It’s a kitchen staple. Find the right one and just a drizzle will elevate so many of your favourite recipes. We’re talking olive oil. And entrepreneur Mike George is betting you’re going to fall in love with his small-batch version from Sacrofano, Italy.
This week, he marked the soft opening of Aurelius Food Co. (1283-B Wellington St. W.), an olive-oil store on a mission. His goal? To introduce Ottawa palates to the wonders of a premier olive oil, the olives hand picked within 20km of the mill and crushed within 48 hours. Buttery, peppery, and with fresh grassy notes, his oil has already wooed discerning chefs (regular buyers include Beckta, E18hteen, North and Navy, and Riviera).
City Bites caught up with George a few days ahead of opening to find out how Aurelius Food Co.’s future is shaping up.
His roots in Italy
George’s path to olive oil starts in 1961 when his grandfather moved to Rome for a job with the UN, raising his family there, including George’s mother. His mother returned to Montreal for university and ended up staying in Canada, travelling back to Italy every few summers with her son.
Young Mike would visit with his extended family, playing with his cousins in the olive groves.
Two years ago, he visited his uncle’s property near Sacrofano, enjoying the bounty from his 200-tree grove. “My uncle said, ‘Do you think this olive oil would sell in Canada?’ It was like a light bulb going on in my head! I started working on a business plan as soon as I got home.” That business plan involved working with the mill in the Sacrofano region to secure a stead supply of the premium oil.
Good things come in small batches
George says that although there are great olive oils for sale that are produced on a larger scale, the fact that his oil is produced in traditional ways is a strong selling point.
“The flavour is obviously number one, but many discerning clients also feel that the process is important. These olives come from mature trees, they’re picked by hand and processed at a small, local mill,” he explains. That adherence to tradition and the purity of the process are key.
Learning from locals (Ottawa chefs)
George says he has been amazed at the openness of local chefs to try (and then buy) his olive oil — and help him launch his business. “These chefs are so busy — they’re at the top of their game — but they still take the time to see me. Along with buying my olive oil for their top dishes, some chefs have helped me by explaining inventory management, human resources, and setting up schedules. They are unbelievably generous.”
Even as he opens his retail store and focuses on serving the general public, he continues to make connections with chefs and to promote his olive oil and balsamic vinegar with them. It’s a win-win. If they promote his olive oil to diners, those diners are more likely to head to Aurelius Food Co. to get some olive oils to use in their own home cooking.
His regular buyers so far include a who’s who of top restaurants in the capital, including (in alphabetical order): Art-Is-In, Beckta, E18hteen, Elmdale Tavern, Les Fougeres, Meatpress, Les Moulins Lafayette, North and Navy, Riviera, and Whalesbone. Les Moulins Lafayette will also be supplying his store with bread so he has a steady supply for customers to dip and taste the olive oil samples.
Expanding the business
One cannot survive on one olive oil alone (no matter how fantastic). So far, Aurelius Food Co. is also stocking a premium three-year-old Italian balsamic vinegar and, for everyday use, a selection of 30-plus quality flavoured oils at a much lower price point.
As for the future, George is already tapping his French-Canadian and Italian connections for more products to add to his lineup. Look for small-batch maple syrup and an expanded selection of Italian items as the busy storeowner finds time to visit his food connections.
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