business

Small-Business Success Story: Texas Hill Country Olive Co.

The Gambini family tapped their Sicilian heritage to produce award-winning olive oil.

Kiplinger's spoke with John Gambini, 66, cofounder of Texas Hill Country Olive Co., a Dripping Springs, Tex.-based olive oil company, about what led him to start an olive oil company with his daughter and fellow cofounder Cara Gambini, 41 (pictured above). Here's an excerpt from our interview:

How did you get started? I've always loved building, and I still own my own construction company. Because I think like a builder, not a farmer, I wanted to make money quickly and efficiently. In 2008, my brother-in-law, Rick Mensik, and I bought 17 acres of land, and in 2009 we trucked in about 2,000 trees from California. By planting large trees instead of small cuttings, the very next year we had fruit. We picked about 2 tons last year -- all of it by hand.

What kind of olive oil do you make? We produce three different blends of premium extra-virgin olive oil, from mild to robust in flavor and pungency: Sola Stella, Terra Verde and Texas Miller's Blend. Last year, we produced about 3,000 gallons. In 2017, Sola Stella won a silver award in the Les Olivalies competition -- the Olive Oil Awards of France. We were the first Americans ever to win a medal.

Why olive oil? For years I dreamed of starting a winery. When I came home to Texas from Ohio in 2003, I discovered that the state already had 162 wineries. Then I read about a new oil industry in Texas -- olive oil production. It tied in perfectly to my Sicilian heritage, and my family agreed to join me in the venture.

Your family is involved in the business? Cara, my daughter and partner, builds wholesale and retail relationships, develops our website, and runs our store. She's incredibly good at merchandising. Rick is a partner, and his son-in-law is our shipping manager.

How do you produce the oil? I've built an 11,500-square-foot facility that includes a milling area, warehouse, tasting room, bistro, wine bar, store and offices. We bought our mill from a manufacturer in Florence, Italy, and its engineers came over to teach us how to operate it. Not everyone can create premium extra-virgin olive oil with the equipment. You have to learn to manage time, oxygen, light and heat.

Where do you sell the oil? We sell on-site, online, at farmers' markets in six cities every week, and at festivals and other special events [prices start at $18 per bottle]. We also make balsamic vinegar with a base that is imported from Modena, Italy.

How did you finance your start-up? We self-funded to start, then relied on cash flow. In year five, we broke even. I tried to get a construction loan to build our building, but no bank in Texas would consider it. We finally found a small, regional bank to give us a commercial mortgage so that my brother-in-law and I could get some of our money back.

Your ultimate goal? I built the company for Cara, her children and their children, too. I wanted a business that could last forever. The oldest living olive trees are more than 6,000 years old and still producing fruit. That's the romance for me.

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