Opened just under a year ago, Newburyport Olive Oil Company has rounded out the Tannery shopping experience by offering over 70 different olive oils, specialty oils, and 100 percent natural Modena balsamic vinegars, as well as select New England-made condiments the likes of which include wild beach plum jam, custom organic spice blends, hot sauces, truffle finishing salt, and even bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup.
Co-owner Karen Shernan—one of the first employees at Bread and Circus Natural Foods, which has since become Whole Foods—also has experience as a private caterer. “I’ve always had this huge foodie side to me,” says the oil and vinegar aficionado. Karen co-owns the shop with her daughter, Katie Shernan, herself a natural-born foodie. “We’ve always liked the oils and the vinegars,” says Karen, noting their venture was spawned from the simple premise that “it would be fun.” Together they purchased the existing but floundering store in December 2014, and turned it into a go-to source for Newburyport’s culinarily inclined.
Newburyport Olive Oil Company, with its sleek, minimalist vibe, is straightforward in its offerings—rows and rows of oil-filled stainless steel fustis (bulk dispensers) under which sit empty glass bottles at the ready. Karen buys her oils from a top-notch distributor, Veronica Foods, in Oakland, California, where she was required to spend a weekend learning about olive oils before they would agree to sell to her.” They are very quality conscious.”
The Ultra-Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil designation her oils carry is not easily earned. “Not everybody gets it,” she notes. “The difference between our olive oil and that which you might buy in the store is that our distributor has individual contracts with growers, so you know exactly where the oil is coming from.” In fact, all of her oils are made from olives that have been picked and crushed within a few hours and then sent to “the toughest lab in the world,” located in Australia, for chemical analysis.
The health benefits of olive oil have certainly been touted as of late, but not all oils are created equal. Like wine, the character of every vintage is determined by terroir, weather, and origin. “You want to be consuming the freshest possible oil both from a taste perspective and to get the health benefits,” says Karen, noting how important it is to seek a source that really takes care with its oils, given they are so highly perishable. The Shernans carry 10 to 14 different pure Ultra-Premium oils at any given time; they originate from all corners of the world and come listed with a full chemical analysis, a tasting analysis, the country of origin, and the olive varietal—and all are available for tasting at the shop.
The pair are constantly purchasing new oils, which they bottle in-store, a few at a time. “We encourage our customers to buy only what they are going to use within about a three-month period,” says Karen, noting that the longer it sits around, the less nutritional value and flavor are retained. Vinegars, on the other hand, almost never go bad. From Modena, Italy, her Protected Geographic Indication (PGI)-certified vinegars represent the delicate balance of soil, grapes, climate, and artisan-style production. “The flavors on the balsamics are very intense,” notes Karen, who has witnessed many people saying they don’t like balsamic vinegar, only to be pleasantly surprised by those she carries.
Recently, the shop was expanded to accommodate a second business, Port Plums, which carries an extensive selection of top-quality cookware and serving pieces, as well as handmade items from New England artisans. “I felt for a long time that Newburyport needed a comprehensive kitchen store,” says Karen. “I was sick of having to drive 20 to 30 miles every time I needed to buy a good-quality whisk or pan.”
Once again, quality is their primary objective. “I make sure each item I buy for the store has been reviewed and is one of America’s Test Kitchen’s favorite picks—so we don’t have 10 different whisks to choose from we’ve got one or two that are really top quality.”
Another of their goals is supporting area businesses, like Joppa Fine Foods and Chococoa Baking Company, in an effort to create an all-inclusive shopping destination for those who come to the Tannery. Karen wants to develop a “wonderful little foodie/entertainment environment, where people in town who love to cook can come and soak up all the foodiness.”