The Santa Barbara Olive Company grew from a small farm into one of the largest specialty olive companies, producing over 110 different products found in stores worldwide. Janice Gable Bashman reports.
It was only natural for Craig Makela to start an olive company. Olives were in his blood and in the blood of his ancestors. But it wasn’t until Makela graduated from college and learned the history of his family that he decided to resurrect a bygone era that was the olive culture in Santa Barbara and start the Santa Barbara Olive Company.
Makela’s great, great grandfather, Jules Goux, arrived in Santa Barbara, Calif. from France in 1851. With him, he brought knowledge of horticulture and flats of mulberry, olive, and grape vines with the intent of traveling on to San Francisco. Goux heard there was a Mediterranean climate along the coast of California, and he set out to find an area that would mimic Europe. The night before he was scheduled to depart from Santa Barbara, he met Maria Canedo, a fourth generation descendant of the original founders of Santa Barbara, and fell in love with her. Instead of moving to San Francisco, Goux planted his roots and his olive orchard in Santa Barbara. The company prospered, but throughout the years the olive culture in Santa Barbara disappeared as future generations moved on to other things.
But that all changed in 1981 when Makela and his wife, Cindy, planted a small orchard. “We kept building bigger and bigger farms over the years,” says Craig Makela, president of Santa Barbara Olive Company. “Today we have 101 acres of olives on a pristine coast of Santa Barbara overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. We are the number one specialty olive company in the United States. We are in all 50 states and in over 20,000 stores, mostly national chains such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, and grocery stores. We also sell our products to Japan, Singapore, Australia, the UK, Mexico, Canada, South America, Denmark, and others.”
GETTING A HOLD IN THE MARKET
Only a few years old and a small company in 1984, the Santa Barbara Olive Company entered the International Fancy Food and Confection Show circuit. There it met buyers from Neiman Marcus, who fell in love with the company’s products and showcased them in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. “This was a very big milestone for us,” says Makela. “It put our name on the map, legitimized us, and thrust us into the limelight. As a result, we started getting a lot of exposure through big magazines such as Bon Appetite, GQ, and cooking magazines.”
Macy’s took interest in the Santa Barbara Olive Company right after Neiman Marcus, and Dean and Delucca’s, Balduccis, and others followed shortly thereafter. During that time period, Makela also befriended a chef in a hotel who loved the Santa Barbara Olive Company’s sun dried olives and olive oil. When the chef, Wolfgang Puck, decided to open his own restaurant, Spagos, the Santa Barbara Olive Company delivered olives and olive oil to his establishment. “We’ve been friends for over 25 years,” Makela says. “When Wolfgang started his own cooking show about five years ago, he was very kind to our company. We were one of the first 10 companies profiled, and the show was very well watched. It was the number one cooking show that year.” As of today, the Santa Barbara Olive Company has been in over 600 major publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. That’s pretty good for a company whose ancestors were among the first people who brought olives to the western United States for commercial purposes and made Santa Barbara the epicenter of the olive culture.
EVERYTHING AND THE KITCHEN SINK
The Santa Barbara Olive Company is a 100-percent certified organic farm that is also kosher certified. It consists of 6,000 olive trees, 3.5 acres of chardonnay grapes that are used to make its own wine, 25 head of black angus cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, Calcutta African tortoises, horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, and a pot belly pig. The company has an 8,000-square-foot office and packing facility, two 4,000-square-foot warehouses, and maintains the Makala family home at its site in Santa Barbara. It also built a 20,000-square-foot distribution center in Santa Maria, approximately 45 minutes north of the farm, to help control distribution and function as a shipping hub. “What’s fascinating about us is that back when we started, there was nothing on this land – no water, no sewer, no power, no roads,” Makala says. “I built the whole farm and planted all the trees with my workers and my kids, and we built the company into the success it is today.”
In the 1980s, the Santa Barbara Olive Company produced extra virgin olive oil, together with spiced and stuffed and ethnic flavored olives. At the time, there were only two or three other companies producing olive oil and only one company selling it in supermarkets. Today, there are over 350 brands in the United States, including Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara Olive Company produces 110 different products including olives, flavored and unflavored olive oils, non-stick olive oil cooking sprays, peppers, cherries, vegetables, pepperchinis, pasta sauces, pesto mix, pickled vegetables (such as asparagus,green beans, corn, and mushrooms), all natural vitamins and minerals with olive leaf in them, and gift sets.
“The thing that has been the buzz for the last year is the blue cheese stuffed olive, the jalapeno jack cheese stuffed olive, feta stuffed, and cheddar stuffed,” says Makela. “They are all unique and natural with no fillers. The blue cheese grew to be our number three most popular product shortly after we introduced it, and that’s fast. What’s interesting is that sale of organic olive oil was slow and we thought about discontinuing it, but this year we can’t keep it in stock. We bottle 100 to 200 cases every two to three days and have quadrupled our production. The public has finally realized organic olive oil is a good thing, it’s delicious, and it can be used for so many things.”
CONTROLLING QUALITY AND COST
Santa Barbara Olive Company grows, picks, presses, and packs all its own products, unlike a lot of its competitors. The company believes it is important to control its operations from the ground up in order to produce high-quality products. “That kind of control gives us a bit of an edge,” Makela says. “It also puts us close to the earth. We use natural spring well water, volcanic virgin soil, and have a beautiful climate. Add organic growing and you have a unique product that is high quality and flavorful. We don’t use chlorinated water like our competitors and we don’t waste water. All our water is cleaned, scrubbed, and put back in the ground. It’s a closed looped system that is unique to an olive farmer.”
To control costs, the company uses a computerized tracking system in both offices that is linked by a mainframe. The system has an integrated program that tracks cost control, margins, unit-by-unit sales, raw materials, fluctuations in the market, and other factors. This enables Santa Barbara Olive Company to ensure its products are correctly priced and margined so that it stays competitive in the market.
DEDICATION PAYS OFF
Treating its workers like family, whether they work in the field or in the corporate offices, is important to Santa Barbara. All employees have the same 401K policy, insurance, vacation, and other benefits. When the company profits, it shares those profits among its employees. “It’s all for one and one for all,” says Makela.
The family philosophy has paid off big for the Santa Barbara Olive Company. It has experienced a steady growth rate for 20 years, although sales ran flat in 2004 and 2005. Since then, the company has experienced a 14 to 17 percent increase per year and expects continued growth as it focuses on expanding its brand.
Dedication to farming, family, and tradition are the foundation of the Santa Barbara Olive Company. It is what has kept it thriving, growing, and alive. And, it’s what keeps the Santa Barbara Olive Company respected throughout the world.