Greek olive oil producer GAEA growing the U.S. market

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A major producer of high-quality olive oil in Greece — GAEA S.A. (pronounced GUY-uh) — has launched a new initiative in South Florida to expand its sales to the United States, the world’s largest importer of olive oil.

“Greece is one of the world’s largest producers of olive oil, especially authentic, high-quality EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil), and GAEA was set up in 1995 to export the country’s olive oil and other food products,” said David Neuman, CEO of GAEA North America, who opened the company’s subsidiary in Hollywood earlier this year.

GAEA olive oil has been sold in parts of the U.S. for years through one importer, Neuman said, but now the company has established a North America headquarters here to actively expand brand recognition and increase sales.

In ancient Greek mythology, Gaea was the goddess of the Earth.

Despite Greece’s current financial and economic crisis, GAEA has been able to continue operating and exporting, and last year sales grew by 20 percent, the company said. In addition to the U.S., the Greek company exports its products to 25 other nations.

GAEA’s regional offices, a product showroom and olive oil tasting center in Hollywood are open to the public. Wholesale buyers can place their orders there, while local residents are invited to watch presentations and participate in tastings. They can also buy GAEA retail products at the showroom.

Neuman was previously president and a partner in Lucini Italia’s U.S. branch in Miami, another premium producer of olive oil and consumer foods. Aside from his position at Lucini, Neuman is a food industry veteran with more than 30 years of experience. He is a master taster of EVOO, certified by a prestigious school for olive oil tasters in Italy called the ONAOO, and has given his “Olive Oil 101” class to more than 1,000 food industry professionals and consumers.

He points out that olive oil is as complicated as wine, with about 900 olive varieties used to make olive oil (there are other varieties for eating and plopping into martinis). There are differences in taste, quality and other characteristics related to the countries and regions where olives are grown, different procedures for harvesting and processing olives into olive oil and strict standards for classifying olive oil into four categories: EVOO (the highest quality and most expensive), virgin, pure and lampante, the worst quality, used as fuel for lamps in the past and not fit for human consumption.

GAEA’s top EVOO, for example, costs $17.99 retail for a 17 fluid ounce bottle, while its “100 percent Greek,” a more economical combination of quality Greek olive oils, retails for $9.99.

One important factor, also used in the wine industry, is PDO (Protected Designation of Origin), an international term that identifies the precise geographical origin of a particular EVOO. This designation promotes and protects the quality of regional agricultural products. Of the nine varieties of olive oil GAEA sells in the U.S., four carry the PDO stamp.

Since taking over GAEA’s North America division, Neuman has lined up new distributors in the U.S. for GAEA and travels constantly to talk about olive oil in general, and GAEA in particular.

GAEA already sells its products to Costco in northern California, Whole Foods stores in New England and Fairway Markets in New York City.

Consumers can buy GAEA products at the company’s Hollywood offices, but they are not yet available at retail stores in Florida. Neuman explained that retail chains like Publix, Whole Foods and Winn-Dixie typically review new products offered by companies like GAEA on a regional basis at the beginning of each year. And since GAEA opened its North America offices on March 1, it missed the 2015 evaluation and buying cycle and will have to pitch its product line in Florida and other U.S. markets in 2016.

While Neuman is working to increase GAEA sales in the region, he spends much of his time telling people about the complexities of olive oil and warning about the widespread sale of olive oil labelled as EVOO that is actually lower quality oil.

“My most important job is to educate consumers, chefs and buyers (at retail and wholesale chains) about EVOO and to teach people how to taste and evaluate EVOO,” he said.

“Most consumers don’t taste olive oil before buying. At the market, you can tell when meat and fish are not fresh, but you can’t see or smell olive oil. As much as 70 percent of olive oil labeled as EVOO and sold in the U.S. is not EVOO and is made from poor quality olive oil or a blend of EVOO and lower quality product.”

This is not just Neuman’s opinion. Articles in olive oil industry trade publications frequently warn about this problem. Olive oil sold in the U.S. and other countries may come from poor quality or damaged olives or may not have been processed according to industry standards. Also, olive oil does not last forever and can be degraded by exposure to heat (keeping a bottle next to the stove) and light. An open bottle will usually degrade after three months, he said, and some stores keep olive oil in the warehouse or on the shelves for months, which can degrade the oil and affect its taste. GAEA olive oil is sold in black or dark-colored bottles to protect against light.

“My mission is to educate people about olive oil,” Neuman said.

Why did GAEA choose Hollywood for its North America headquarters, when other imported brands typically choose a big city like New York?

“Downtown Hollywood is an exciting place within the Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area,” Neuman said.

“We believe that our office can function as a place of business for our administrative needs, as well as a tasting room and small gourmet shop for passers-by. It allows us to interact with consumers seeking to learn more about how to buy Greek olive oil.”

Business: GAEA North America is a subsidiary of GAEA Products S.A., a company based in Athens, Greece, that was set up to produce and export high-quality, additive-free Greek olive oil and other food products. The parent company today is a major producer and exporter of Greek extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), as well as olives and other olive-based food products. Despite the ongoing Greek financial crisis, GAEA was able to continue operating and posted 20 percent growth in sales last year, the company said, thanks to export revenues. GAEA North America imports and sells nine varieties of its branded Greek olive oil, plus an assortment of olives, olive snack packs, olive-based sauces, spreads and tapenades. The North America unit is responsible for expanding GAEA’s sales in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Founded: GAEA was founded in Athens, Greece, in 1995.

Corporate headquarters: Athens.
North America headquarters: 1915 Hollywood Blvd.,Hollywood.
Corporate CEO: Aris Kefalogiannis.
CEO for North America: David Neuman.

Employees: 52 direct employees in Greece. Independent farmers and agricultural cooperatives in Greece are contracted to supply the company with olives. The Hollywood office has four employees.

Customers: GAEA sells to distributors in the U.S. who in turn sell to retail markets, including supermarkets, specialty food stores and restaurants. Aside from the U.S., GAEA exports to 25 countries in Europe and is working to expand its international reach. Exports account for most of the company’s sales.

Ownership: Privately owned by the CEO and over 60 others, including employees and importers of GAEA

products.

Website: The company’s former website (www.gaea.gr) recently was taken down to make improvements and is currently under construction. For product information: info@gaeaus.com.

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