` Making Connections at Cleo's Fine Oils - Olive Oil Times

Making Connections at Cleo's Fine Oils

May. 20, 2014
Vanessa Stasio

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Lucia Pinelli, Saleta Cameron, Sharon Simonin and Jessica Paholsky

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.

Linda and Saleta Cameron, co-own­ers of Cleo’s

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.

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