Oil Baron: Jersey-Made Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra-virgin olive oil was all but unknown in America when John J. Profaci started Colavita USA in 1978. Now “EVOO” is on everyone’s lips, not to mention their salads and skillets.

Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Courtesy of Colavita.

Italians are known for their graciousness with strangers, but in 1980, when John J. Profaci paid his first visit to the home of his then-new business partner, Enrico Colavita, in the Southern Italian village of Sant’Elia a Pianisi, he saw two women peering at him from a window—Colavita’s wife and sister-in-law.

Both were crying.

“They were saying, ‘Enrico has lost his mind! He went to America and he brought back this young guy. He’s never going to be able to sell olive oil!’” recalls Profaci, laughing.

Had the women been able to flash forward 32 years, they might have wept with gratitude. Profaci, founder and chairman emeritus of Edison-based Colavita USA, calls himself the senior statesman of the extra-virgin olive oil industry. And he has the numbers, not to mention the stories, to back it up.

“Here’s a statistic that will knock your socks off,” he says at his office desk, which is flanked by family photos and pictures of himself with Enrico Colavita, who is still his business partner. “When I first started with olive oil in 1978, the total importation in the U.S. was 50,000 tons. Total importation last year was more than 270,000 tons.” The International Olive Oil Council confirms that figure.

“Household penetration of olive oil was 8 percent back then,” he continues. “Today it’s in the 50s.” That, he says, “just shows how much further we have to go.”

Extra-virgin olive oil is now so familiar to Americans that TV chefs like Rachael Ray refer to it just by its acronym, EVOO. Yet it’s still mystifying enough that many consumers are uncertain how it differs from virgin, let alone from lesser grades.

The difference, says John Profaci Jr., one of the senior Profaci’s four sons, is quality: The lower an olive’s acidity, the more palatable and prized it is. To be classified as extra-virgin, the highest grade, an oil’s natural acidity must be 1 percent or less. Virgin oil by definition tests at just over 1 percent up to 1.5 percent acidity. Higher-acidity oils are often chemically processed to make them useable.

John Jr., who lives in Maplewood, handles marketing for Colavita USA. He has never worked anywhere else. His brothers hold key positions—Joseph, of Madison, is chief counsel; Anthony, of Chatham, is VP of sales and quality assurance; and Robert, of Glen Rock, is COO and VP of purchasing. On the Colavita side, there is Enrico, who lives in Rome; his nephew Giovanni, who moved from Italy to New York in 2008, and is now CEO of Colavita USA; and Andre, Giovanni’s cousin, who is CEO of Colavita Italy.

“It’s truly a family business,” says Profaci. Always was. In the 1970s, in Sant’Elia a Pianisi, not far from Italy’s Adriatic Coast, Enrico Colavita and his family were making olive oil the same way Enrico’s father had—with hand-operated presses. But Colavita saw a brighter future if he could export his oil to the thriving Italian-American communities in and around New York.

So when Colavita married in 1978, he and his bride honeymooned in New York. There he visited a relative in Coney Island. As Profaci tells it, Colavita asked the relative, “Do you know anybody who knows anything about olive oil?”

As a matter of fact, the relative did—Profaci, who lived in the nearby Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Profaci at the time was working out of a tiny Newark warehouse as a broker for two large food companies, “selling to Italian restaurants—pizza cheese, tomato products.”

Bensonhurst, which was largely Italian, gave Profaci what he calls “the advantage over everyone else. Unless you lived or ate in one of those areas, you knew nothing about extra-virgin olive oil.”

That year Colavita made Profaci his importer. Their only contract was a handshake. Profaci dreamed big. He believed that Colavita’s extra-virgin oil was so fine a product that Americans of all backgrounds would ultimately adopt it. But he was canny enough to realize that Rome (just 125 miles from Colavita’s village) wasn’t built in a day.

So he started small, setting up a table on a Saturday—a heavy shopping day—at a C-Town supermarket in Harrison, near Newark. He chose Harrison for its diverse population, and C-Town because he knew the owner.

“I had my oil in a bowl and some bread,” he says. “A lot of people went by, but no one stopped except one lady. And this one lady dipped the bread, took a bite, put the bread down and started to walk away. I said, ‘Excuse me. What did you think of the oil?’ She said, ‘I didn’t like it.’”

Why? “It was too dark, it had a strong odor,” he says. “All the things we think of today as positive, she thought of as negative.”

For the next few years, he skipped supermarkets and made inroads with Italian restaurants in Manhattan’s Little Italy and Brooklyn. “That’s where I had my first success,” he says. “If you think about it, every new food starts off at restaurants—sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, porcini mushrooms, radicchio. You wouldn’t eat any of those unless you tried them at a restaurant first. But it was just a small step.”

Another came when a handful of specialty food stores in New Jersey and New York began to express interest. Profaci sold bottles, not cases, to “Fairway up in the Palisades,” now Cafasso’s Fairway Market in Fort Lee.

Then something Profaci calls “amazing” happened. To the best of his recollection, in 1984 or 1985, “the New York Times food section ran a story about a study on diabetes, colon cancer and intestinal disorders in men” from seven different countries. The article noted the health benefits of monosaturated fats like olive oil. Best of all, Profaci says, the story was illustrated with a picture of a bottle of this health-enhancing substance—a bottle of Colavita extra-virgin, as it happened.

That “woke the supermarkets up,” says Profaci, who began showing the article to every prospective customer. “They realized they had been missing the boat.”

Colavita is now “the best-selling authentic Italian extra-virgin olive oil in America,” Colavita claims. “Has been for years. I think we have about 8.6 percent of the total market.” These days the olives are pressed by state-of-the-art machines at various sites in Italy. Retail stores are only part of the picture. Colavita is used by many restaurant chains, including Olive Garden and Red Lobster. And though Rachael Ray markets her line of pantry staples under her own name, her EVOO is produced by Colavita.

Over the years, Profaci has relocated the company from a warehouse in Newark with no loading dock to a modern building in Linden to the 225,000-square-foot facility on 10 acres in Edison, where it moved last spring.

He’s even taken it beyond corporate campuses. At the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, the Colavita Center for Italian Food & Wine looks, Profaci says, “like they took it out of the hills of Tuscany.” In order to graduate, every student must pass a six-week program in Mediterranean cooking there.

Profaci was already a longtime member of the CIA’s board of trustees when he struck a deal to create the Colavita Center in 1991. “They told me, ‘if you come up with half the money to build it, you’ll have naming rights forever.’” He says he came up with the $2 million the school asked for— but even though the center, which opened in 2001, ended up costing $7 million, “a deal’s a deal,” he says, smiling.

Profaci has no official input on curriculum. But he does advise on new products now and then. And he is clearly well respected: In 2010, he was inducted into the CIA Hall of Fame.

“That was a real honor,” he says. “Every year they recognize someone who’s accomplished revolutionary things in the industry.” In Profaci’s case, the achievement cited was creating the market for extra-virgin olive oil in the U.S. “My dad has become his job,” says John Jr. “He’s become Colavita.”

Yet if the founder has his way, the Profaci name won’t be synonymous with Colavita forever. “I have an unwritten philosophy,” Profaci says. “No wives or grandchildren in the business.” That’s quite a sweeping statement for a man with seven granddaughters and six grandsons. To be sure, he and his wife, Connie, dote on them. Two years ago, they moved from their longtime home in Staten Island to Westfield to be closer to the grandkids, who are scattered throughout New Jersey.

“The last 50 years, all this time I’ve been in the food business, I’ve seen seven large companies run by Italian families go out of business,” he says, “all because of situations with wives and children. Envy and things like that. So that’s how I want to run things—no wives, no grandchildren. It’s my way of keeping harmony in the family.”

His sons seem reconciled to the situation. For his part, the founder says he’s not sure when he will retire. But one thing he is certain of: “That lady from C-Town? Wherever she is, I bet she’s buying extra-virgin olive oil now.”

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