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Skyler Mapes, co-founder EXAU Olive Oil
Issue 16: On her path to food, being a person of color in the olive oil industry, and more.
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Skyler Mapes is an architect-turned-entrepreneur who is bringing high-end Calabrian olive oil to the United States. Together with her husband, she is bringing together the modern culinary needs of Americans and 80 years of Calabrian tradition to produce award-winning extra virgin olive oil. Skyler splits her time between Italy and the United States, and recently we talked about her path to food, being a person of color in the olive oil industry, and more.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a little bit more about your background and how you got into the olive oil industry?
Skyler Mapes: My background is actually in the architecture and design industry. I went to Arizona State and I studied architecture. I did an internship in Barcelona and on a weekend trip, I went to Rome. It was during that weekend that I met my husband, who would eventually become my business partner. I eventually went to work at architecture and structural engineering firms in the Bay area, because I'm from Oakland, California.
As much as I love it, I didn't like what was happening in the design space there. The wealth gap was getting worse and I realized I wanted to be on the other side of the table. I don't want to be designing your house — it was all so time consuming and bureaucratic.
Architecture is essentially problem solving, but working within all the bureaucracy becomes a very heavy thing that just isn't fun. It just is soul sucking. I had to pivot out of that space because my creativity was being drained and I didn't want to work for 20 years for someone else.
Brianna Plaza: How did you decide you wanted to jump into olive oil?
Skyler Mapes: I didn't really make a decision, I think life just happened. It was my husband that piqued my curiosity. When he came to the U.S., he was really disappointed with the olive oils in grocery stores. Even at the luxury stores, they were just not as good as what Italians consume and it felt very homogenous to him. There are a few oils available from northern and southern Italy, but they’re all the same. He was bored and decided he needed his mom's Southern olive oil.
So that's when I thought I might start dabbling in olive oil. I had a friend who is head winemaker and also the co-founder at a winery and I went and I worked for her. I decided that was really fun and decided to pursue it more. Plus, it was a way to get out of the design industry. We moved back to Calabria where my husband's family has olive trees.
Brianna Plaza: There's obviously a family connection to what they were doing, but can you walk me through why you decided to go the import route versus trying to find something in California?
Skyler Mapes: The family has never done commercial production — they grow and harvest more for their immediate family and friends. So when we decided to import oil, it came down to a few things.
I was never super welcomed in the California olive oil industry. It all just felt very elusive and exclusive and that’s just not aligned with who we are. Even in Italy, we have that problem because there is a sense of elitism. It's very similar to wine.
And then when we went to look at the olive groves in California, it's just not the same as what is available in Calabria. Why would we stay in California when we had Calabria? It’s undiscovered and, yes, there are a lot of challenges because it’s the poorest region of Italy and there is a lack of resources. But we just thought, why not create something in a place that really could use the investment, and then source things from small family owned businesses? That way we'll be investing in the community and then we could figure out exporting and importing to the U.S. later.
Brianna Plaza: How else did you learn about growing and producing olive oil?
Skyler Mapes: We got connected with some local Calabrians who are just so awesome. That's the other reason that we love it here. As snobby as an industry can be, if you contact people here, Calabrians will help you. They will tell you everything that you need to know and help you in whatever way they can. We were able to meet with one of the world's best agronomists who's actually from here in our first year.
He tasted our oils and he really liked them. He’s helped us ensure our product is high quality and that it’s the best it can be. He also answers all our questions — one of the biggest things that we emphasize is education. So we ask a lot of questions not just for ourselves, but for the public.
If someone's spending $28 for a bottle of olive oil and they don’t know what’s in it, they don’t know why they’re spending that money. Understanding why olive oil is expensive is important.
Brianna Plaza: You talked a little bit about not feeling welcome in the California olive oil industry. Can you talk to me a little bit more about that? Is it because you're a woman, because you're a woman of color, because your husband's Italian and not from California, all of the above?
Skyler Mapes: I was born and raised in Oakland, and to be denied at a grocery store in my hometown is disgusting. I'm still upset about it. Are you fucking kidding me? I left California to go to Texas where there were a lot of young people and businesses that are accepting of imported products like olive oil.
There are a lot of women in the olive oil industry, but it’s been tough as a woman of color. People haven’t taken us seriously because they don’t see us attached to our farm. Now that we’re getting more press, people are like, “Oh you’re actually seriously doing this?” Where were these people three years ago when I contacted them? I wanted to sit down with them but they weren’t 100% there.
Being in the olive industry in Italy is a different dynamic because my husband is from there. I think that if he wasn’t from there, I would have a much more challenging time. There are women in the industry here, but not women of color. I think I'm probably the only black olive oil producer in the country. Ultimately though, I am light skinned and an American so that gives me a certain level of privilege.
We've grown a lot since last year. The most important thing is the respect in this industry that I’m getting. I'm reclaiming space for myself and I'm occupying it. I want other women, especially women of color, to be able to do the same, especially in the agricultural space. It's one thing if you're a brand owner — it's easier to start a business, contact a wholesaler olive oil company and do a partnership with them, and then send them the labels that you want.
But I'm a brand owner and also an olive oil producer and farmer.
So I'm occupying all three of those spaces and those are very different jobs. I want to see more black women in the agriculture space specifically for luxury food industries like olive oil and wine.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think the industry can improve beyond everyone finally taking notice and buying your product?
Skyler Mapes: I think the most important thing right now is funding, especially because it's expensive to get into the olive oil industry. It can mean starting a small business on Kickstarter to overcome the huge financial hurdles.
We can also learn by consuming black creators’ content and supporting them. You don't always have to spend money to support them virtually. Anybody consuming and sharing content is really important.
Brianna Plaza: How do you get people to think more about your small brand?
Skyler Mapes: We don't believe in just selling people olive oil, that's part two. The first thing is educating consumers. And after that it's selling people olive oil.
On our website, people can read about what is extra-virgin, how it was made, and how to store it. I think providing a space where people can go in and read in very digestible terms, how and what the product is and isn’t is important. My top priority is making sure that customers are educated and feel confident in their decisions when purchasing oil.
Brianna Plaza: How, in this time where people are cooking so much from home, how has that changed your business?
Skyler Mapes: We do classes which are focused on education and then we’re launching several product-focused courses, which I don’t think a lot of people are doing.
If you go on Instagram and onto our recipe section of our site, you'll see that our focus is heavily on pasta and educating people. I know pasta seems like a really simple food and that it's just flour and water. But I went through a whole fresh pasta making phase last summer and people really liked the recipes. We teach them how to actually make good pasta.
We go in depth for every single recipe and it gives people the freedom to experiment and make the best pasta they can make. There’s just too much sad pasta out in the world and we don’t need any more sad pasta.
Other things ~
You’ll find me hitting the streets this summer to find this jerk chicken across New York City.
Grilling season is upon us. Last week I was in Tucson and a few friends and I grilled some steaks and we had them with chimichurri and wow was it good. So simple, so good. 10/10 you should make this weekend.