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22 febrero 2024

Penélope García, manager and founder of Oleazara: “Asians consider EVOO as a medicine”

Penélope García is the manager of Oleazara, a company that takes Aragón and its Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) around the world, from the USA to Japan. With an annual production of 400,000 liters, Oleazara bets on an exquisite quality based on respect for the environment and a cold extraction method that allows all the properties of the olive (considered as medicine by its Asian customers) to remain intact. An EVOO chosen by the international chef Ferrán Adriá as one of his four favorite Aragonese products, and which is constantly evolving, with infused oils and EVOO pearls as the latest varieties.

Oleazara obtains all its production from three olive groves: one of them, located in Castejón de Valdejasa, from where the empeltre, hojiblanca and picual are obtained (the latter two varieties are destined for infusion); another in Bierge, with millenary and centenary olive groves, and olive varieties that only occur in that area, such as Royeta or Lecciana; and another in La Almunia, from where the olive is obtained to make the Goldlis EVOO and the organic EVOO. The cold pressing, together with an early harvest and the location of the mill just ten minutes from the point of collection, ensure that the aromas, flavors and extraordinary properties of the so-called liquid gold remain intact. Deer, rabbits and wild boars stroll through the olive groves of Oleazara, in a beautiful scene that fascinates its distributors, particularly Asian ones, when they come to visit. A seductive landscape with which the founder of this company not only shows the value of her EVOO, but also that of the land where it was born, Aragon.

How was Oleazara born?

For 32 years I was working in a family business of ventilation and air conditioning ducts, but when my father died very young, at the age of 56, my three sisters and I had to take the reins of the company. In 2010 the construction crisis hit, and with it came the non-payments. For example, Agapito, the former president of Real Zaragoza, left us 400,000 euros owed for the construction of the PLA-ZA warehouses. In addition to other construction companies that closed in those years. In the end we ended up in 2015 with a debt of 600,000 euros that we could not cope with. We filed for bankruptcy and I asked myself: “What do I do now with my life?”.

Did the idea of setting up another business come up then?

My sisters decided to open another ventilation duct company, and in the meantime I received information from the Instituto Aragonés de Fomento (IAF), which at that time was starting its Agri-Food Entrepreneurship Program, and I signed up. At that time I was 53 years old. The course lasted a year, we received very good training, there were teachers from all fields: marketing, economics, food safety… Once the course was over we were assigned mentors. There were some very powerful ones, such as the director of La Zaragozana, the director of Grupo Jorge, the director of Conservas Calanda… I was assigned the latter as a tutor and the truth is that I learned a lot from him.

What led you to bet on the creation of a company specializing in Aragonese EVOO?

During the course at the IAF, one of the professors said that Italians came to Spain with 10,000-liter tanker trucks, loaded them with oil, took it to Italy, bottled it there, and said it was Italian oil.
So I thought that if the Italians were doing that, I could do it too. I started with an oil mill in Lower Aragon, and later, at IFEMA, here in Zaragoza, I met an agricultural engineer and the owner of an oil mill. We signed a collaboration agreement and started working together in 2016.

AT THE IAF TRAINING COURSE I WAS TOLD THAT THE ITALIANS CAME TO SPAIN TO LOAD OIL FOR BOTTLING IN ITALY.

What was your first market?

From the beginning, it was clear to me that I had to export. In my father’s company I already started exporting. In the south of France, we did air conditioning and ventilation for a hospital in Auch. In Algeria we set up a company, we made Renault in Oran, in Constantine we made pharmaceutical laboratories… I already knew how exporting worked. In the end, when you export, it doesn’t matter if you export peaches, sheet metal, oil, or whatever. Because you already know how to do it.

A year after founding Oleazara we started exporting EVOO to Japan and Texas, in the US, thanks to some distributors I met through Linkedin. Through BNI, an international business networking organization, I met my distributor in Hong Kong and distributors in Dubai.

In which markets are you planning to introduce Oleazara EVOO?

We are trying to enter Australia, and also South Korea and Singapore, because I see that the Asian markets appreciate Spanish gastronomy very much, especially when it is top quality. They see EVOO as a medicine.

Do Asian customers see EVOO as a medicine?

In Spain we are so familiar with olive oil that we don’t see it as a medicine, but it really is. At Oleazara we are specialists in extracting the maximum of polyphenols, vitamins, antioxidants and oleocanthal. Oleocanthal is an anti-inflammatory that the olive tree has naturally and that in Oleazara we extract to the maximum, and this is seen as a medicine in Asia.

WHEN WE SEND THE ANALYSIS OF OUR OILS TO OUR ASIAN CUSTOMERS, THEY ARE AMAZED.

In addition, EVOO is a good product for the heart, it lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol. When we send the oil analyses there, they are amazed. In addition, we harvest early, that is to say, if here in Aragon the olives are harvested in December, we harvest them the second week of October. We get less fat yield, less oil, but in exchange we obtain very fruity flavors and aromas, very herbaceous… very natural.

Oleazara EVOO is cold pressed. How does the way the juice is extracted influence the quality of the product?

The extraction at Oleazara is completely cold. In Andalusia, for example, they get a lot of oil, but when you heat it to get double the production (because when you heat it, you squeeze the olive much more), you eliminate many aromas, flavor and healthy properties of the oil. We cold-extract because we focus more on quality than quantity.

And that exquisite quality is what the Asian market appreciates the most.

In supermarkets, and this works in all countries, they go for price, and they don’t care about quality. But we approach very gourmet markets, which are more interested in quality than quantity. They told me at the beginning that I was not going to sell the product because of the price, that since it was an early harvest it was going to be very expensive… but there is always a target for each product.

What is Oleazara’s best market at the moment?

Hong Kong and Japan, the Asians are the best for me. They are also very respectful of our philosophy of sustainability and respect for nature. At the moment we have three olive groves: one in Castejón de Valdejasa, where we have the empeltre, hojiblanca and picual (we infuse the latter two varieties); another in Bierge, with millenary and centenary olive groves, and varieties that are only found there, in that area, such as Royeta or Lecciana; and another in La Almunia, where we extract the olive to make Goldlis oil and organic oil. When Asian distributors come to visit and see the olive groves, that they are full of birds, that there are even deer, that they see wild boars and rabbits… they are amazed. The olive groves are not fenced, it is a natural habitat. In addition, we leave the vegetation cover, we do not remove it as it was done before, so the local fauna feeds the olive tree itself, a technique that makes the oil of an impressive quality. Everything influences the quality: the olive grove, the pruning, the climate, the proximity of the mill… The latter is very important, because the olive starts to oxidize as soon as you pull it off the tree and the flavor changes.

WHEN ASIAN CUSTOMERS COME TO VISIT AND SEE THE OLIVE GROVES, WITH BIRDS, DEER, WILD BOAR AND RABBITS, THEY ARE AMAZED.

That is why it is very important that as soon as it is harvested it arrives as soon as possible to the mill, it is important that it is close to the mill so that the transport process does not take more than ten minutes. As we are looking for very pure flavors, we take into account the distance to the oil mill, the type of container so that it does not overheat and does not atrophy and thus give us flavor and aroma problems. It is transported in open boxes so that the olives are ventilated and not crushed, and instead of being containers of a thousand kilos, they are transported in fruit boxes of 250 kilos. All these small details make them pure oils and they do not have a single defect.

And at the export level?

It is complicated, who helps us is Aragón Exterior and ICEX Spain Export and Investment. When I go to fairs I see that each autonomous community supports its region and subsidizes the issue of fairs, something that is not done in Aragon. That would give us a big boost, because a fair costs a lot of money, and they are what make us visible to the outside world.

Which trade fairs do you usually attend?

Alimentaria, in Barcelona or Sial, in Paris. On May 10, 11 and 12 we are going to the Hofex fair in Hong Kong. There the distributor pays half of the stand and Oleazara pays the other half. I talked to ICEX to see if they could subsidize the fairs, and they said no. That’s why I have to reach agreements with ICEX. That is why I have to reach agreements with the distributors, who tell me that, for example, the stands in France are subsidized. We are an SME, we do not have the lung of the big companies to face this kind of fairs.

Oleazara is an export-oriented company. What difficulties and advantages have you encountered in your internationalization phase?

My market is the foreign market. We always do a market study to see which countries have a medium-high purchasing power. I spent four years trying to enter India because I thought it was a big market and I would have a chance, but there they have a medium-low purchasing power, and they do not spend much money on gourmet products, even though in India there is a very rich sector of the population.

Once we do the market study, we decide whether to enter one country or another. In Latin America, for example, the Brazilian, Colombian and Mexican markets are good for Oleazara, the rest are not, and we know this because we have already tried. In Asia we have found that Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore or the Philippines are good markets, but we cannot go to all of them, so first we do a study to find out in which market the company fits best.

In addition, due to the characteristics of the oil extraction, production is limited.

We have an annual production of 400,000 liters of EVOO, and when it runs out, it runs out. Extraction begins in the second half of October, and if the harvest has been good, the oil lasts until September of the following year. If the harvest has not been so good (now the drought is affecting us a lot), the production can be finished in July or August. We fill the cellar, and when it is empty, there is no more until the next harvest.

Does that also limit the company’s growth?

We do not want to grow more, if I bet on quantity, I would have to compete with the south of Spain and that is impossible. Because here in Spain 65% of the world’s production is produced, we are the largest producers in the world.

SPAIN PRODUCES 65% OF THE WORLD’S OIL PRODUCTION, WE ARE THE LARGEST PRODUCERS.

Although the fame goes to the Italians.

In Italy they make very good oils, but the production is tiny. What happens is that they buy oil from here and take it there.

What vision do you think the international markets have of Aragonese agri-food products?

Aragon is not known, Spain is known. But the concept of Spain, of Spanish agri-food production, is very high. In Asian markets Spain is considered to be at a fairly high level. North Americans know Italy and Greece better than Spain: Italy has done very well in terms of marketing.

Ferrán Adriá chose one of his EVOOs as one of the four products that surprised him most about Aragón.

When Ferrán Adriá came to Aragón, before the pandemic, he wanted to choose four products that surprised him most about the region. He chose Almudévar braid, Graus sausage, dried fruits from Conservas Calanda and Goldlis EVOO from Oleazara. Adriá told us that pairing it with pink tomato from Barbastro was the perfect mix, since the Arbosan olive has a sweet flavor and the pink tomato was a perfect match. The fact that he chose our oil opened doors for us, because in Japan Ferrán Adriá is the best, even the emperor of Japan received him.

What novelties does Oleazara have for this year?

We take new products to the fairs every year. At the Alimentaria fair in Barcelona, we started to infuse: EVOO infused with dried tomato and basil; EVOO infused with black truffle from Aragon; and EVOO infused with coriander and chili. It was a success, because the packaging design is very attractive, colorful and modern, in the form of a 250 ml can. We also took to the Alimentaria fair the oils of the centenary olive tree varieties, such as the Royeta variety EVOO, the Empeltre variety EVOO or the Lecciana variety EVOO, all of them in danger of extinction and in the process of reconversion. Now when we go to the Hofax fair in Hong Kong we will bring some EVOO pearls made with infused oils, as well as olives infused with these oils.

You are a member of several business associations. To what extent has business associationism influenced Oleazara’s growth?

The only business association I belong to now is BNI, an international organization of entrepreneurs that has opened many doors for me. When you are in BNI, you are not going to sell your product behind cold doors. Within BNI, which is in every city in the world, there is the National Food Network (RALIE), where we are all the food producers in Spain with a presence in the organization. Within RALIE there are four groups: national, international, which I lead with the support of two other people, trade fairs and events and marketing. In the international group we have interviews, what we internally call one to one, every week with people from other countries working in the agri-food sector. And in parallel, we participate in BNI groups in India, in Singapore, in the Philippines… and that opens many doors for exporting.

Linkedin has also helped me a lot, there I found distributors in Japan and Texas. To get these customers I had to win their trust little by little. Trust is basic in all relationships, personal and professional. What I did was to seduce them with photos and videos of the olive grove, of the deer eating there, the nests in the olive trees, the first extraction of the olives… I send them our customs, dishes we cook at home, things from Aragon such as ternasco… sometimes I think that if the videos could have a smell, it would be tremendous.

FOR ME IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO MAKE KNOWN WHAT ARAGON IS, OUR LAND AND ITS FLAVORS.

How do you see Oleazara in the coming years?

I want to make Oleazara a sustainable company, with a very healthy product that nature gives us. We can extract all the good things that nature gives us without exploitation, that’s why I say I don’t want quantity, I want quality. It is not necessary to overexploit the resources that the land gives us, for me it is very important to take care of the land, to create an ecosystem, that in the olive grove everything regenerates, that the fauna in the soil feeds the olive grove without having to use certain products. The organic issue is also very important to me, the Organic Agriculture Committee is very strict: they analyze the soil every six months for four years until they give you the organic certification. If I can do all that, sell my company’s brand, and dedicate myself to helping other people, that would be my life goal. We go through stages in life, now I feel that since I am in a privileged position (because when we live in Europe we are privileged), I want to do something important to help people.

During these eight years at Oleazara, it has also been very important for me to make people know what Aragon is, our land, why the food products are different here, their flavors. I am not known in Spain, when I go abroad I say that I am from Aragon.

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