Three years after reopening, The Olive Barrel is hitting its culinary stride
The Olive Barrel store in Grand Forks—which features around 70 different varieties of extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars from around the world—proves two basic truths. The first is that it’s hard to keep a good idea down. The second is that it’s not necessary to sacrifice flavor to eat healthy.
The original Olive Barrel opened in Columbia Mall in June 2014 and closed in October 2015. But Jackie Nelson, an employee at the University of North Dakota, was one of those customers who loved the store so much she didn’t want to see it go. Instead, she bought it and reopened it six weeks later in the Columbia Center strip mall at 2100 S. Columbia Road.
“When we opened, we had just a few olive oils and balsamic vinegars because it was at Christmas time and you couldn’t get a lot shipped in,” Nelson recalls. “We kind of went by the seat of our pants that Christmas.”
The store began with Nelson, her sister Deb Johnson and her mother Dottie as employees, but has since added four more people. And although the olive oil and balsamics from California-based Veronica Foods Co. remain The Olive Barrel’s signature products, the store’s fare has expanded to include pasta, bread, Spanish olives, popping corn, seasonings, dishes and decorative items, among others.
The store’s motto is “Come taste the world” because the products from Veronica Foods represent some of the highest quality and healthiest olive oils and balsamic vinegars from around the globe—produced by farmers who must meet the company’s exacting standards. In fact, Nelson and her sister found out that if they wanted to sell the Veronica Foods, products, they had to attend a school in Oakland, California, to learn all about them.
“It was a full two days and we learned so much—much more than we thought we’d learn about what makes a good product and why it’s different from what you get in the grocery store,” Nelson said. “We spent half a day in her store learning to taste olive oil correctly.”
According to Nelson, what makes olive oil healthy are the levels of polyphenols and oleic acid it contains. Olives picked for Veronica Foods are pressed within six hours after being harvested, another key factor increasing their health benefits.
“With these products, there’s no reason why you can’t be a foodie and be healthy,” Nelson explains. “We’ve got the best of all worlds here. You can have good food and still be good to yourself. You don’t have to sacrifice flavor or calories. You don’t have to add sugar. It’s all natural.”
The Olive Barrel has had customers come in whose doctors have told them to include heart healthy olive oil and balsamics in their diets. Johnson remembers a man who said he was there because he had a prescription from his doctor. When she gave him a puzzled look, he opened his shirt to reveal a scar from open-heart surgery.
Even those who don’t necessarily need the health benefits find that combining the various flavors of oils and balsamics can add new depth of flavors to their meals. Nelson provides the best recipes she and her employees find to the store’s customers, which include blackberry-ginger balsamic glazed wings, peach Caprese salad and creamy dill penne alfredo.
The most common use of the oils and vinegars is for salad dressing and marinades, Nelson says. Many use the olive oil for frying and the balsamics as baking extracts. One of the most unusual recipes came from a customer who coated grapes with a combination of balsamic vinegars, roasted them in the oven until they were ready to burst and then froze them.
“She told me she could hardly stay out of the jar and her kids eat them like candy,” Nelson relates. The same recipe can be a Christmas treat using cranberries and cranberry-pear balsamic vinegar, she adds.
The Olive Barrel prides itself on customer service, which is why the staff never stops coming up with ways to keep the store’s patrons satisfied. One idea for Christmas this year stemmed from what can be the overwhelming selection of oils and balsamics. Now customers can buy an empty gift-wrapped bottle that serves as a gift certificate. Recipients can come to the store, taste and then pick out the flavors they like.
“It’s a fun place to work,” Nelson says. “I look forward to coming in and seeing what’s new, especially during the holidays. It seems like every time I walk in the store, there’s a new display up. It’s exciting to see what we’re getting ready for the holiday season.” G
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PHOTOS BY: PATRICK C. MILLER
From Issue 4, 2018