet­i­tive with Spanish oil.”

The first Colavita ship­ment arrived in the U.S. in three-liter tins, which Profaci started sell­ing to spe­cialty food dis­trib­u­tors in New York City. They were the first pack­aged con­tain­ers of extra vir­gin olive oil branded with the Colavita name.

Then I decided to go into the retail mar­ket,” Profaci said. A friend of his owned a Foodtown in Newark, New Jersey, and allowed Profaci to sell the extra vir­gin olive oil in the store.

He said to me, Come in on Saturday and set up your table,’ and I did, but it was very dis­ap­point­ing,” Profaci recalled. For three or four hours, nobody showed up except for one lady.”

Profaci said the woman dipped some bread in the olive oil, tried it, and started to walk away. Profaci asked why she did not like the olive oil, and she responded that the fla­vor had been too strong and she did not like the burn­ing sen­sa­tion in her throat. It seemed Newark was not yet ready for extra vir­gin olive oil that retained the pun­gency of polyphe­nols.

Then I decided that instead of retail, I should go into food ser­vice, so I took some bot­tles to Little Italy, and I went into this restau­rant called Il Cortile, mean­ing the court­yard,” Profaci said.

Profaci met the owner, Sal Esposito, and told him that he had a prod­uct that he was very excited for Esposito to try. He said to me, Look, I know noth­ing about olive oil,’ and I almost said the same thing to him, but instead I said, I have a good prod­uct,’” Profaci recalled with a laugh.

Esposito invited Donato Desiderio, Il Cortile’s chef from Bari, the cap­i­tal of Italy’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region, Puglia, where most of Colavita’s prod­uct is pro­duced, into the nego­ti­a­tion. Desiderio tried the oil and rec­og­nized the qual­ity. Thinking Profaci would not under­stand, he told Esposito in Italian to buy the extra vir­gin olive oil before Profaci had a chance to leave and sell it else­where.

Esposito was con­vinced and asked Profaci how much he was sell­ing the olive oil for. Based on the tenor of the con­ver­sa­tion, Profaci saw an oppor­tu­nity. Right away, I put $5 extra [$18.65 in today’s dol­lars] on the price,” Profaci said. I had a price in mind, but because of the con­ver­sa­tion, I put $5 on the case.”

Unfettered by the markup, Esposito ordered 25 cases. From that moment, Profaci decided sell­ing to restau­rants was the way to go. So I started to build a busi­ness,” he said.

After the ini­tial suc­cess at Il Cortile, Profaci decided to do some adver­tis­ing for the prod­uct. There was a pub­li­ca­tion called Attenzione, which was the first Italian-American mag­a­zine to hit the mar­ket­place, and I took out an ad,” he said.

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John J. Profaci, Enrico Colavita and Bob Bruno

Profaci decided to hire Bob Bruno as Colavita’s first mar­ket­ing direc­tor, and the cam­paign he led was a suc­cess. Italians liv­ing in the U.S. and Italian Americans no longer had to rely on buy­ing in bulk; they could now go to the super­mar­ket and pur­chase Colavita extra vir­gin olive oil.

Sales soared, though they were ini­tially con­fined to the Eastern Seaboard. Eventually, as the prod­uct became more pop­u­lar, things started to change, and Profaci was sell­ing to super­mar­kets nation­wide.

He took his olive oil to the Fancy Food show in San Diego, California, where he met Irving Fine, who worked for a dis­trib­u­tor that sold prod­ucts to Florida-based super­mar­ket chain Publix. Fine invited Profaci to Miami to dis­cuss sell­ing his olive oil in Publix. Profaci jumped at the oppor­tu­nity. He had a sec­ond home in the area, and nearly every­one he knew in Florida shopped there.

At the time, Publix was expand­ing beyond Florida into other parts of the south­east­ern U.S. Profaci autho­rized Fine to offer Publix a deal. If Publix would buy one case for each store that would take the oil, Colavita would give them one case free. This way, Colavita became Publix’s first extra vir­gin olive oil and grew as the chain expanded.

They started to move the prod­uct right away,” Profaci said, attribut­ing the rapid sales to a good price point – $4.99 for a half liter – and a recep­tive con­sumer base.

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Enrico Colavita, Alfred Ciccotelli Sr., Mario Colavita and John J. Profaci circa 1984

Since then, olive oil sales have con­tin­ued to grow in the United States. According to indus­try data, nearly 20 per­cent of the cook­ing oils sold at retail in the U.S. by vol­ume is olive oil, far exceed­ing the global total of three per­cent.

Profaci said Colavita set itself apart from the com­peti­tors by focus­ing on extra vir­gin olive oil while the other major brands in the U.S., such as Bertolli and Filippo Berio, were sell­ing pure olive oil (a blend of vir­gin and refined).

Profaci was start­ing to tap into the con­sumer base that appre­ci­ated extra vir­gin olive oil’s bit­ter and spicy fla­vors, which are not present in lower grades since the phe­no­lic com­pounds that make them pun­gent are elim­i­nated in the refin­ing process. Colavita soon started usurp­ing other olive oil brands in long-estab­lished mar­kets, bet­ting con­sumers would pay higher prices for bolder fla­vors.

Another boost to the company’s for­tunes came in 1981 when The New York Times wrote an arti­cle about extra vir­gin olive oil that fea­tured a photo of a bot­tle of Colavita.

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Colavita advertisement circa 1982

Subsequent sto­ries in the Times inves­ti­gated the ben­e­fits of olive oil con­sump­tion on cho­les­terol. They reported the find­ings of the land­mark Seven Countries Study, which estab­lished the link between monoun­sat­u­rated fat con­sump­tion and lower risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.

Two huge” ben­e­fits came from the arti­cles, Profaci said: The free pub­lic­ity of the photo and the chang­ing nar­ra­tives around the health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the doc­tors rec­om­mended that you don’t use olive oil at all,” Profaci said. They said it was bad for your heart, bad for your lungs and clogged your arter­ies.” The New York Times report­ing started to shift the con­ver­sa­tion and resulted in aca­d­e­mics doing fur­ther research into the health ben­e­fits of olive oil, which, by some esti­mates, led to the boom in global pro­duc­tion and con­tin­ued promi­nence of the indus­try.

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John J. Profaci with Julia Child at CIA circa 2003

Around the same time the arti­cles were pub­lished, Profaci was already aware that edu­ca­tion was one of the keys to increas­ing extra vir­gin olive oil con­sump­tion. To that end, Profaci and his son, Joseph R. Profaci, started to work with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in the 1990s when Ferdinand Metz was the institute’s pres­i­dent.

Like his father, olive oil is also in Joseph R. Profaci’s blood. He joined Colavita in 1993 as vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel and is now the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the North American Olive Oil Association.

At the CIA, Metz had a vision that Italian cui­sine would over­take French cui­sine in the eye of the American con­sumer. He wanted to build the insti­tute to focus on Italian food and wine cul­ture and was look­ing for spon­sors.

He reached out to every Italian com­pany for spon­sor­ship,” Profaci said. After sev­eral other big brands turned him down, the Profacis agreed to fund half the cost of the cen­ter, about $2 mil­lion split between Colavita USA and Italy, in return for nam­ing rights.

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Profaci with CIA board chair August Ceradini and CIA president Ferdinand Metz circa 1995

In 2001, the Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine was inau­gu­rated on the CIA cam­pus in Hyde Park, about 120 kilo­me­ters north of New York City.

While many European brands did not see the value of nam­ing a build­ing then, Profaci and his son did. It’s a per­pet­ual adver­tise­ment with 2,000 chefs a year going through the door,” Joseph R. Profaci said. It was a no-brainer.”

With 45 years of per­spec­tive on the evo­lu­tion of the U.S. extra vir­gin olive oil mar­ket, Profaci feels bull­ish about the future. Despite higher prices, con­sump­tion has remained strong, which Profaci attrib­utes to the endur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Italian cui­sine.

Even with record-set­ting prices, Profaci said he does not worry about con­sumers becom­ing dis­il­lu­sioned and swap­ping extra vir­gin olive oil for a lower grade or some other cook­ing oil. Quality prod­ucts always demand a price,” he said.

Profaci’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Colavita has not gone unno­ticed, with both men receiv­ing recog­ni­tion for pro­mot­ing the United States’ bur­geon­ing spe­cialty food indus­try.

In 2009, Profaci was inducted into the CIA’s Hall of Fame and awarded the insti­tute’s Augie Award. He was also named in 2015 among the inau­gural inductees of the Specialty Food Association’s Hall of Fame.

Similarly, Colavita was recently hon­ored as an ambas­sador of Italian cui­sine at an event spon­sored by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty and Forestry.

Little did they real­ize at their first meet­ing in Molise that they were form­ing a part­ner­ship that would grow into a world­wide fam­ily-owned enter­prise.

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John J. Profaci with sons Joseph, Anthony, John and Robert circa 2012

Today, their legacy con­tin­ues at Colavita USA, with Profaci’s sons, John A., Robert and Anthony, engaged in var­i­ous roles. Colavita’s nephew, Giovanni, is now the chief exec­u­tive, and his son, Paolo, heads the newly acquired California-based O Olive Oil divi­sion.

The Profaci-Colavita col­lab­o­ra­tion, born in Molise, was based on a gentlemen’s agree­ment for over a decade. The arrange­ment was not memo­ri­al­ized until 1993, when the par­ties signed a for­mal agree­ment acknowl­edg­ing Colavita USA as the exclu­sive importer and dis­trib­u­tor of the Colavita branded prod­ucts, with Profaci as the chief exec­u­tive. By 2010, the Colavita fam­ily had bought back most of the Colavita USA shares and now owns a major­ity of the com­pany.

For his part, Profaci still goes into the office daily as chair­man emer­i­tus, though, he admit­ted, the sched­ule can vary depend­ing on his tee time.


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