If I had to use a word to describe the majority of the olive oil I’ve had in my life, it’d be this: dull.
Now that I’ve been fortunate enough to taste fresh, authentic olive oil, I realize what I never knew I’d always been missing; they were devoid of the fruity, spicy, throat-gripping power of the flavors and sensations that come standard with carefully crafted oils. They were missing the sense of place and soul, and added very little to the experience of eating or cooking.
It’s because those rich notes inherent and natural to a newly processed oil are dulled by age and light, by mishandling and storage on grocery store shelves or in pantries for months or even years. I see that they were dull in color, now that I’ve seen the vibrant yellows and greens of fresh and quality oil. Dull even in packaging and branding, a homogenous row of clear or green bottles at the grocers’ shelf, most with some image of the fruit it purports to represent, the fields in which it’s grown, or the trees from which they’re picked. But for most of my life, I didn’t know the difference.
So when I sit down with Aishwarya Iyer at a New York City café to discuss her brand, Brightland Olive Oil, and she hands me a bottle that practically vibrates with color and contrast—bright white powder-coated, decorated by Matisse-inspired artwork, minimal and yet declarative—pouring a small taste into a glass, I’m blown away. It’s grassy and peppery, complex and curious—a layering of flavors that unfold first on the palate and then retro-olfactorily, compelling taster to pay attention, to discover what might come next. It lingers, coating your tongue and inviting memory associations. The first time I had focaccia in Italy. A recent dinner with friends at a California restaurant. A moist, dense olive oil cake baked at home.
In the 1980s, Americans began to embrace olive oil as an alternate fat, rejecting the margarine and oleo. Claims about its benefits in everything from cooking versatility to heart health helped create a major market for a product that had been an ancient staple in cultures around the world.
Between 1991 and 2003, U.S. consumption increased one hundred percent. And yet, more than ninety percent of olive oil consumed is still produced in and imported from Mediterranean areas. During an era when everything from beer and cheese to furniture and literature was considered exotic and worthier when it came from outside the United States, olive oil too was more desirable when claiming Spain or Italy as a homeland. In fact, in the last two decades, the imported olive oil market has grown by more than four times.
So the story of olive oil has long been about where it comes from, and as such, Iyer’s California-born brand acknowledges, respects and celebrates its stateside source. And though where it comes from is a major part of the brand personality, perhaps what makes her philosophy truly unique is where she imagines her industry going.
Maybe we can credit culinary personalities like Rachel Ray—who, with a frequent flourish and signature scratchy voice became caricature for exalting the benefits of “EVOO” (extra virgin olive oil) on her Food Network show Thirty Minute Meals—for helping impress upon consumers the ubiquitous usefulness of olive oil in the home kitchen. The liquid began replacing butter in skillets all over the country thanks in part to an increased awareness of its health benefits and versatility. But even though the interest and industry exploded, the identity of olive oil made in the United States stagnated—as did the presence of bottles in American kitchens.
No matter how much those chefs advocated its use in nearly all of their dishes, the average consumer was purchasing bottles or even large format jugs from wholesale stores, setting them on their counter where they might languish for six months—or a whole lot longer—degrading by the day. With Brightland, Iyer hopes home cooks will appreciate her product not just once in a while, but on a regular basis. Iyer herself came to the olive oil business in part due to her own frequency of use. It was while she was living in New York City that she began to consider olive oil more carefully, noting how significant a role it played in her everyday diet. She researched obsessively, coming across conversational assets about the corruption of the industry, the adulteration of brands and imports, and the questionable nature of a product that made up so much of a generation’s cooking repertoire.
But given her background and upbringing, she wondered whether she had any personal stake in the olive oil conversation. “I was born in India; my family and I moved to the U.S. when I was about six months old,” she tells me. Her family settled first in Massachusetts, then moved to Chicago, and ultimately Texas. Olive wasn’t the oil of choice in her south Indian household; that role belonged to sesame and coconut oils. “For a while I wasn’t sure it was really my story to tell,” Iyer remembers.
And while her ancestry is Indian and her American life has taken her all over the map, it is Los Angeles to which she has ultimately dedicated her career path. She relocated to California, where the local agriculture happened to dovetail with her burgeoning interest in olive oil. “I was only thinking of Italian or European olive oil; I hadn’t even given a thought to domestic olive oil because I didn’t really know it existed,” she says. “I learned from a friend that there’s this amazing olive oil industry here in California, so I started visiting [the farms].”
The olive industry has existed in the state since the late 1700s when Franciscan monks transferred the hardy trees from the Mediterranean. And while canned olives became a thriving agricultural product, with the state providing more than ninety-five percent of the country’s crop today, olive oil remained associated almost exclusively with imports.
But a growing interest in locally sourced products, and the farmers market mentality of not just Californians but Americans across the board presented an advantageous confluence of factors when combined with Iyer’s tech industry background. It was this intersection of passion, opportunity and agricultural availability that inspired and made possible Brightland’s launch. “This is at the same time we started seeing this direct to consumer e-commerce era where these brands are being built and I felt like there was something there to that,” she tells me. After taking a class at the UC Davis Olive Center and intensively researching farms with which she could work to create the product, she began visiting grocery stores to better understand consumer purchasing behavior.
A Vision of Functionality
As a millennial, Iyer’s generation is accustomed to the integration not only of functionality and technology, but of design and inspiration—a combination critical to the foundation of her brand and philosophy. She observed consumers at Whole Foods and similar markets staring at shelves of green glass bottles with images of olives on the label. The sameness seemed to be a disconnect between the idea of cooking—increasingly perceived as a creative process rather than just a necessity for many of her contemporaries—and one of the most critical ingredients in their pantry.
She hoped to capture that idea of creativity and inspiration, and believed the key was making sure Brightland’s identity was just as important as the liquid. “Let’s make it exciting again!” Iyer says to me, recalling the conceptualization of the brand. “Let’s do something really special with the packaging,” she thought, aiming to represent “the inside-out beauty.”
The result is a stunning bottle that straddles the line between a functional vessel and an art piece all on its own—one that can be proudly displayed on a counter rather than shut away in a cabinet, a reminder to use early and often. “From the beginning I said I don’t want a dark or amber bottle because that’s what’s already on the shelf, and there’s nothing distinctive about it,” Iyer says. But the design is about more than aesthetics—its intended to protect the oil from damaging light.
Having multiple variants also gives consumers a reason to engage with the brand on a deeper level, and offer them options—additional colors with which they can paint their dishes. Her multiple variants: Awake, Alive and the recently released Lucid, are intended to help consumers identify their olive oil needs based not just on flavor or application, but on mood and feeling. It’s a product with a vibe, and she assigns a personality to each; the bottle, rather than elucidating only esoteric flavor notes, describes how you might be feeling. Do you want a cozy night with a bottle of wine? A summer day and a bright salad? Brightland has you covered.
Wellness is another major component of the brand, and while olive oil has a reputation for being a healthful product, the idea is also to stimulate mental health—a philosophy Iyer’s target audience is extremely interested. “The philosophy behind our brand was to live more awake, alive and aware, in a way that means waking up and remembering that you don’t have to be in front of a screen all the time. We really wanted to champion these small analogue moments: for me, that’s drizzling olive oil and taking a step outside yourself,” she says. “We have tried incorporating that into our content to remind people to celebrate the analogue.”
An Education in Oil
Iyer also recognizes the difference between the purchaser of more established brands of olive oil, and the active interest her desired consumer takes in eating, cooking and sharing food. While younger generations begin to ask questions about everything from the IBUs (international bittering units) of their craft beer to the hydration levels of their sourdough bread, Iyer saw an opportunity to create an intersection between design and education.
Each Brightland bottle, besides being a stunning conversation piece all on its own, encourages the curious user to further explore the intricacies of olive oil. The labels detail some of the (dare I say) geekier elements of the science of olive oil. Were you hoping to find the harvest date? It’s stamped on the top of each bottle. Smoke point? Yup. Polyphenol count? You’ve got it. The idea is not to alienate people with high-brow scientific information, but to encourage curiosity and hope they will pursue answers on the Brightland website where they can familiarize themselves with those quality indicators and ultimately modify purchasing behavior.
To the Future
As an Indian-American woman with Texas ties, Iyer’s experience in creating a brand that champions West Coast agriculture is distinctly American. “We pride ourselves so much on being a California company and an L.A.-based company,” she tells me. While Brightland is not the first olive oil company to claim Golden State roots, it does hope to help contribute to the identity of its industry. “I think there’s something so wonderful about high traceability, something locally made, and championing farmers and producers that are right here in our home state.”
As the olive oil industry in California grows (at present, there are over four hundred producers of olive oil in the state), the state is developing its own identity in the global industry. Iyer hopes Brightland will help enhance and add diversity to the state’s offerings. “I think there’s this increasing excitement and awareness. Our brand is bold and our colors are bold; our identity is bold,” she says. “I hope other brands do the same in their own ways … I want to do more of that and hopefully be a cutting edge, leader that way.”
As the brand itself helps to carve out a market for the millennial consumer, it turns to more modern channels of distribution as well. Brightland’s business is primarily direct to consumer, to the tune of more than eighty percent. The site offers both a la carte options or quarterly subscriptions. “A healthy percentage of our customers are subscribers,” Iyer reports. She’s also been strategic in selecting her retailers, however. “We want to work with retailers who are thinking about retail in an interesting way, either from a merchandising standpoint, or from a philosophical standpoint.” She mentions suppliers like Individual Medley in Los Angeles, Need Supply and Huckberry, who she believes are “leading the way in e-commerce and experiential retail.” She tells me she’s strategically selecting shops “who are thinking about retail in an innovative way, and also understand Brightland and what we stand for.”
And while she’s looking toward the future, it’s been rewarding for Iyer to make an impression on elder generations as well. Her parents, she tells me, were enthusiastic to experiment, using their daughter’s new product in their heritage cuisine. “Before [Brightland] launched, I sent my parents a bunch to try and taste, and they started incorporating it into Indian food. They were so thrilled.”
Their experiments helped Iyer recognize the market for olive oil in cuisines and applications not historically typical might help her reach new users. “I wanted to do a mini ode to my heritage food, so we did a photo shoot of some of that cuisine and posted it on our blog, and it was one of the most read pieces we’ve ever posted,” she says. For Iyer, who wasn’t sure the story of olive oil was hers to tell, she has demonstrated that like her oil, her brand is distinctly American in the sense that cooks of many cuisines can grab a bottle of this California-made, Mediterranean-inspired oil from their counter and use in place of a more traditional ingredient. It’s a collision of cultures, coming together harmoniously in both flavor and function—bridging those gaps and blurring the lines in a global way.
Regardless of where she comes from personally, or where olive oil has primarily been produced throughout history, Iyer is optimistic about Brightland’s future, as well as that of the state that has adopted her and provided an agricultural platform for her passion. “Because it’s a newer, burgeoning industry, it’s so great to be a part of; there’s fellowship and an element of community. It’s a big world out there and there are brands out there that already exist and are doing things for California, and more that I hope will come to the front,” she says. Thanks to those California farmers, entrepreneurs like Iyer, and products like Brightland, the future of American olive oil is anything but dull.