Producer Profiles

This Olive Oil Importer Knows How to Find Winners

For 30 years, Rolando Beramendi has been importing his favorite Italian olive oils to the U.S., one harvest at a time.

Vincenzo Paterno (left) and Rolando Bernamendi (right) at Domus Olivae, Sicily
Jun. 24, 2020
By Daniel Dawson
Vincenzo Paterno (left) and Rolando Bernamendi (right) at Domus Olivae, Sicily

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There are few things that Rolando Bera­mendi loves more than cook­ing, so it was not sur­pris­ing when he offered to pre­pare din­ner for his newly-anointed inlaws dur­ing the Christ­mas of 1987.

The soon-to-be-founder of Mani­caretti Ital­ian Foods Importers had just com­pleted his degree in agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, and went to spend the first hol­i­day sea­son with his wife in the moun­tains of north­ern Italy.

Every har­vest is dif­fer­ent, so I want to be there and be with them. I need to see (the har­vest) and taste all of the oils.- Rolando Bera­mendi, founder, Mani­caretti Ital­ian Foods Importers

We went to spend the Christ­mas hol­i­days in the Alps, to get to know the fam­i­lies and some­body showed up with a big bas­ket one time for din­ner,” Bera­mendi told Olive Oil Times.

There were all these won­der­ful ingre­di­ents – arti­sanal pasta, unfil­tered extra vir­gin olive oil, arugula, pesto, peper­onata – and it was all so deli­cious,” he added. I was only 22 years old at that time and I said, I’ve never seen these things before. Can I make din­ner?’ ”

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The meal turned out to be a water­shed moment for the native of Patag­o­nia, who grew up eat­ing home-cooked meals pre­pared with local olive and grape­seed oils, before leav­ing Argentina at the onset of the Falk­lands War to study in the United States.

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Back in Italy, Bera­mendi quickly got to talk­ing about food and before too long some of his new fam­ily and friends asked him to help them solve a long-run­ning prob­lem: how to effec­tively export these arti­sanal prod­ucts to the lucra­tive Amer­i­can mar­ket.

I did­n’t have a busi­ness plan, I did­n’t have any­thing,” he said. The only thing that I knew how to do was to cre­ate a pric­ing struc­ture because of my degree, but I saw an oppor­tu­nity there and I made a lot of appoint­ments with dif­fer­ent dis­trib­u­tors and importers in the Bay Area.”

Olive oil was on the bot­tom shelf of the eth­nic food aisle in gro­cery stores. Peo­ple used to treat it the way that they treat fish sauce nowa­days.- Rolando Bera­mendi, Mani­caretti Ital­ian Foods Importers

Bera­mendi returned to Cal­i­for­nia and tried to con­vince retail­ers that extra vir­gin olive oil would be a big hit with Amer­i­can con­sumers, but most of them told him the prod­uct was too eso­teric for the Amer­i­can palate.

At that time, olive oil was on the bot­tom shelf of the eth­nic food aisle in gro­cery stores,” he said. Peo­ple used to treat it the way that they treat fish sauce nowa­days.”

How­ever, Bera­mendi was not eas­ily deterred and even­tu­ally con­vinced four stores in the Bay Area to sell the unfil­tered extra vir­gin olive oil, which he imported from Tus­cany. By August 1989 – four months after it was founded – Mani­caretti Ital­ian Foods Importers was in busi­ness.

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Freshly picked Tonda Iblea organic olives at Vincenzo Paterno’ di Spedalotto in Chiaramonte Gulfi, Ragusa, Sicily

It was the first time that I think peo­ple saw unfil­tered olive oil from Tus­cany on the shelves and that cre­ated quite a com­mo­tion,” he said. Nobody had ever tasted any­thing so fresh.”

Bera­mendi’s pre­dic­tion turned out to be cor­rect and the oil started to catch on. Soon he was going to var­i­ous stores and doing demon­stra­tions with his fresh Tus­can extra vir­gin olive oils.

At that time, it was the only way to get peo­ple to taste new things and it almost felt like I was sell­ing one bot­tle a time every day,” he said. Unfil­tered olive oil was what changed the con­ver­sa­tion.”

By the time Bera­mendi began sell­ing his unfil­tered extra vir­gin olive oil in 1989, Cal­i­for­ni­ans had seen a culi­nary rev­o­lu­tion. Led by chefs and restau­ra­teurs, demand was rapidly grow­ing for fresh, organic and healthy ingre­di­ents and foods.

While a large empha­sis of the move­ment was on local and sea­sonal foods, many chefs still looked to Europe for inspi­ra­tion, specif­i­cally the coun­tries in which the Mediter­ranean diet reigned supreme.

I was very for­tu­nate to be in San Fran­cisco and the Bay Area at the right time,” Berma­nendi said. They [local chefs] were really inter­ested in Euro­pean prod­ucts because they were not avail­able in Cal­i­for­nia. Thanks to the Amer­i­can chefs these prod­ucts found their home in Cal­i­for­nia.”

How­ever, the same move­ment that proved to be a tail­wind for Bera­mendi’s import­ing project even­tu­ally trans­formed into a head­wind. Soon the demand for local prod­ucts began to out­weigh the allure of imported ones.

Chang­ing con­sumer trends paired with increas­ing pro­duc­tion of extra vir­gin olive oil in Cal­i­for­nia soon meant Bera­mendi’s more expen­sive imports could no longer com­pete. This, com­bined with the logis­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of import­ing to Cal­i­for­nia and trav­el­ing to and from Italy, led Bera­mendi to relo­cate to New York City in 1995.

Bera­mendi con­tin­ued cook­ing for chefs and doing demon­stra­tions with his grow­ing port­fo­lio of olive oils on the East Coast and quickly found his niche, sell­ing to restau­rants and spe­cialty food stores.

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Salvatore Cutrera, of Frantoi Cutrera, tastes his freshly extracted olive oil

Focus­ing on qual­ity is Bera­mendi’s creed and, even­tu­ally, he began to enter some of the best olive oils that he imported into com­pe­ti­tions. At the 2020 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion, Mani­caretti Ital­ian Foods Importers earned eight Gold Awards for their imported prod­ucts.

It’s not like an Oscar, where only the actor or actress gets the award. There’s an entire social and eco­nomic cir­cle around the pro­ducer who get to cel­e­brate.- Rolando Berna­mendi, Mani­caretti Ital­ian Foods Importers

This news made them jump out of their seats and they bragged about it for weeks,” Bera­mendi said about the win­ning pro­duc­ers’ reac­tions to the news of their suc­cess. It’s great val­i­da­tion for every­one who is involved, not just the pro­ducer, but the millers and the har­vesters too.”

It’s not like an Oscar, where only the actor or actress gets the award,” he added. There’s an entire social and eco­nomic cir­cle around the pro­ducer who get to cel­e­brate, espe­cially this year with every­thing that’s going on. It was the high­light of the year.”

As the COVID-19 pan­demic has rav­aged both Italy and the United States, Mani­caretti has found mixed for­tunes.

We’ve always sold 50 per­cent to restau­rants and 50 per­cent to spe­cialty food stores,” he said. For obvi­ous rea­sons, now our restau­rant busi­ness is zero, but the retail sales have sky­rock­eted, so we’re pretty close to even.”

In spite of chal­lenges cre­ated by the pan­demic, Bera­mendi is con­fi­dent that Mani­caretti will weather the storm.

Win­ning mul­ti­ple awards at the world’s most pres­ti­gious olive oil qual­ity com­pe­ti­tion serves as a buoy for the com­pany. The awards demon­strate to his clients that his rig­or­ous selec­tion process and hands-on approach to import­ing high-qual­ity olive oil works.

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Matteo Frescobaldi inspects the olive trees responsible for his award-winning Laudemio

I’m con­stantly get­ting reports from each and every one of our pro­duc­ers on what’s hap­pen­ing,” he said. I want to know that they are prun­ing in March. I ask them for pic­tures of the bloom.”

Bera­mendi pays close atten­tion to these small details. While he has a large port­fo­lio of olive oils that he imports, each year the make up is dif­fer­ent. He points out that olive oil is just like wine. Each har­vest is unique and it is dif­fi­cult to com­pare to pre­vi­ous ones.

Every har­vest is dif­fer­ent, so I want to be there and be with them,” he said. I need to see [the har­vest] and taste all of the oils. Then accord­ing to how we feel with the par­tic­u­lar har­vest we might buy a lot [or none at all].”

For the past 30 years, I have always been in Italy dur­ing the time of har­vest and press­ing,” he added.

Bera­mendi begins each har­vest sea­son in Sicily, where he sources a plu­ral­ity of his olive oils, includ­ing the Gold-Award-win­ning Spedalotto Tonda Iblea DOP, Sapori Divini and Titone.

Sicily is num­ber one right now. For the last four years, Sicily has been really com­mand­ing the lead,” he said. What has led Sicily into the future of olive oil is that they have done a lot to improve, [for exam­ple] Fran­toio Cutr­era with its new mill tech­nol­ogy.”

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Beramendi inspecting the olive groves with Antonella Titone, in Trapani, Sicily

From Sicily, Bera­mendi flies on to Puglia – where the award-win­ning Crudo is pro­duced – before con­tin­u­ing north to Tus­cany, where he sources Fres­cobaldi Laudemio and Castello Colle Mas­sari IGP.

Depend­ing on how the har­vest has gone, Bera­mendi vis­its other regions too. At the 2020 NYIOOC, Mani­caretti earned two Gold Awards for the Rus­tichella d’Abruzzo oils it imports from Abruzzo.

Over­all, the com­pany imports olive oil and other food prod­ucts from 38 pro­duc­ers spread across 15 regions.

You need to be there, you need to be in it,” Bera­mendi said. Every year, the olive oil is dif­fer­ent. I always try to think about why this prod­uct is what it is.”


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