ILOVEACEITE, the Spanish Olive Oil That is Conquering Texas
Fernando R. Ortega is not your average entrepreneur. Or better said, he is an entrepreneur who doesn't settle for following the road more taken. More than a decade ago, he created his own brand of Spanish extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), ILOVEACEITE, and he is committed to winning over the hearts of Texans with its quality and the story behind this product. In this interview, he shares the details of his American Dream with us.
After creating ILOVEACEITE in Spain and ILOVEACEITE in Poland, you decided to cross the Atlantic to the United States? What made you want to launch in such a demanding market?
It wasn't just one factor, rather the coming together of several things. But perhaps the biggest reason is that the USA has been on our radar since the very beginning. I am the third generation of producers and my grandfather had already talked to me about the importance of a market as enormous as the North American one.
Also, being in the United States has been an incredible challenge for a company as “irrelevant” as ours; with few resources (just the ones we brought with us), without any assistance, etc. The challenge is to transform all of this into your motivation and show that, instead of “irrelevant,” what you actually are is “insurgent.” To demonstrate that your smaller size actually makes it possible for you to do much more than larger (companies) and to bring real value to a product that doesn't have to be considered a commodity.
The US market allows you to operate as an “insurgent,” to win a quote of the market without turning your back on your roots, your traditions, and all without a penny of help.
Within the USA, you chose to establish your base of operations in San Antonio, Texas. What advantages does it have with regard to other states in the country?
The United States is a very complex country and each state is its own world. For us and for ILOVEACEITE, the major advantage is that it very well connected transportation-wise. The Dallas and Houston airports offer a lot of options. And, of course, if we are taking about maritime traffic, Houston is hard to beat.
We then add to this the excellent advantages and ambience that encourages “doing business” in Texas. The economic pressure is pretty low, hiring is extremely simple, as is setting up companies. There is an unemployment rate of about 3-4%, which makes it an extremely dynamic market with a fairly high average income. To this we add the ease of doing business, which includes great legal security, affordable costs for storage facilities and rents on spaces, as well as the absence of certain indirect taxes.
What do consumers in Texas think of Spanish extra virgin olive oil?
Consumers in Texas are a varied bunch. You need to understand them very well in order to explain your product; tell why you are here and why they should choose an international product over one from Texas. This implies a lot of hours of hard work, meetings, visits, etc. These markets – the North American one in general, and specifically Texas – are very special. You can't just think that since our product is of excellent quality we are going to be able to sell it blindfolded. Consumers value the interest that companies have in getting to know them, in telling them the history of the product, and letting them taste it.
Once you have settled in this market and they know you, everything changes. They are fascinated by the fact that you're here, that you have your own brand that you believe in, that it has a story behind it, that you demonstrate that you can overcome any obstacles and challenges, that you get involved in the “community” by sharing your culture, your products and your roots. Success is very attractive here and it draws customers to your brand. They want to see the success stories behind brands and become part of them.
What competitive advantages does Spanish EVOO have over those from other countries, including olive oil made in the USA?
The presence of 100% Spanish olive oil on supermarket shelves in Texas is less than what we would like it to be. It is important to point out that bulk sales don’t create brands or provide any added value.
The market continues to be dominated by the idea that everything is Italian or Greek, although everyone knows that Spain is the number one producer. We don't compete with the oils made in California or Texas. There is plenty of market for all of us. We promote the use of extra virgin olive oil. We have created an entire universe around it and, of course, all of this benefits the customers who later decide if they want a certified, 100% Spanish oil like ours.
Describe your olive oil. Tell us about its most defining characteristics.
Our olive oil is a classic Picual. It represents the olive oil tradition of a very specific place in Spain: Peal de Becerro in Jaén, which forms part of PDO Sierra de Cazorla. Therefore, apart from the other qualities of the Picual olive variety, it is an ideal product for export as it is very hardy, particularly in climates as hot as the one in Texas. Its hardiness is a key factor.
We also make oils from the Royal variety, but I still haven't dared to bring them over precisely for that reason. Also, we stress that all of our oil comes from one place of origin. There are no third parties involved. We make it, we bottle it, we export it, we import it and we distribute it, controlling the entire chain and, of course, lending the brand its value, its authenticity and its 100% “Made in Spain” appeal.
Appearing on TV programs, personalized tastings, participation in local events... how would you define the way you bring people into contact with your olive oil?
I mentioned this before. We have gone from being “irrelevant” to “insurgent.” Which is to say, it is an attitude. Extra virgin olive oil is a product that I compare to water. You can consume it as long as you live and it is good for people of all ages.
Where is it written in stone that it is a boring, flat product, like the shelves that we see in supermarkets? I think of it as a 21st century-product that draws on different sources including film, music, advertising, art, travel, Internet, etc., but that has thousands of years of history behind it. Come on! These are all advantages! But I insist, it is an attitude. I believe this and I practice it. And therefore our brand represents this particular way of understanding life through universal values that also include sports and culture, for example. The richness that our own life’s experience provides is reflected in our brand. Oil is a living product, just like us. That is why ILOVEACEITE isn't just a brand of olive oil, it's much more than that. It represent a lifestyle. We believe in it and we are gaining more and more followers all the time that see it that way and feel it.
Your entrepreneurial enthusiasm has led you to create an accelerator for projects involving importing Spanish products in Texas. What is the Texas Test all about? How would you rate these first steps? Texas is an ideal state for doing business. Welcoming, open, with a very open economy and with a lot of enthusiasm for learning, trying, tasting and enjoying new things. We have been working hard here every day for almost three years now, and we have gotten to know almost every centimeter of this state, while really getting to know its inhabitants, their likes, customs, music, trends and commercial, legal, and fiscal structures, etc.
We are making this knowledge available to other companies that want to have a presence in Texas like we do – investing in and developing a brand idea, a lifestyle, a way of understanding the Mediterranean culture adapted to the Texas spirit, which is something that we are linked with historically. However, few (companies) are willing at this point, because to get started you need to make an investment and that is something that is at odds with Spanish businesses. The traditional system of exporting through a distributor that adds your product to its portfolio is not for us. We don't believe in it. Texas Test is part of the universe that we've created. And to be a part of it, you either have the right attitude or you don't. Examples of those who do are Bodega Buezo and Legumbres Luengo. The others will come.
Text: Rodrigo García Fernández/©ICEX
Translation: Adrienne Smith/@ICEX