Step into the world where the city of Calabria, Italy blends with California to create EXAU Olive Oil. The inspiration for the name derives from the phrase “oleum ex albis ulivis,” which the ancient Romans used to describe the five tiers of olives reserved for nobility. This company was a labor of love from Giuseppe Morisani and Skyler Mapes who used their unique backgrounds in olive and wine to start a business. As a married couple, they ventured into their business being completely hands-on in every step of the production process from the harvest, to pressing olives to make oil.
Each meticulous choice they have made has been instrumental in delivering the highest quality product that customers can’t get enough of. In the three years EXAU has been on the market, it has grown to be an internationally award-winning olive company. This delectable condiment is harvested in the late fall/early winter and can be consumed cooked or raw. As a versatile kitchen staple, EXAU Olive Oil can be used in everyday cooking and for dressing up your favorite salad, meats, and veggies. It most recently received the coveted spot on “Oprah’s Favorite Things 2020 List” much to the delight of Giuseppe and Skyler.
We sat down with Skyler to chat about the origins of EXAU, running a family business, and the new products coming in 2021.
Tell us how your business got started
“That is a story of equal parts love and business. In 2014 shortly after Giuseppe (my now husband) and I met he took me on a road trip down to his hometown of Le Castella, Calabria. In addition to introducing me to his parents, he introduced me to their olive trees. I’m from northern California so I was no stranger to agriculture and winemaking but olive trees were completely foreign.
In 2016 Giuseppe and I were living in the U.S. We went to a large grocery store and bought some olive oil. We went home and started cooking with it and Giuseppe was so disappointed in the quality. He asked ‘why can’t I find good Italian olive oil here? Where’s the olive oil that’s similar to the one we make in Calabria?’. The idea for EXAU was born and we started planning.
Later that year I took a job during fall harvest in the cellar of Rock Wall Wine Company. My lifelong friend, Shauna, was the winemaker and I knew she would help me understand the world of agriculture and what it takes to create a high-quality product. I told her our idea and she said ‘do it, we will have you guys here at events. I’ll help you with whatever you need’. Having that support from another woman in a similar industry gave me so much confidence.
At first, Giuseppe and I had this giant project planned for the company with lots of funding but quickly learned if we wanted to control quality, educate consumers about olive oil, and bring attention to the beautiful region of Calabria we needed to start small and be extremely hands-on.
September 2017 we moved to Giuseppe’s town of 1,400 people to start the business. We harvested all the olives with a tiny team of four people. Then we started a relationship with a local press and chemist, who we still work with. I have a background in architecture and design so I did all the branding and marketing which is something I still manage. We were able to get our oils to one of the best olive oil sommeliers in the world where he shared with his private panel.
EXAU is unique because we produce our own oils and sell directly to customers in the U.S. We aren’t going through large distributors or resellers. It allows us to truly connect with consumers and help them understand our industry and products better. For example, our olive trees were planted 80 years ago by Giuseppe’s grandfather, 30 years ago by Giuseppe’s father, and 2 years ago by us. Knowing exactly how the olives trees have been cared for over the past almost 100 years is incredible.
With all that said, our business didn’t start ‘overnight’ and we couldn’t have started our business without Giuseppe’s family or our supportive network in the U.S. Importing to the U.S. was still a challenge and we mostly worked events the first 1 1/2 years to get our name out there.”
What do you love the most about running your business?
“The people we meet and helping them learn about olive oil. We have met so many incredible, talented people since starting EXAU. I could have never imagined the friendships that would come from our business. At events, we meet customers in person and other makers who support and encourage us. We always thought it was extremely important to connect with customers online and offline. This is why we’re building a digital community for olive oil fanatics and Italian food lovers. Our Instagram is a place for anyone to ask a question about olive oil, Italian cooking, or traveling in Calabria. Our transparency creates trust with consumers which is something we believe is lacking in the food industry.”
How does your website play a role in your business?
“Our website is extremely important because EXAU is eCommerced based. However, EXAUoliveoil.com is not just a place for people to buy oil, it’s a place for consumers to learn about the product as a whole. You’ll find articles like How Extra Virgin Olive Oil is Made which dives deep into the harvesting, pressing, bottling, and importing process. This article is not only education, it shows the transparency in our production process.
There are also recipes that celebrate Italian food, with an emphasis on Calabrian cuisine. Our website is a space for consumers to learn about the different regional cuisines within Italy. The best example of this is a recipe for Vrasciole, Calabrian meatballs. In Italian, the word for meatball is ‘polpette’, however, in Calabria they make ‘vrasciole’ which are Calabrian fried meatballs, often in the shape of a mini log. Most people have never heard of vrasciole, but they know what a meatball is so it’s recipes like this that are really special and unique.”
What makes your products or services stand out from your competition?
“There’s a lot of different parts to this! Our olives are 100% estate grown in Calabria, Italy. Giuseppe, my co-founder, and husband is a 3rd generation olive oil producer so knows the ‘campagna’ (property) extremely well. He grew up climbing in the olive trees and watching his dad care for the trees. Our property is surrounded by other estates owned by Giuseppe’s aunts and cousins.
I’m a 3rd generation Californian with a background in design and winemaking. Transitioning from the wine industry to making olive oil was actually quite fluid. I’m also not afraid to get my hands in the dirt, so I am out there harvesting each fall. My strong background in design and interest in agriculture coupled with Giuseppe’s family’s long history in the industry is what makes our brand unique. In addition, our oil was also named ‘One of the Best Olive Oils in the World’ by the International Olive Oil Competition.
However, it takes more than awards or titles to make a brand special. I believe our brand is special because we care about helping consumers first and we are extremely transparent.”
We love seeing that the origins of your brand are rooted in family, what is the collaboration process like with your husband and what skill sets do you each contribute?
“Giuseppe always says “divide et impera” which translates to “divide and conquer”. This is the way we approach our business. The task of running and operating an olive oil company across two continents is huge and we are only two people so need to break things up into manageable chunks. Each of us knows our strengths and weaknesses and we make an effort to cover for one another. I build and manage all branding, marketing, growth, and U.S. relations. Giuseppe is responsible for managing campagna (countryside/olive groves), equipment, and Italian relations. During harvest, we manage production together and work extremely long days.
It may sound like our jobs have clear boundaries but that’s not the case. We work together, albeit on different tasks, for at least 4 hours a day and then might part ways. I believe what makes EXAU so special is that we are both so heavily involved with production, bottling, visits to the lab and campagna, and other time consuming yet extremely crucial parts of running an olive oil company. It helps us both stay in tune with what we’re working on (and towards) and stay in sync. I think we’re a good balance between classic Calabrian chaos and smooth American efficiency.”
This has been a year where we’ve seen everything from remote work to virtual learning as we’re all inside, what were some of your favorite recipes you cooked indoors?
“We stayed indoors all year until it was time to harvest in late September. Our work is essential so we are able to get outside in order to visit our trees. Unfortunately, Calabria is currently in a ‘red zone’ in Italy (full quarantine). Being indoors so much has not limited our cooking at all! It’s actually helped us be more creative. One of our favorite recipes is Pasta Aglio e Olio (pasta with garlic and olive oil) which is having a pretty big moment on social media right now.
We love it because you can make it any time of year and when made properly it’s delicious. Pasta Aglio e Olio is also the best dish to practice regularly in order to perfect the consistency of any pasta sauce. The perfect Pasta Aglio e Olio requires proper timing and the correct % of reserved pasta water to the sauce. It seems really simple, but there’s actually a lot to it! But once you perfect it you can make incredible pasta for the rest of your life. Other recipes we love: Vrasciole which are traditional Calabrian meatballs, Parmigiana which is Giuseppe’s mom’s recipe, and Pasta alla Carbonara which Giuseppe has been making since he lived in Rome.”
What challenges did you encounter when creating your website and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?
“All the technical stuff! I was the one designing and building the website in the beginning (I still do almost everything on our site). To this day I still get most frustrated when I can’t simply deal with the coding myself. We have a very clear vision for our brand and for EXAUoliveoil.com so it’s challenging when we can’t simply make our dreams a reality because we do not have the skillset to do so. Thankfully we have some pretty great web developers and they are currently helping us build a new website!”
Social media has continued to play an integral role in marketing and visibility for eCommerce brands, what are creative ways you’ve showcased EXAU in the social sphere?
“Social media is the place customers go to see us, the people that produce their olive oil and work every day to build EXAU. It’s where they go to see Calabria, the trees, and get a little peek into the everyday life of a sleepy southern Italian seaside town. We don’t have an ‘agenda’ when using social media. We share our day, updates about the trees, recipes, and most importantly talk about olive oil. While social media is a wonderful place to share company updates and sell products, we’ve always said that our priorities are 1. educating consumers about olive oil 2. selling incredible olive oil.”
What can we look forward to from EXAU Olive Oil in 2021?
“The 2020 harvest is coming early 2021 and we are so excited! It’s been a pretty wild past few months and we are ready to keep moving forward. In early 2021 we will start shipping to Canada and hope to be shipping to much of Europe by the end of 2021. We are also currently tasting quite a few other pantry items that customers have been requesting for the past few years such as olives, anchovies, tomatoes, and pasta. TBD on the new pantry items!”