Some students studying abroad fall in love with a place. Maggie Lebherz, ’08, modern languages and linguistics, fell in love with some new tastes during her semester at the University of Salamanca.
“Tasting fresh olive oil added an entirely new dimension to it, and I also learned about the health benefits of olive oil,” she says. “I had never had true balsamic vinegar, and even the best ones on the market here could not compare to what I had in Spain.”
The love affair that Lebherz developed with balsamic vinegar and fresh olive oil while studying in Spain has translated into a most unusual business venture: Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium (LOVE) in her hometown of Frederick.
After graduating from UMBC, Lebherz returned to Frederick, working as a translator for the local school system. However, when a redistricting left her with a job as a secretary, she began to consider opening her own store focused on the two products she loved: olive oil and vinegar. Many people thought she was nuts to build a business on two products. But, as Lebherz says, “I told people that Baskin-Robbins ‘just’ sells ice cream.”
Working with the local Small Business Development Center (created by a collaboration of federal, state and local agencies), Lebherz put together a business plan. “My saving grace was Chris Olson, a retired businessman who helped me pull everything together and make projections,” she says. “But it was difficult because there were no other similar businesses to compare what I wanted to do.”
After extensive research and contributions from her own savings and financial help from family and friends, Lebherz threw open the doors of her store, Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium, in June 2010.
Lebherz imports her olive oil from eight different countries and her vinegars from three countries. She buys in small quantities to keep the products fresh. The emporium boasts 25 different vinegars (including lavender and vanilla balsamic) and 30 different oils, including a blood orange and a Persian lime olive oil.
Most first-time visitors expect to see bottles waiting to be picked off the shelves. But Lebherz keep all her product on tap in “fustis,” which resemble ornate samovars. Cubes of fresh bread and small paper cups allow customers to sample oils and vinegars before making a purchase. “The stainless steel fustis have gaskets on top, which prevent oxidation and are key to keeping the oil from deteriorating,” says Lebherz, “and they also block the sunlight.”
Of course, Lebherz is on hand to offer suggestions to customers. “Believe it or not, wild blueberry balsamic vinegar is great on vanilla ice cream,” she says. “It really is a great complement to a number of desserts.” And her customers come up with their own twists – reducing wild blueberry balsamic and pouring it on pancakes, or using a dark chocolate balsamic to craft a terrific mole sauce. Indeed, a Frederick gelato store rustles up one of its flavors with that wild blueberry balsamic, which is so popular that Lebherz has a hard time keeping in stock.
Frederick is increasingly being seen as a food destination, and the emporium has forged a strong local following. But the shop does face challenges. A two-week period between ordering olive oil and actually receiving it requires some fine tuning in managing inventory. And when winter weather delayed a delivery of bottles from a California factory, she had to close the store for several days last year. “The trucks that were bringing the bottles got stuck in a snowstorm, and by law I can only sell the oil and vinegar in my store’s own bottles,” notes Lebherz.
Lebherz credits her family for providing practical assistance as well as investments. Her father helped make the store’s shelving. An aunt designed the shop’s website. And her mother and sister worked part-time in the store for no financial compensation for a few months. But the business has done well enough that her mother is now on the payroll on a part-time basis, and Lebherz has also hired another part-time staffer. And while the emporium isn’t showing a profit yet, Lebherz is very optimistic about the future.
“My main reason for doing this is for the health benefits of fresh olive oil and it is something that everyone can enjoy,” she says. “And this store feels like it is a little piece of Europe.”