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Solvang Olive Company Branches Out : From its humble start in a garage, the firm now sells its goods worldwide.

August 09, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

SOLVANG, Calif. — The company was started in a one-car garage in Santa Barbara six years ago. Now, the olives it produces are sold in all 50 states and in several foreign countries.

Jars of the 37 different kinds of spiced and stuffed olives produced by the Santa Barbara Olive Co. are found in gourmet shops, supermarkets and restaurants coast to coast--as well as in stores such as Neiman Marcus, Macy's and Harrods in London.

The specialty food company, owned and operated by Craig Makela, 33, and his wife, Cindy, 31, in this quaint Danish town in Santa Barbara County, is a remarkable success story. It had $48,000 in gross sales its first year in production in 1983 and $1.3 million last year.

Craig Makela proudly proclaims his California heritage--and his sense of humor--on the label of every jar of olives he sells: "Santa Barbara Olive Company. Owned and operated by a 5th generation Santa Barbara family. To your health from olive us to olive you. The Makelas."

Fans in High Places

He is president of the expanding company, and his wife is vice president. "Craig gets the products made," said Cindy Makela. "I get them sold."

A letter from former President Ronald Reagan praising the company's olive and olive oil hangs on a wall in the firm's retail outlet on Solvang's main street. The company's offices are on the second floor of the 80-year-old building, which is called the Olive House.

"President Reagan gave many Santa Barbara Olive Co. gift packages to friends and visiting dignitaries while in the White House, always mentioning the olives came from a place just over the hill from his ranch," Craig Makela said.

Larry Callahan started the company in his garage in 1982 and spent nearly a year in research and development before he produced anything. Then he came out with six different kinds of olives--garlic, country, California black, Mexican, hickory smoked and Sicilian.

"I was working for the Santa Barbara Winery at the time and helped Larry as a consultant," Craig Makela recalled. "Larry was a foodie. He wanted to come up with something not on the market. He sold his olives to specialty shops in Santa Barbara.

"He was independently wealthy. He decided to teach aerobics to octogenarians and asked me if I would be interested in buying him out for $30,000 in July, 1984. I did. I gave him $15,000 down and made three subsequent payments of $5,000 each with 10% interest. The company consisted of a box full of labels, a dolly, miscellaneous jars and things, a labeling machine and a truck."

'Always Brainstorming'

1984 was a good year for Makela: He moved the company out of Callahan's one-car garage into his own two-car garage in Santa Barbara, and he married Cindy that November.

They moved their operation to Solvang in 1986 and now own eight acres of olives in the Santa Ynez Valley. They also buy olives from 30 independent California growers.

They have a processing plant in Los Angeles and a warehouse in Buellton. Their products--which also include seed and nut oils, vinegar, pickles, mustards and capers--are sold in Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and are being introduced this month in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf.

"We're always brainstorming, trying to come up with new ideas for new product lines," Cindy Makela said. "Craig and I both carry tape recorders with us all the time so we don't lose any ideas that happen to pop into our heads."

One of their latest products is a skin moisturizer made of olive oil. "We sell our olive oil in Japan," Cindy Makela said. "Instead of putting it on the food shelves, they placed it in the cosmetic department. It was an instant hit. Now we sell a Santa Barbara Olive Co. olive oil moisturizer with a natural fragrance that doesn't have the olive oil smell."

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