Sofi Madison doesn’t love retail. That might be one reason her South End food shop Olives & Grace doesn’t feel so much like a store.
What she does like is all the other pieces of owning a store. “I’m into service, hospitality, and food knowledge, more than I’m into seeing everything as an opportunity to upsell,” says Madison, 30. “A curtsy to the makers,” the shop’s tagline, emphasizes its mission: to support small-batch food producers around the country.
Each piece holds some sense of meaning to the maker, many of whom quit their 9-to-5 jobs to pursue their passions. “The growth of the small-maker movement has been really exciting,” Shae Whitney, owner of Dram Apothecary in Silver Plume, Colo., writes in an e-mail. Her pine syrup for cocktails, sold in nifty brown glass jars reminiscent of another era, is on the shelves of Olives & Grace. Small producers, says Whitney, are “changing the landscape of products in America and infusing our economy with products made lovingly, as opposed to junk made only for profit.”
Inspired by the culture of California wine country, known for its natural elegance, Madison named the shop Olives & Grace. Olives are grown there, and she wanted the place to have “natural, simple products, and the grace that they were made by someone who really enjoyed making them.” Among the handmade goods are grainy mustards from Mustard and Co. of Seattle, Hu Salty Chocolate Bar from New York, Q’s Nuts of Somerville, Kings County Jerky of Brooklyn, N.Y., and McCrea’s Candies caramels from Hyde Park.
A Weston native, Madison had been living in San Francisco, where she worked a variety of service jobs. Returning here, she says, has had its challenges, but her sunny disposition helps. She financed the shop by working a variety of jobs, waiting tables, event planning, and organizing farmers’ markets. “I learned as I went, instead of preparing myself,” she says.
The entrepreneur established her first shop two years ago on Pembroke Street. This spring, she moved a few blocks away to the Tremont Street location and the transition was smooth. Her first shop was built with the help of her artist friends, complementing the homespun feel of the inventory. “She cares about the quality and the stories behind all of the products,” says David Devoe, one of Madison’s frequent customers and a store manager at neighboring Jack Spade. “I was sold from minute one.”
At the new Olives & Grace, setting the scene was important. Soft jazz music plays in the background; products sit beside the latest indie food publications such as Gather Journal and Kinfolk magazine and some items that aren’t edible, like candles, jewelry, wooden maps, and Mason jar cocktail shakers. “It all works together even though it can be wildly different, from sriracha sauce to purses,” says Lindsey Swett, Madison’s friend and owner of Niche Urban Garden Supply, which is next door. Trevor Sieck, a manager at Siena Farms produce market, was “excited to have another young person opening a store in the neighborhood.”
Madison often posts updates to the shop’s website and to social media. Vendors are taking notice. “Sofi approached us,” writes Whitney, “and after looking over her website, I felt that we would be a great fit.”
Because she’s still a relatively new business owner, Madison is always there. “There’s not much of a difference between my store and my life at this point,” she says. With striking green eyes and chestnut curls, she’s a presence in the shop. “Sofi is a really magical person. She’s got this kind of energy that sweeps people in,” says Robin Cohen, owner of Doves & Figs in Arlington, whose jams Madison carries.
Madison makes sure that she is as invested in the products as she is in the people who buy them. Customers walk out with a curated bag of goods, which might include Mike’s Hot Honey, excellent drizzled over cornbread, and Z Confections’ Salted Caramel Corn with a kick of cayenne, which releases a punch of heat as you crunch into the sweet, golden puffed kernels. Design and packaging are important here. Ajiri Tea, made in Kenya, comes inside banana leaves.
Madison’s role in the success of the maker movement is small, she says. “The South End is full of mostly independent stores, and [the neighbors] love their local stores.”
OLIVES & GRACE
623 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-236-4536, www.olivesandgrace.com