Certified Origins has been sourcing olive oil from the Italian countryside for about a decade, but only sold its product through private label. In 2013, the company decided to create a consumer-facing brand that could be sold in retail stores, and Bellucci was born.
Bellucci now sells three different olive oils, with an organic Toscano coming out this year, but its hard sell is really focused on its model of transparency and traceability. Sales and Marketing Director Susan Testa had some thoughts to share about Bellucci’s business model, why they place such a high priority on freshness, and what challenges are ahead.
Can you explain how Bellucci is set up, and how you bring transparency to your supply chain?
Susan Testa: A cooperative of growers in Italy is the predominant ownership of the company. We're not sourcing from a third party or consolidators. The growers and the strength of the cooperative allow us to have full traceability.
The growers come to the mill, and there's an entire process of identifying those olives, tagging them and then logging in the code numbers for those olives and where that farmer is or what mill they came from; all of that gets put into a computerized system that follows the olives into the oil. Then when it comes from the mill to our bottling facilities (we also own the bottling facility; we're a vertical operation), we can still track back to the mill.
We've also created a traceability app. There's a lot number on every bottle of Bellucci; you can enter that number and can trace the bottle back to the mill. In the case of our Toscano PGI (protected geographic indications—it means the olives were grown, milled and bottled within the region), we can go even further and trace to the grower. It's in a very small region, about 2.5 hours northwest of Rome. The consumers themselves can see where the region is, where the mills are, and get a sense of confidence that they know where this oil is coming from.
Why is traceability so important for Bellucci?
ST: What we are trying to do is raise the industry standard. We would like to educate consumers to say, you should want to know where your food is coming from. Consumers have really increased their desire to read labels—what's in here, what are the ingredients in my food? Now I think they want to go deeper. We want them to go deeper into, where is my food coming from? We call this group of consumers “rooties.”
For Bellucci, our tagline is: “Always Fresh, Always Italian, Always Traceable.” Always fresh refers to the fact that we put a harvest season on the front of the bottle. We will soon be receiving our 2015-2016 harvest season. We want that on the front of the label because we want consumers to realize that freshness is so important for extra-virgin olive oil. Wine ages well in a bottle; olive oil does not. You want fresh, fresh olive oil.
There hasn't been a lot of consumer marketing and language around freshness for olive oil. That's why we're putting the harvest season up front. It's part of the education process—take that bottle and use it, consume it. It's a very healthy oil.
Have any of your sales been driven by people concerned about the fraudulent claims being made by some olive oil brands, and how do you build trust with them?
ST: We're 100 percent Italian. Some olive oils out there say they're Italian, and there might be a little bit of Italian in there but it comes predominantly from other countries.
We don't dumb it down; we have respect for the consumer. We think they want to know about freshness, we think they want to care about freshness and about transparency.
And it's something we've been doing all along. We haven't created any of this in reaction to what’s happening in the news. Bellucci is a new brand, but we [Certified Origins] have been in the olive oil business for a long time, and it's the way we started the business and intend to grow and build the business.
What are some of the challenges you face with this model?
ST: Putting the harvest season on the front of the bottle—and there are other brands doing that as well, which we're welcoming, it will help raise industry standards—that puts the onus on us to be able to sell through our inventory. We have to clear the shelf and make room for the new harvest.
From a business perspective, that creates a big challenge for us in how to manage our inventory. But we feel so strongly about having a fresh product available that we will manage the risk—selling through as best we can and if we can't, we have to manage that. But we don't back away from that challenge because it's about giving the consumer the best possible product.
We want other brands to say, we're fully traceable, too. Because it's only going to raise the industry standard for the consumer—and that's really the point, to clean up the shelf. There's a lot of oil that's claiming extra virgin and they're not extra virgin.
Are there other labeling messages you think are causing confusion for customers?
ST: We don't write first press or cold press, because an extra virgin olive oil has one pressing—one time through the centrifuge. That's marketing message that we don't participate in. I think that causes confusion—well if that's a cold press, does that mean that's a hot press? If that's a first press, is there a second press? There isn't a second press.
What does your retail presence look like?
ST: We're across the country, but I wouldn't say we're a national brand just yet. We started on the east coast first; we're in Stop & Shop, Shaw's, we're in the Midwest, in the Chicago area, in southern California, Arizona, Sprouts, Texas, some Albertson's. We have efforts going coast to coast and we've found pockets in traditional grocery, but we're also really targeting specialty and natural.
Do you have any advice or lessons-learned to share with other brands?
ST: I would say be as transparent as possible. Transparency in your value chain, in the supply chain, will only serve you well in terms of what you can deliver to your customer. For us, the transparency—and how we engage and partner with brokers, distributors, buyers—translates through to the product we are bringing to the market. And brokers feel proud to represent it for us. That's a lesson learned. I think there's value, and I think it makes for good partnerships and good business.