Verna Jennings Cleveland and her business partner Hillary Dunson had been friends for 10 years or so, engaging in small entrepreneurial enterprises and community service projects together when the ‘Big Idea’ hit. Hillary and her husband were on a business trip in Arizona and walked into an olive oil shop. Thoroughly inspired, their idea was to open such a place in Atlanta where there weren’t very many.
“Hillary was looking to do something for herself. She was working in husband’s dental office and I was working as a political strategist for the last 30 years. I was also looking to do something for myself — something my two daughters would be proud to be a part of.”
Still, Verna was, what would become Atlanta Olive Oil Company’s first tough sell.
“Hillary approached me about the idea and I said, ‘No, thanks.’ I was not interested in being a foodie-type. I am not even a cook, don’t like to cook … I had never even gone into an olive oil shop. I felt you had to be passionate about what you do in order to do it well.”
But Hillary wouldn’t take no for an answer and Verna eventually said yes — but they wanted to do it differently. “We wanted to have a place that would also serve as a facility that people in the community could use as an event space. The other shops are like old candy stores. So, we started looking for space during our information-gathering phase. Mind you, we were still putting together business plan and still convincing our husbands that this was more than just a hobby. So we hadn’t gone the traditional finish-your-business-plan before-you-start route.”
West Midtown’s burgeoning foodie scene would turn out to be the perfect anchor.
“The area was up and coming, trendy and relatively inexpensive and it also had a great event space. We took the dive. Hillary jumped right in to the foodie aspect like the selection of products and distributors and I focused on the business management. We kind of stayed out of each other’s lanes and trusted each other. We were able to devise a business model based on our strengths to open up really fast and produce something really fast that people really like.”
To optimize the space and innovate, they host events and tastings featuring their “Guiltless Cocktails” – olive oil and balsamic vinegar infused cocktail creations that appeal to every palate. The location is not in a heavily foot trafficked area, so, having penetrated all of their circles of influence to initially keep the business afloat, they believe if they were in the planning stages again, they would devise a model where they would duplicate and scale faster; one that would reach more customers even faster – introducing them to the world of olive oil.
“We’re still fine-tuning our marketing strategies and the finances are always a challenge. When you start a new business offering a product and you have a brick and mortar there’s a set overhead. Any profit has to be reinvested back into the business. A lot of people by now would have had to close their doors. “
For the business school grad duo, time management and timing is everything.
“If we had gone the traditional route of completing business plan and getting attorneys lined up, it would have probably been another two years and we probably wouldn’t have done it. You have to take risks and if you’re smart enough, you can minimize risks.” -ADW