Olive oil tastings catch on in Detroit area

Kim North Shine
Special to The Detroit News

Olive oils and balsamic vinegars — the stuff of marinades, salad dressings, sauces and dessert toppings — are becoming popular ingredients in the Metro Detroit retail scene.

The number of independent local specialty shops in the area selling olive oils and vinegars has grown from a handful a few years ago to at least 10 today. Statewide, the purveyors of the condiments number at least twice that, and national chains appear to be headed Michigan’s way.

These retailers are finding a sweet spot selling products tied to an unusual shopping experience that involves tasting to educate their customers about the well-established health benefits of oils and vinegars and ways to use them.

Joe and Wendy Cucinello opened Giuseppe’s International Oils & Vinegars in 2011 at the Partridge Creek shopping center and opened a second store five months ago in Grosse Pointe’s village shopping district. They got the idea after visiting an oil and vinegar store while vacationing in Minnesota.

Joe Cucinello credits consumers’ interest in quality, high-end olive oils and balsamic vinegars as part of an overall cultural shift in thinking about food.

“The last several years with eating local, farmers markets, knowing where your food comes from, people are wanting good quality food, and olive oil and vinegar is part of that,” he says.

The main type of fat found in all kinds of olive oil, monounsaturated fatty acids, is considered a healthy dietary fat. Dietary experts believe that substituting olive oil for other oils may lower the risk of heart disease and benefit insulin and blood sugar levels.

Shasta Fase and her husband, Cory DeLong, owners of The Old World Olive Co., have opened seven locations in the last five years, the latest last week inside Joe’s Produce in Livonia.

“There is more competition, and competition is good,” says Fase, “but you want to watch out for the copycats or people who don’t know as much as they should or don’t sell the best product.”

A trip to one of these stores can be both entertaining and educational. Much like a wine-tasting party, customers sample olive oil from stainless steel dispensers. Cards attached to each dispenser, typically Fusti tanks from Italy, share the place of origin, type of olive, harvest date, flavor profile and chemical information such as the amount of polyphenols, an antioxidant. Varieties change as harvests come in. There are flavored — fig, grapefruit, basil, herbs de Provence and at least a dozen others — and unflavored, the biggest sellers. Dark and white vinegars can be sampled as well.

Not surprisingly, these stores are a mecca for foodies and recipes are provided, store owners said.

Other uses for olive oil and vinegar products that include skincare and haircare are also contributing to the growth of the retail market.

Fase and Joe Cucinello said they enjoy educating their customers.

First lesson : Good olive oil burns the back of the throat.

“I am flabbergasted at how many people still don’t know much about good olive oil, about the differences,” Fase said. “Americans have been so conditioned to accept what’s on a grocery shelf. We really believe Michigan should have access to the quality, the health benefits, the best tasting olive oil and vinegar.

“And it’s fun talking to people about it,” she says, “teaching them, and learning from them, too.”

Shana Demir, a recent first-time customer at Guiseppe’s in Grosse Pointe, said the products “make me want to cook and be more creative.”

“Also, I have friends who are hard to buy for, and this would make a great gift.”

She left saying she would be back and wanted to learn more about how to use the dozens of different flavors and varieties. “It’s a little overwhelming,” she said. “But I’m trying to eat better and be healthier. Isn’t everyone?”