The warehouse buildings on Terminal Street in Charlestown are nondescript, but one is headquarters to a gastronomic jewel. Down a long corridor, double doors open to a suite of unadorned rooms and a treasure trove of exotic and premium quality food products. This is the home of OliveNation, an online business that sells over 500 items sourced from across the globe.
Racks bulge with selections of unusual ingredients not readily available at supermarkets. There are containers of grains of paradise, a pungent West African spice; South Asian black beluga lentils; black truffle tapenade from Italy; Moroccan organic argan oil; unfiltered bittersweet chardonnay vinegar from Spain. Employees are hustling to box up orders as quickly as they come in.
Five years ago, Milton resident Amit Mitra built a website and started the business to sell a handful of Italian olive oils, vinegars, and pastas. His wife, Chiara Frenquellucci, who teaches Italian at Harvard University, is originally from Marche in central Italy, where on visits to his in-laws, Mitra became smitten with the regional food and met many local producers. “I learned a lot from my in-laws about appreciating fresh ingredients,” says the entrepreneur. Staples from Marche were the first items he imported and sold through OliveNation.
Before this venture, Mitra, who has a master’s in business administration from Babson College, held marketing positions in Aramak and Office Depot. But he always wanted to run his own enterprise. “I was unhappy with corporate life,” he says. He was attracted to an online company because he could supervise the operation from anywhere. A native of Calcutta, Mitra regularly travels back and forth to visit his elderly parents.
Business started slow. To ramp up sales, Mitra bought a small company that sold certified organic dried wild mushrooms, so he had a customer base in place. He also expanded selections through painstaking research, tasting and testing products in recipes. He added gluten-free items. Now, he racks up orders from cooks all over the country, who often land on the website when Googling a specific food.
The website is one-part store, one-part culinary tour, and many parts educational. Each product has an explanation that offers how best to use it. About Hawaiian black sea salt, the website explains, “The color is created by bonding high quality charcoal to pure Pacific Ocean.” You learn that this is a “finishing salt,” as opposed to a cooking salt. Teff is described as “the smallest grain in the world.” It goes into soups, stews, and puddings as a thickener.
“Most of my customers are home cooks,” says Mitra. “Many people don’t have access to what people in big cities have.” Some of his clientele run small businesses. “There are a lot of things I can’t get here,” says Michael Caffrey, a private chef on Nantucket. He landed on OliveNation’s website when he was searching for pomegranate molasses and saw bottles of specialty oils, such as pistachio. “I don’t want to buy large quantities from a wholesaler.”
Loyal customers include bakers and candy makers who buy the company’s hard-to-obtain pure extracts, such as black walnut, Key lime, lavender, and cardamom. Jeremy Spindler, who recently started a Somerville-based business, Spindler Confections, was searching for extracts that had no imitation flavors. “OliveNation is one of the only places to find this wide variety,” Spindler says.
Kristen Wheeler, owner of Stirred Crazy Creations in Millbury, sells her own flavored nut butters. Stumbling on real extracts on the site was a stroke of luck for her. “I kid you not, they are like nothing I ever tasted,” says Wheeler. “I couldn’t do business without them.”