Saleta Cameron, co-owner of Cleo’s Fine Oils & Vinegars in Annapolis, Maryland, is proof positive that the world of extra virgin olive oil is one of relationships and connections. On the most perceptible level, she shares a passion for olive oil with her family, many of whom are intimately involved with her store’s operations. On another level as an entrepreneur, Cameron has built an international network with award-winning olive oil producers from California, Spain, Italy and Greece. And finally, as first and foremost a lover of good food and quality ingredients, Cameron has taken on a unique role as enthusiastic intermediary, having connected a gifted young filmmaker with an Italian grower.
Cameron’s foray into the olive oil business came with the developing and opening of Cleo’s. She first began to notice the growth in the specialty food industry and burgeoning consumer interest in olive oil in the mid to late 2000s. Together with her sister Linda, a doctor who also happens to be a “foodie,” Cameron began to see the potential of taking the idea of an olive oil concept store to the next level, opening Cleo’s in January 2012. With a commitment to transparency and authenticity, the sisters say they carefully chose the word “fine” to describe their shop’s wares. “We take that really seriously,” Saleta Cameron says.
The operations at Cleo’s are very much a family affair. The Cameron sisters named the store in honor of their grandmother, and the staff of six includes Saleta Cameron’s nephew, niece and daughter. One of the most touching and noticeable signs of family involvement is the collection of oil paintings that decorate the walls of the store. Linda and Saleta’s mother, Jane Sammons, is the artist behind these works of art, which capture the spirit of Cleo’s and contribute to its upscale atmosphere.
Cameron opted not to contract with an exclusive distributor to source her oils, preferring to work directly with producers. Cleo’s offers a curated assortment of gourmet oils with complementary vinegars, mustards, salts and honeys. All of the oils they purchase, including a number from artisan growers, go directly into large stainless steel fustis topped with inert gas to keep their quality intact.
Customers are treated to an experience when they visit Cleo’s. They can walk around, chat with the staff about various oils, and of course, taste the different varieties. Somewhat predictably, Cleo’s is frequented by foodies. However, the store also has attracted a group whom Cameron calls “quasi-foodies” – people who have just begun to realize the value of using high-quality ingredients at home and the minimal effort it can take to make dishes taste spectacular.
With an understanding of her customer base and a clear understanding of quality issues in the olive oil industry, Cameron believes in earning customers’ trust and providing them with an education. As people struggle to determine where to go to buy good olive oiland which oils are from honest growers and retailers, Cameron’s commitment to authenticity has allowed Cleo’s to build its reputation in the community. She regularly sends all to her oils out for testing for polyphenol count, free fatty acidity and other characteristics. “We can show customers the documentation for the oils and they can taste them all. They can make purchasing decisions based on these factors, rather than being influenced by pretty bottles, where an oil sits on the shelf, or how well it is labeled or marketed.”
Cameron frequently offers in-store seminars about what extra virgin olive oil is and the best ways to use it, including its application as a finishing oil. She feels that many consumers come into the store with misconceptions or concerns about olive oil, especially in light of all of the negative attention the industry had been receiving recently. “They are very confused and there is a real learning curve. But once they begin to learn from us and get a sense of our passion for olive oil, they feed off that and become even hungrier for more education.”
Saleta Cameron loves to tell the story of top-quality, responsibly-made oils and vinegars to anyone who will listen. So when Penn State photojournalism major Jessica Paholsky contacted Cameron about a film project she was developing, it was kismet. Paholsky had studied in Italy during school and wanted the subject of her senior thesis to be farm-to-table olive oil. More specifically, she wanted to film the journey of an olive oil from its crush in Italy to procurement by a retail store and its eventual purchase and use by a consumer.
Cameron happily introduced Paholsky to Lucia Pinelli, one of the Italian producers of a top-selling olive oil in her store with whom Cameron has also developed a close friendship. Pinelli and her family run an organic, environmentally-conscious farm at Fontanaro, an estate set on the rolling hills of Umbria where they harvest and press their own oil. From this almost magical connection came a beautiful, ten-minute film entitled “What’s In Your Bottle?” Cameron and Pinelli were in attendance at the screening party and the film was featured at the Annapolis Film Festival as a lead-up to their environmental series.
Cameron is pleased that she had the opportunity to bring Paholsky and Pinelli together. “There are growers in Italy who have such a passion for creating their oils,” she says. “And customers love knowing the stories behind the products. Who grew this olive? Why is it so special? Why did you decide to buy it?” Yet Cameron shies away from taking any credit for the final masterpiece. “It was Jessica who told Fontanaro’s story.” As for Cameron, she will continue to relish in her role as on-site owner of Cleo’s. “I am obsessed with research and finding new oils. I love the business aspect as well. It’s a dream come true.”
For more information about Cleo’s, please visit their website or call (1) 410 – 266-5540. Cleo’s Fine Oils is located at 1915 Towne Centre Blvd. #115 in Annapolis, MD 21401.