Greg Bernarducci, along with his wife, Elizabeth Weiss, is the owner of O Live Brooklyn, the borough’s first specialty olive oil shop. Carrying nearly a dozen varietals of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the South Williamsburg store opened last fall to great buzz among New York food bloggers and olive oil enthusiasts. I sat down with Greg in his shop to discuss O Live’s mission, and its reception in Brooklyn.
Michael Goodwin: Tell me a bit about how you became interested in olive oil and came to open O Live Brooklyn.
Greg Bernarducci: I was in the television business for over 25 years. I wanted to get out of that business. I was looking for a retail opportunity. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but my wife and I have always been into eating organic, eating healthy foods, especially when we had our daughter. We belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) and starting every spring, through the fall, we get produce from an upstate farmer, who is organic. We were out at a wedding in Berkeley, California in 2011 and we walked by a store like this, and I thought, “Wow, an olive oil store – only in California!” I went into the store and I tasted their olive oil and I couldn’t believe it. I grew up Italian; I thought I knew olive oil, as I had been eating it my whole life. When I tasted this olive oil it was completely foreign. It really spoke to me. When we got back, I started doing some research, and it turned out that it was the flagship store of Veronica Foods, my supplier. They had been supplying stores for many years, but that shop had only been open for 6 months. So, we started looking at other stores in this area. There are several in New York and New Jersey who also buy from Veronica. Olive oil is a product that I believe in. It is a great product; I don’t feel like I’m selling something that’s bad. I don’t have to convince people. Once they taste these olive oils, it’s another world. I decided to open a shop and my wife was behind it, a huge benefit, and we looked for spaces and focused on Williamsburg because of the good food tradition here. People are into healthy eating, and they care about high quality. The south side of Williamsburg is starting to blossom, and we are hoping to ride that.
MG: What does the average “Brooklynite” who comes into the shop know about olive oil?
GB: Not much. They are like I used to be. They walk in and say, “Why are there 10 different varietals of olive oil? What’s the difference?” When they start tasting, they realize. We’re carrying 10 varietals right now. Starting next week, we’ll have 16. I tell them that the oils range in intensity, from mild to robust, from fruity, to peppery, to bitter. When people taste, they realize that there are great flavor characteristics in these oils. Depending on what they want to use it for, or their own palates, people can choose what they like. People have responded well. I know that Brooklyn tends to be snarky, but when people come into the store they really love it.
MG: Aside from being in Brooklyn, what is unique about your store? How does it differentiate itself from other places where olive oil is sold?
GB: Everything here is on tap. You can taste everything in the store. This is important, compared to a supermarket where oils often sit out in bowls all day, and the quality degrades. Other shops may also supply bread. We do not use bread, as it masks some of the flavors of the oil and we want people to get the full experience. People need to experiment with the different oils and decide which they like best. I prefer the more robust oils, and I use them on everything, but my taste buds aren’t too sensitive. Other people have a more sensitive palate and want something more herbal or fruity. People can choose here. Nothing is bottled yet. Our oil is always protected in an airtight container, a fusti, and then we dispense it when customers decide what they like.
MG: Aside from first-time customers not knowing much about the diversity in flavors, what are the common misconceptions that people have about olive oil?
GB: The biggest misconception is that you can’t cook with olive oil. This is what everybody says. Some people think it’s just used for salad. It’s a big misnomer. The reason is that if you’re buying olive oil from a supermarket, it might not be real olive oil, or it might be old. In this case, it’s lost all of the goodness and freshness in it. The fresher the olive oil is, the better it is for cooking. We put the chemical analysis of our oils right on the fusti: the polyphenols, the oleic acids, the free fatty acids, and the peroxide values, to see if the oil has been exposed to too much rancidity. It’s true that you don’t want to cook it at too high of a heat, because it will break down, but these oils can be used up to 450 degrees.
MG: Do you a have a favorite oil? Is there one country generating a lot of excitement in terms of new products?
GB: No, I don’t. There are good oils and bad oils coming from every country that supplies, including the US. California is having a problem with growing olive trees too close together. It makes farming easier, but is taking away some of the quality from the product. It’s a big controversy out in California, which has an olive oil council. I had Mediterranean oils when we opened (last year), but now I have southern-hemisphere oils. We constantly switch with the seasons. There is great diversity in the southern oils. Australian olive oil is on the milder, fruity side while Chilean oil is more robust. The European oils are coming in next week. From what I hear, they’re some of the best Veronica Foods has ever had.
MG: Is business what you expected it to be? Where do you think the industry is headed? Do you envision, in time, that shops like this will be the places where everyone buys their oil?
GB: I would hope so. I think that especially in a neighborhood like this, where people like specialty stores, people might start buying all of their oil here. I’m not sure how well the shop would do in other parts of Brooklyn, but it might do well in Astoria (Queens). There is room for expansion here, though I’m not ready to start it yet, as we’ve only been open for 6 months. We had a great Christmas season. That was encouraging. Now we’re getting return customers, which is very positive. People come back with their bottles and want them refilled, or people who have bought gifts for friends or family are coming back for oil for themselves. I now have a few regulars who come in each few weeks, which has also been encouraging. I started an “Olive Oil 101” class through Groupon and sold out within the first week. I couldn’t believe it. People are really looking for this! People hear about how healthy olive oil is, but people don’t realize that if they buy from the supermarket, the quality might not be what is expected. The oil might not be real olive oil, or might be processed, or refined. Some companies have been chemically tested and even include olive pomace oil. People also buy big tins that sit in their cabinets for a long time, 6 or 8 months, and it’s smarter to buy smaller containers. There is a lot to learn about olive oil, and people seem eager to learn.
MG: Do you have any secret uses for olive oil, perhaps a quirky recipe?
GB: I don’t, but my wife takes a shot every morning. She says it’s been great for her digestion. I’m not going to claim any health benefits for it, as I’m not a doctor or biologist, but I can tell you that I haven’t been sick since I started the store! I just use it on everything!