Financing a taste for quality at Frescolio

(ABOVE) Michael Graham, owner and Chantal Hogue, Events Specialist, Frescolio fine oil + vinegar tasting bar

Frescolio Fine Oil & Vinegar Tasting Bar is Winnipeg’s first store to specialize in a wide selection of gourmet-quality extra-virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The local company imports its products in bulk, only bottling the oil and vinegar in-store when customers make their selection. And there are a lot of amazing options to choose from!

Editor’s Note: Note that parts of this article refer to pre-COVID store experiences. Currently, Frescolio’s three locations are open for business, offering options to order and pay in-store, with online and phone ordering options. The shops will maintain maximum capacities to allow customers to safely socially distance, and masks or face coverings are required for everyone including staff. While tasting and browsing are not currently available, customers may still enter the store to place orders, and Frescolio offers curbside pickup and delivery. 

What makes Frescolio’s oils that much better?

Frescolio Fine Oil & Vinegar Tasting Bar - Winnipeg

Co-founders Lise Belanger and Michael Graham opened Frescolio’s first store at 2-929 Corydon Avenue in June 2013, and have since opened two more locations with a total staff of about 15 people. Their second location at 5-1604 St. Mary’s Road opened in October 2015 and their third location was added at 1-1530 Regent Avenue West just three years later.

How did the company fund such early success? An incredibly high quality product combined with a unique service experience is part of that equation.

From day one they have set the bar high, and it’s even part of their name. ‘Frescolio’ is a combination of the Italian words for fresh (‘fresco’) and oil (‘olio’). It’s a name that embodies what the business is all about: freshness and quality.

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade of olive oil, and to be called ‘extra virgin,’ the oil must be derived from olives only by cold, mechanical extraction. To get technical, it must have no more than 0.8 per cent free acidity and be free of ‘sensory defects’ including musty, winey, rancid and fusty tastes. (Your tastebuds are sure to notice the difference!)

‘Balsamic’ is a concentrated vinegar made from the juice and skins of crushed grapes, exclusively in the Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia. It must be aged in a series of wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years.

Michael Graham, Certified Olive Oil Sommelier, is the founder and President of Frescolio Fine Oils and Vinegars.
Frescolio Winnipeg - olive oil tasting bar

A wow moment tasting experience

“If you haven’t tasted straight-up, fresh olive oil before, you’ll be amazed how delicious it is,” said Lise. “It’s quite unlike what’s available in grocery stores.”

Stored in stainless steel containers called ‘fustis,’ customers can sample as many products as they wish.

Inspiration for the tasting bar came from similar concepts the co-founders experienced in Chicago and Ottawa. However, the entrepreneurs weren’t always in the industry. Prior to Frescolio, Lise and Michael both worked in the corporate world — Lise as an HR systems analyst and Michael as a chartered accountant and CFO.

“The whole tasting bar idea was kind of fun. You can’t just walk into a supermarket and open up 20 bottles of olive oil to try,” Michael noted of the gap they fill in the market. Wearing the CEO hat at the growing company, he has also become a certified olive oil sommelier. This in-house expertise is just one of the ways the duo has elevated the entire customer experience.

“I was in the very first class of the first course ever offered in the U.S,” Michael said, explaining the significance of the certifications. “Some people are surprised when they hear there’s an international standard for olive oil.”

All on tap for foodies & new fans!

“We thought our main clientele would be the older generation,” Michael reflected. “People who have a bit of extra income and who love to entertain. But we’ve also been surprised by the number of young people who have become customers. Many have travelled to Italy or Spain, and have a bit more understanding. They don’t spend money like older folks, but they’ll buy two or three little bottles and they love to experiment. For me, I love when somebody gets excited when they discover our store.”

Any of their products are offered in four different bottle sizes, which you can select in-store. Their “bulk-to-bottle” model maintains freshness, since unrefined oil has a shelf life of about 12 to 14 months. But with so much demand, their oils don’t stay on shelves that long! Frescolio changes over its olive oil inventory every six months by alternating between the northern and southern hemisphere seasons — another reason their oil just tastes better.

But as a customer, you don’t need to buy a lot at once (although some customers certainly love to have extra flavours on hand.)

Frescolio Winnipeg

“Somebody can walk away with a $5 purchase if that’s all they need,” Lise said. “If you’re only using something once in a while, it is better to buy in small amounts.”

Quality assurance is part of their process, and all their prospective olive oil purchases are tested. To identify unwelcome additives, or even other liquids being passed off as the real thing, chemical testing is done to the olive oils they consider selling in their shops.

The company goes to further lengths to ensure they have the right products available for customers.

“If you want to always stock the world’s freshest, best quality olive oil, you have to buy from both hemispheres,” Michael said. Frescolio sources oil from Spain, Italy, Greece, California, North Africa, the Middle East, Argentina, Peru, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

How do you pick the perfect flavour?

As for what sells best? Everyone has their favourite selection, but the basics are always the key to a well-stocked kitchen.

“Some people really love fruity infused oils like blood orange, lemon or lime and our range of infused white balsamic vinegars,” Michael said. “At the other end of the spectrum are the savoury people. Our Tuscan herb oil, infused with parsley, garlic, marjoram and roasted red pepper, sells more than almost all the others.”

There’s certainly no shortage of selection, which makes a trip to one of their shops a memorable and fun event. Frescolio normally stocks about 75 different oils and vinegars, including high-quality plain products and flavour-infused versions.

“The non-infused olive oils and the 18-year-old balsamic are what people buy in the 750-millilitre format for everyday use,” Michael said. “We also sell a lot of these products to our local restaurant clients.”

Read more about ACU’s foodie members here.

Environmental care

“What we’re really proud of that distinguishes us from other tasting bars, is that we take our bottles back,” Lise said.

“We offer a bottle refund to customers and we take care of washing it! Our commercial dishwasher ensures it’s sanitized before it’s ready for re-use. We also use stainless steel tasting cups and are mindful of our environment. That’s a very important part of our brand.”

That principle doesn’t stop with glass and steel. “We also use reclaimed wood for all our furniture,” Lise said.

Financing & their partnership with ACU

Frescolio has been working with ACU for about four years.

“ACU has a lot of good tools for small businesses — things that are very simple to use,” Michael said.

When the time came to open the newest store, ACU was there to help.

“They funded our growth with reasonable loans,” Michael described. “Without that, we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. It’s been important to have faith from the financial community and ACU has provided that.”

Lefteri Antonakis

Michael praised the relationship they’ve built with Lefteri Antonakis, Business Account Manager with ACU’s Business Financial Centre.

“If we have a problem, we can call him directly and get answers,” Michael continued of their partnership. “Having been in the corporate world dealing with big banks, some people are responsive and some aren’t. If you’re a small business, they tend not to be that responsive.”

Michael commended ACU’s strong connection with small and medium-sized businesses. “Lefteri goes to a lot of Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce events at small businesses, so he meets people and understands what they’re about,” he further commented.

As for Frescolio, they also regularly get out into the community, whether it’s setting up samplings at fundraisers or pairing their products with local chefs’ cuisine at tasting events. Keep an eye out for this great local brand at special events, and be sure to stop into one of their shops. You’re sure to be delighted!

About Jason Halstead

Jason is a Winnipeg-based journalist and photographer who has been published across Canadian media.

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