SOUTH ABINGTON TWP. – While chatting with a visitor recently inside Thirteen Olives, owner Eugene Litz interrupted himself seven times in 30 minutes to say hello to every person who entered the shop where olive oils and balsamic vinegars are sold.
“We really try to strive with our customer service,” Litz said, explaining the policy. “I feel it’s lacking these days in a lot of businesses where you go in and you’re not even greeted, or people are on their cellphone or whatever it is.”
All the entrants had empty bottles. Some had brought theirs in small bags. All were back for refills.
“What we carry is called ultra premium,” Litz said. “It’s considered the top two percent of extra virgin olive oil in the world.”
To be achieve such a rating, according to Litz, the oils had scored high on their chemistries – including the amount of polyphenols, or antioxidants in the olive oil – along with the levels of free fatty acids, the freshness, traceability, and the way the oils are stored and transported. Marks are given to the oil’s bitterness, fruitiness and pungency.
“Olive oil doesn’t age well,” said Litz, who does not consider an olive’s national origin to be important to its quality.
The store’s olive oils are sourced from producers in different countries, including Spain and Italy, and from domestic growers in California. Litz also purchases oils from the Southern hemisphere.
“They press their olive oil in our spring,” he said. “Therefore, we get two crushes in a year.”
Balsamic vinegars are made from Trebbiano grapes, imported from producers located in and around Modena, Italy.
Litz graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. in 2002. On his business cards, he is identified as the “Chef/Owner” of Thirteen Olives. After earning his culinary degree, Litz moved to North Carolina and began making biscotti and other baked goods for sale to restaurants and related food service businesses. He took a special interest in the commerce of one of his customers – a seller of specialty oils and vinegars.
“This isn’t my concept,” Litz said, standing behind the checkout counter. “There are other tasting rooms across the country. But it sparked my interest; I wanted to work for myself, and I really started learning about it.”
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Litz relocated to the Scranton area where he has family and opened Thirteen Olives in May 2014. In addition to the oils and vinegars, the store sells biscotti and jams prepared by the owner.
All the vinegars and oils sold by Thirteen Olives are filled to order from fustis – stainless-steel pots designed to keep out light and air. Customers can sample the products on breads baked by the owner.
“Some people have never tasted really good olive oil,” Litz said. “And once they put it in their mouth, the product will sell itself.”
Prior to opening, Litz projected the baked goods and jams side of the business would bring in half the revenues, and the rest would come from selling a limited assortment of oils and vinegars. He was wrong. Oils and vinegars are responsible for 90 percent of sales, and demand for different types prompted him to place fustis in both the front and back of the store.
“Business is awesome,” Litz said. “We’re doing really, really well. Business is increasing steadily every year.”
Customers have asked about buying the breads used for sampling. To meet this demand, Litz will begin retailing breads in the store a few days a week.
The workforce consists of the owner, his mother and one other employee. Litz plans to hire two part-time staffers for the summer when the Thirteen Olives store will be open at the same time its products are being displayed at farmers markets, wine tastings and other off-premise events.
Olive oils and balsamic vinegars are varied in their tastes and appearances. Garlic olive oil is the top seller in the store, Litz said. To make it, extra virgin olive oil is infused with garlic. Other infusions involve herbs and mushrooms. The oils flavored with citrus are made by pressing the fruits at the same time as the olives.
The recent posted price for olive oil was $12 for 200 milliliters, $17 for 375 milliliters, and $28 for 750 milliliters. For the same quantities, balsamic vinegar was priced at $11, $16 and $27. This is more expensive than what is sold in a typical supermarket, but Litz does not try to compete with them on price.
“You don’t really know what you’re buying in a grocery store,” he said. “To me, it’s a waste of money if you’re buying an olive oil that’s a couple of years old and has no flavor and no health benefits.”
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