Oil and water may not mix—but olive oil and entrepreneurship do. Shane Furnia’s Hudson Valley Olive Oil provides a whole new perspective on the product, with more than 50 varieties of flavored oils, balsamic vinegars, pasta and sea salts literally on tap at his Mount Kisco emporium. Had a run in or two with pepper spray (culinarily speaking)? A few shakes of jalapeno or harissa olive oil saves bland pasta salads without any tears and takes nutritious standbys like grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and brown rice from ho hum to thumbs up. Long used for sautéing, salad dressings and even beauty products, the fatty flavor booster of olive oil is now even part of cocktails. Olives and spirits have had a long relationship—just think of the Dirty Martini. Olive oil can add a fruity and peppery taste and change the texture of food and drink. Balsamic vinegars, aged 12 to 18 years and coming from the only official source in Modena Italy, offer a rich, complex sweetness that explodes in the mouth with notes of fig, molasses, cherry, chocolate or red apple. So fresh you can taste and experience the difference, literally in cups or by dipping bread, from varieties on supermarket or pantry shelves. If you have trouble figuring out what to pour it on, Hudson Valley Olive Oil offers cooking classes for children and adults.
Shane, 33, a Dutchess County resident and contractor for 15 years looking for a more secure future, used a small business loan from Community Capital to renovate the narrow space opposite the Mount Kisco train station from a mall store to one with personal, local (er, Tuscan) flavor. Independent by nature, Shane designed and built everything in the South Moger Avenue shop, from the counter tops to the furniture, until the patina looked at least as old as the balsamics. But the Ipad at check out, clever gift baskets and ability to give a bottle friends and family can choose to fill themselves herald a thoroughly modern approach to sales. “Who doesn’t use olive oil? It’s a gift that everybody’s going to use instead of a scarf or a hat,” says Shane, who compares store-bought olive oil to flat soda.
How did you get into the business of olive oil?
My parents opened three similar stores, starting in 2012 in western New York. I visited their stores, and though I knew nothing about olive oil, it seemed a great way to diversify. I saw the growth they had. In the past five years 600 olive oil stores like this have opened.
How did you get your business off the ground?
Community Capital gave me a small business loan of $40,000 to help with the start-up costs, build -out, leasehold improvements and inventory. We rely on one main distributor in the US out of California who serves 600 privately owned stores like mine and my parents, sourcing olive oil from different regions like Australia, Chile, and Peru because the olive oil has to be so fresh that it is sourced regionally, rotating with the seasons. All the balsamics come from Modena, Italy.
How did your business evolve?
It’s a repeat customer business because it’s a food product, and a business that can run itself, allowing me to continue to work in construction and find another store location. It’s an experience—to taste the different oils and taste the different balsamics. There are also a lot of health benefits to olive oil, with even doctors prescribing olive oil products for things like eczema. The New York Times Magazine recently featured a story entitled ‘rejuvenate a dying heart with just olive oil.’ Sea salts are something new, that I added to the product mix. I had no reference point, but knew it went with cooking. I’m also going to carry bath salts and begin selling sea and bath salts by weight. In construction, you need inventory the size of Home Depot. With these stores, you inventory 100 products. I still run 17 different jobs with 26 employees in construction, but now employ seven in the Mt Kisco store while I look for other village locations to open more stores in.
What was the single biggest boost?
Having a Chappaqua Mom write on the Chappaqua Moms blog that our fig balsamic was a must have. We sold out in two days. Then we were written up in Armonk Moms. In the first month our sales were more than I had projected. And foot traffic. You pay hundreds of dollars more for a prime village or shopping mall location but what you pay in rent you get back in sales. In Mount Kisco, the Gap and Starbucks are already here generating foot traffic. My sales are all done on an Ipad, and I helped write the software system, so that everything is automated and available on any mobile device. I can get charts and graphs of sales from month over month, and know how much we’re losing or making, and what’s selling. I know what credit cards my customers are using, and what they’re purchasing. I chose to use a merchant services processing vendor with a flat fixed rate of 2.5% because there is a higher transaction rate on American Express and if I’d opted for lower rates on Visa and MasterCard with 3.5 or 4% on Amex, I would not have done as well.
What did you wish you knew?
How easy it is to diversify. I wanted to do something different and looked at healthy fast food chains like Chopped. But then I thought this concept would be easier to market. I also didn’t realize how popular gift baskets would be and next November and December I’m going to advertise them for Christmas specifically. This year I only did four days of radio ads, relied on word of mouth and social media. Next year I think we can add 30% to our sales in December by promoting gift baskets.
The most popular items?
Tuscan Herb and Garlic infused olive oil and fig balsamic.
ValPak campaigns in four zones in northern Westchester, with coupons. More social media advertising on Facebook, incentivizing people to post recipes and get them to interact on our Facebook page. I’m offering a free bottle of olive oil for people who post recipes and will pick a number every day at random rewarding that poster. The cost is $10 to me, but if I can get between 200 to 600 people checking my website and Facebook page, it’s worth it. I’m also going to add health care products with olive oils and sea salts to round out the stock. And we’re going to run childrens cooking classes with the Mt Kisco Boys & Girls Club.
When will you know you’ve made it?
The day we opened I knew. Nothing but positive feedback. I went over my projections for the month.