The Unrefined Olive: Ottawa tasting bar gives global food local, sustainable roots

Kilvert 2

Elizabeth Kilvert, owner of The Unrefined Olive
Photo: V. Ward

Ottawa’s Elizabeth Kilvert sells premium, extra-virgin* olive oils from around the world and aged balsamic vinegars from Modena, Italy, but her business is all about local community and sustainability.

A former biodiversity specialist and environmental educator, Kilvert took a leave of absence from her job at Environment Canada in 2012 to launch The Unrefined Olive, an olive oil and balsamic tasting bar on Second Avenue in the Glebe.  Not only did the concept appeal to her love of food and travel, it met her stringent ethical priorities. “I wanted to specialize in a nutritious food with a long history,” she says. “I also wanted to reach out to the local community and run the business with as low an eco-footprint as possible.”

*Extra-virgin refers to the first pressing of whole unblemished olives within a day of harvest.

The products

The Unrefined Olive offers:

  • 13 single-estate olive oils (from olives grown on a single farm or estate and bottled on site, delivering a more authentic product with tighter quality control)
  • 22 oils that are either flavour-fused (olives and whole fruits, herbs or vegetables are crushed together) or infused (a flavour is added after the olive oil has been pressed). Available flavours include Persian lime, Eureka lemon, blood orange, green Baklouti chili, organic basil, organic garlic, and many others
  • 7 specialty oils, such as walnut and truffle
  • 23 balsamic vinegars including honey, serrano honey, raspberry, pomegranate, aged black cherry, blackberry ginger, blueberry, espresso, dark chocolate and cranberry pear white

Products can be purchased in 200 ml, 375 ml or 750 ml bottles for $12, $19 and $32 respectively (other quantities and prices apply for the specialty oils).

How a tasting bar works

Tasting bars got their start with wine in California’s Napa Valley, and have started to catch on with extra-virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The oils and vinegars are contained in stainless steel casks, with spigots. You can sample different types and get tips on pairings and information on production methods from store staff.

Kilvert sees customer education as a big part of the service she provides. “We work with customers’ taste preferences and tend to down-sell, encouraging people to buy smaller quantities until they feel comfortable tasting and cooking with a variety of oils and balsamic vinegars.”

Education seems to be paying off. Since The Unrefined Olive opened more than a year ago, she has noticed a shift in customers’ preferences. “As they learn and taste more, they’re moving to purer, more robust oils.”

A healthy food

Extra-virgin olive oil is a key ingredient in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It is also an anti-inflammatory loaded with polyphenols that help reduce blood pressure, protect against cancers of the breast and the respiratory and digestive tracts, promote bone health and offer cognitive benefits. Balsamic vinegar has beneficial effects on cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

Quality oils and vinegars make it easier to eat healthy, Kilvert says. “They offer a simple way to add new flavour to everything from salads to fish to pasta. You don’t have to learn another cooking style or buy a new gadget.”

She also points out that olive production is less damaging to the environment than other oil-producing crops. Olive trees are more climate-change resistant, they’re grown without synthetic fertilizers and require minimal spraying.

Shrinking the eco-footprint

Kilvert strives to run The Unrefined Olive with the smallest possible eco-footprint. For example, she selected low-VOC paints and varnishes for the store and had LED lights installed. The stainless steel tasting cups are washed, sterilized and re-used, and customers are asked to wash their oil and vinegar bottles and bring them in for refills. Packaging is made from local paper with high recycled content, paper scraps are re-purposed, and product boxes are specially designed to work for the store’s three bottle sizes.

Instead of throwing out olive oils that are more than a year old – when their taste and nutritional value have passed their peak – they’re donated to Shepherds of Good Hope, food banks and a local soap maker.

Supporting community

As part of its broader commitment to sustainability, The Unrefined Olive supports local producers and community. For starters, many of the finishes and accessories in the store (including furniture, glass and pottery) were locally sourced, and providers from Ottawa and Montreal were hired to develop business software solutions.

In addition, the tasting bar:

  • offers specialty oils produced within a 100-mile radius, such as Stony Brook butternut squash seed oil from Geneva, New York, and cold-pressed, naturally farmed sunflower oil from Eastern Ontario’s Kricklewood Farm
  •  co-promotes artisanal foods from area producers who don’t have storefronts, such as Hummingbird Chocolate and The Salty Don
  • participates at local seasonal food workshops
  • contributes to community charitable efforts by donating gift boxes and bringing a mobile tasting unit to fundraising events.

“Community involvement is an important component of what we do,” Kilvert says. “It helps make us sustainable.”

In your opinion, what characteristic(s) make a local food business sustainable?



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