Holy Smokes! How a Petaluma Couple Set the Olive Oil Business on Fire

When his grandfather appeared in a dream and told him to smoke olive oil, entrepreneur Al Hartman decided to give it a try.

Al Hartman’s lifelong study of authentic smoking techniques earned him the nickname “The Smoke Whisperer.” With MacGyver-like skills, and a passion to create astounding new flavors, Al invented an entirely new process to naturally wood smoke extra-virgin olive oil in the absence of heat, air and light to preserve the quality and flavor.

Al’s partner in life quickly became his partner in business. Brenda Chatelain’s strong business background and flair for marketing provided the missing ingredients … and The Smoked Olive was born. Neither could have imagined where their passion and determination would lead.

We connected with Brenda to get her insight on launching a new product on the crowded California epicurean scene and also share what it’s like launching a business with your spouse.

Where did the inspiration come from to smoke olive oil?

Brenda Chatelain: Al comes from a family of chefs and restaurant owners. In fact, his grandfather had the first restaurant on Broadway in San Francisco. Crazy as it sounds, he had a dream where his grandfather told him to smoke olive oil … and decided to give it a try. Al has studied natural wood-smoking techniques for years, so he was able to smoke the oil fairly easily. The tricky part was creating a process that would maintain the integrity of the oil. Oil begins to degrade quickly when you expose it to light, heat or air. That’s one of the reasons you see fine olive oils in dark bottles. Anyhow, after much trial and error (and money) he developed our exclusive process that maintains the flavor and integrity of fine olive oils.

Once you perfected the product, how did you get it out in the marketplace?

BC: Farmers markets are a great incubator for small business. We chose to test our products at our local market and it ended up putting us on the fast track. The enthusiasm and sales our smoked olive oils generated was astonishing, and loyal customers became our product ambassadors … getting word to Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table.

It’s also amazing to discover who else is roaming the aisles at your local farmers market. Chef John Ash was an early fan of our products and told Fine Cooking magazine about us, which resulted in our first magazine article. Chef Michael Chiarello heard about us and sent his product VP down to meet with us, which eventually led to our foodservice division. Giada even sent some family members to see us and we ended up in her Happy Cooking cookbook, as well as Tyler Florence’s Family Meals and Fresh cookbooks.

We put ourselves in the right place, and fortunately, it was at the right time. That, and working crazy-long hours have taken us from the farmers market to having our products on shelves internationally.

How is it working with your spouse on an endeavor like this?

BC: Being in business together has incredible rewards and challenges. We have wildly complimentary skills, but that also presents challenges. Different skills often result in a different approach to business … which can lead to conflict. It took a while to realize that our conflict was really only a challenge. You can let it get in your way, or you can take it as a challenge to develop new communication skills. It took a tremendous commitment, but I can honestly say we’re a stronger team now than we were 10 years ago. We don’t let much get in our way!

What do you love most about being part of the California epicurean scene?

BC: We’re spoiled by amazing food and postcard views in wine country, but there’s a generosity of spirit in our food community that surpasses it all. Local Chefs and customers have supported us on such a personal level, it’s really astonishing. Customers have volunteered to help for free during our starving artist days, and chefs have quietly been sharing our smoked olive oils with the media and fellow chefs. There are endless examples of their support, which have made wine country foodies the real reason The Smoked Olive is a labor of love.

Find delicious recipes using The Smoked Olive here.

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