Lille Allen/Eater

Brands like Brightland, Graza, Fat Gold, and Rubirosa have brought the elusive element of coolness to the pantry staple

In the press images for Single & Fat extra virgin olive oil, high-fashion models flounce around artfully messy hotel rooms, eating spaghetti while lounging in a bathtub, pouring oil out of a millennial pink and olive green tin onto a slice of pizza, even rubbing each other down with the golden product, perfectly in view of a set of muscular abs. A scrolling chyron on the website encourages buyers to “Douse it. Drench it. Pour it. Slurp it. Lick it. Rub it. Mix it. Toss it. Cook it. Slather it. Spritz it. Stir it.” This is about sex, about indulgence, about gluttony as sin. But also, the brand reminds you, “it’s good fat, baby.”

For many people, olive oil is a fact of life that doesn’t inspire much extra thought. If you’re buying olive oil, you buy the big dark glass bottle from the grocery store and move on with your day. And when olive oil does inspire extra thought, it evokes images of serene groves and artisanal farms. It’s Samin Nosrat shaking fruit off ancient trees in Liguria. It’s the Mediterranean diet, all fish and fresh vegetables and antioxidants. It’s centuries of tradition.

But Single & Fat is the latest olive oil brand to, essentially, be on that hot girl shit. Over the past few years, brands like Brightland, Graza, Fat Gold, Rubirosa, and Yiayia and Friends have brought the elusive element of coolness to the pantry staple. The bottles and canisters look like what you’d find on the counter of your friend who has the most impeccable taste, the one who throws the best dinner parties and always knows where to get cool ceramics. These new, artisanal, mostly direct-to-consumer (or DTC) olive oil brands are using punchy names, bold packaging, fashion merch, zines, and more to educate consumers about what makes a good olive oil and how to use it. In so doing, coolness becomes a gateway for quality, and a way to signal both virtue and indulgence. Or just a way to get consumers to buy olive oil at all.

For Aishwarya Iyer, who launched Brightland in 2018, the goal was to bridge the gap between the flavors she knew consumers loved and the California farmers producing them. She says farmers would insist there was no market for pungent, peppery olive oil that’s rich in polyphenols (organic compounds that are tied to health benefits like decreasing blood pressure and bad cholesterol), despite Iyer seeing her friends gravitate toward this style of olive oil in informal taste tests.

“I was like, okay, well then what’s the disconnect, and what can I do to make people excited about this category when everyone’s just looking at the same old green and brown bottles?” Iyer says. The answer was packaging — for Brightland, that means opaque, white bottles with splashes of bold colors, and oils infused with flavors like basil and lemon — which she says helps build an emotional connection to the product. “The packaging can act as a bit of a Trojan horse and get people in the door, and then they can taste it.”

Customers get their choice of aesthetics across these cool, new olive oil brands. For Fat Gold, that coolness looks like industrial-chic tins with neon labels. “When I think of Oakland, and us, our temperaments, it’s our values of practicality, straightforwardness, maybe a little bit aggressive,” says Robin Sloan, the communications chief of Fat Gold. “We’re not trying to hide things behind a screen of ooh it’s so lovely and traditional and warm and fuzzy… This is an industrial process. It requires a centrifuge, give me a break.”

Fat Gold has been in production since 2017, when Sloan and majority owner Kathryn Tomajan got an opportunity to lease three acres of olive groves in the Bay Area, after Tomajan had spent years working in the olive oil industry. Sloan said they wanted to be upfront about the process with customers, not selling them a pastoral, European fantasy, but talking about the realities of things like farming and industrial milling. “That led us to the name, which is sort of punchy. What are you making? FAT GOLD.”

The packaging also sometimes helps educate consumers on just how to use these olive oils in the first place, whether it’s by making the bottles so design-forward you’re more likely to display them on your counter (and then use them), or by making them more fun and interactive than your average glass bottle. Andrew Benin, founder of Graza, sells two categories of oil — Sizzle and Drizzle. One for cooking, one for pouring on food like a condiment, and both in squeezable bottles. “You have control, you can put as much or as little as you want. You can slide it down the bar to your kids. You’re not going to do that with a big bulky glass bottle of olive oil,” he says. By putting the oil into squeezable bottles, and changing the language to “drizzle” from “finishing oil” (because who intuitively knows what that means?), consumers learn that there is indeed a difference between the oil you cook with and the oil you dip your bread in.

The idea that people should be using olive oil as a condiment, and not just an ingredient, is central to much of the new olive oil marketing, which is based on decadence and enjoyment. But while the marketing emphasizes excess, much of it also highlights the health benefits of high-polyphenol, extra virgin olive oil — basically assuring customers that this excess is okay. Single & Fat calls it the “goodest of fats.” Brightland’s marketing says, “Knowing everything that goes into your food allows you to thoroughly enjoy it, and share it with family and friends with more pleasure.” Graza notes its Drizzle oil comes from olives harvested “when antioxidants are highest.”

Healthiness is tricky to measure with olive oil. Importers and middlemen often make the question of quality opaque, and the industry has a history of fraud. And though phrases like “high-antioxidant” and “extra virgin” (a quality standard meaning the oil has no chemical defects) hint at what olive oil might offer, most consumers don’t really understand what that means. Many of these newer brands explicitly describe how practices, like sourcing from small farms and ensuring oils are single-origin, lead to better oil, which in turn, they argue, leads to a healthier product. Fat Gold has an entire section on its site explaining what “extra virgin” means and describing the science behind polyphenols, including how they are responsible for the burning, spicy flavor so many people like. Brightland and Graza emphasize the specific olive varietals they use, and specific harvest dates and locations so consumers know exactly where their oils are coming from. Single & Fat, though it sources from several different countries, insists each batch comes from the same harvest and is certified organic.

It’s easy for olive oil to start to sound like a miracle drug, and as Fat Gold notes, the mechanisms as to how polyphenols affect the human body aren’t quite understood. But the image of olive oil as good for you certainly helps sales in a culture obsessed with wellness that doesn’t always want to act like it’s obsessed with wellness. “Health can often feel like a checkbox or a responsibility, so by treating [olive oil] like an indulgence, and with playfulness and creativity, it brought new life [to the olive oil market],” says Matt Cruz, cofounder of Single & Fat. The product was given a playful name to straddle that line — it’s a descriptor of the single-batch fatty oil, but clearly, it’s also meant to evoke a lifestyle.

And for Single & Fat and others, evoking a lifestyle has been working. According to Lindsey Weiss, co-owner of New York City shop Pine & Polk, customers explicitly mention the vibrant, cheeky brands that they’ve seen on social media. “With the rise of cooking, gathering with friends again, and everyone taking photos of literally everything — from the meal to all the ingredients used to make the final product — aesthetically pleasing brands are that much more important,” she says. Customers are certainly drawn to the explicit quality of these products, and the transparency around how they’re made. But the brands are fun, and while they do remind customers of the health benefits associated with using olive oil, the messaging is much more about treating yourself to something good.

Given the cost — many of these olive oils are around $30 a bottle, compared to $9 for a store brand like Cento — good olive oil is a treat for many, which often lines up well with brands positioning olive oil as a product of excess and pleasure. But sometimes, that means eliding just how few people can reasonably partake. For Benin, the main goal was getting the amazing olive oil he started eating in Spain to be as accessible as possible; Graza sells for around $20. “Single varietal, being transparent about the bottling date and the harvest date, and that it’s always oil from one farm, all of these are really important things,” he says. “But they all become less important if nobody can afford it.”

Like in all food production, quality products that pay everyone in the production chain fairly naturally become more expensive. And while people who were already olive oil users may know why it’s worth the cost, if the goal is to get more people to drizzle this fat on everything they make, it’s harder to achieve when each glug costs a dollar. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford olive oil who don’t know that it’s healthy. But the brands you’re talking about aren’t solving that problem, us included. Not yet at least,” says Benin. “Olive oil is still eight times more expensive than canola oil.”

The other problem facing consumers is the same opaqueness that has long plagued the olive oil industry, just with a different look. Several years ago, quality seals of dubious authority claiming freshness and health became grounds for litigation. Now, as Iyer puts it, “it’s very common to take the same subpar quality product that already exists and then pretty it up with packaging.” If consumers associate beautiful, cool packaging with artisanal, small-batch olive oil now, then it becomes easier to assume everything that comes in beautiful, cool packaging is of that quality.

Which is indicative of a bigger issue of aesthetics. We are in a moment when food trends are all about the extravagance, whether it’s strong martinis, boards slathered in butter, or red sauce pasta joints expanding across every city. The it crowd is lining up outside Jewish delis, and cakes are sexy. But the coolness becomes conferred by the look alone, secondary to any quality inherent to the product itself, and the images so often are of a select few who are permitted to indulge. Case in point: There are no fat people in Single & Fat’s fashion shoot.

This is how trends work. Aesthetics once in service of something greater become only in service of themselves. But the good oil is still there, still worth it, and still beautiful. Despite the way trends can dilute and corrupt what’s pure, sometimes you do get the whole package.

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