Move over cupcakes, there’s a new specialty food trend in Omaha: oil and vinegar stores.
Filled with stainless steel vats brimming with exotic flavors such as green apple balsamic vinegar or rosemary olive oils, these stores look to provide customers with high-end kitchen staples.
But with four oil and vinegar specialty stores opening in the Omaha area within less than a year of each other, how much luxury in the kitchen is too much?
“When we found out all these other stores were opening, I’m like, oh my gosh, we’re the next cupcake place,” jokes Tish Rasmussen, co-owner of Vine + Branch.
Many of the owners and managers of these stores tell a similar tale: After enjoying high-quality oils and vinegars elsewhere, they were unable to find comparable products in Omaha. After months of preparation, all were excited to jump into what they thought was an untapped industry in Omaha.
Mother and daughter pair Linda Cummings and Rasmussen were the first to dip their toes into the oil and vinegar market in the spring of 2012. After visiting stores up and down the West Coast, Cummings and Rasmussen introduced their own line of bottled oils and vinegars into Hy-Vee and several Nebraska wineries. Encouraged by their success, they decided to open their own storefront, Vine + Branch.
But before Rasmussen and Cummings could break ground on Vine + Branch, one store already opened its doors. Mark Leichtle, along with his wife Jan, launched the first retail oil and vinegar store in Omaha, Old World Oil and Vinegar, in November 2012.
Suddenly, there was a different kind of oil boom in Omaha. Vine + Branch officially opened the first week of May, while two more stores, Chef2 (Chef Squared) and Oliverde, popped up on June 15 and August 17, respectively.
These store owners admitted they were in for a bit of a surprise when they found out about their competition, but none of them seemed too shocked.
“A city as large as Omaha certainly has competition,” says Rob Baker, manager of Oliverde Omaha.
Leichtle echoed Baker’s belief that this is a naturally occurring trend in a large market.
“All of these stores are opening, but maybe that means that it was time for that market to expand in Omaha,” says Leichtle.
Entering into a new market in Omaha can be daunting, but the owners of these four stores all had previous experience in the food and business industry.
Leichtle previously owned a restaurant in Oshkosh, Wis., and Rasmussen ran an Omaha coffee shop for several years. Oliverde is actually the third in a chain of stores from Colorado-based couple Kathy and Terry Kulsea. Baker helped the couple open both their Lincoln location in November 2012, as well as the Omaha Oliverde.
Meanwhile, the owners of Chef2 have used their personal backgrounds to try to set themselves apart from the crowd. Co-owners Michael Combs and Jim Trebbien are both professional chefs and have used their experience to merge their culinary knowledge with the convenience of retail in their store.
“When you go to Chef2, hopefully you get an experience, like, ‘wow, I’ve never tried that before, I’ve never done that, I didn’t know you could do this,’ or whatever,” says Combs.
The tasting experience is something that oil and vinegar stores rely heavily on, since not many customers have been exposed to the wide spectrum of sweet and savory that each product can fall under. All of these stores offer bread to use for tasting, sample recipes, cooking demonstrations, and other events to educate customers on using real olive oils and vinegars.
Leichtle admits he actually didn’t know much about oils and vinegars when he first started, but over time, he learned that they were easy to use. He describes balsamic vinegars as “upscale ketchup,” to convince customers that yes, these products really are simple.
When discussing how his competitors have affected his business, Leichtle says, “We’ve actually seemed to benefit from any kind of advertising our competitors do. There’s an increased awareness of the product now.”
He also feels that all four stores are spread out far enough geographically that they don’t draw from the same customer base: Old World Oil and Vinegar is located in Rockbrook Village, Vine + Branch in the Old Market, Chef2 in Midtown Crossing, and Oliverde in Village Pointe Shopping Center.
“They’ve all found their own little niches,” says Leichtle.
Rasmussen and Cummings had to alter their store vision of selling primarily oils and vinegars when they found a growing customer demand for wine tastings. Ten days after they opened their store, they decided to capitalize on that and immediately contacted a wine distributor.
As far as running her business, Rasmussen says, “I would say I fell back a lot on what I know about building a business and customer service, and building relationships and retaining customers.”
Baker emphasizes that Oliverde also prides itself on customer service, using its larger size and proven marketing techniques from two previous stores to its advantage. He will find a way to host cooking classes, private events, cater weddings, and pretty much any event a customer wants, to keep getting Oliverde’s name out.
“You’ve got to go right out to the customer,” says Baker. “We’ve got to give folks when they come in a reason to spend their money.”
For Combs’ store, smaller is better. He wants Chef2 to focus on maintaining a high-quality product line and stick to its original purpose: educating customers on fresh products, particularly oils and vinegars.
“We just believe that everyone should be able to taste what they want, and that fresh products and education are really big with us,” says Combs.
While the products may be fresh, the idea of oil and vinegar stores is becoming less unique, at least in Omaha. Of the four storeowners and one manager interviewed, only one thought that Omaha could support another specialty oil and vinegar store.
However all say they are happy with where their stores are right now, and all believe that they can survive even with competition. At least for the moment, don’t look for Oil & Vinegar Wars to be hitting The Food Network just yet.