Queen Creek, Arizona
Olive oil, olives, and related products for consumers and wholesale
"The town of Queen Creek calls our zoning 'Agritainment,'" says Rea,
That's because in addition to the "agri" part of Rea's venture -- growing olives, milling them into oil -- his business also incorporates a major "entertainment" component. This includes olive-related education at the estate; oil and fruit tastings; a retail establishment; dining options, including a café and bistro; and live music for people sitting at the picnic tables under trees on his property.
"We get about 650,000 visitors a year," says Rea, who calls his business "one of most valued foodie destinations in Arizona right now."
Rea's farm sits in Queen Creek on 56 acres. About 25 of them are planted with nearly 9,000 olive trees. "Arizona has a great climate to grow olives, because, if you think about it, it's very similar to the Middle East," observes Rea. "It's very similar to the South of Spain. Very similar to Southern Greece. And even Southern Italy."
After testing a variety of trees to see which would grow the best and would be easiest to harvest, he settled on two main varieties: the Koroneiki (from Greece) and the Arbosana (originating in Spain). The trees have been planted in hedgerows, which makes it easier to collect the olives mechanically after they ripen between mid-November and late January.
Next, Rea's olives are milled. Technically, they aren't pressed: rather, a "state-of-the-art extraction machine" uses centrifugal force to produce the oil. It runs "24-hours-a-day for about eight weeks," with the ability to process three tons per hour. "This year we milled almost 80,000 liters," says Rea. His exclusively extra virgin olive oil -- meaning, created without the use of heat or solvents -- is then kept in 22,000-liter tanks, purged of nitrogen, and maintained at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. "We bottle every six weeks," he says.
Rea sometimes blends his farm's olive oil with the oil he presses from another Arizona farm's olives, as well as the oil from a partner farm in Chile. As a certified Professional Olive Oil Sommelier, he has been trained to bring out the three main "sensory attributes that go into good olive oil," namely fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency, which vary in degrees depending on whether he's bottling a delicate, balanced, or robust blend.
"I control basically everything from blossom to bottle," says Rea.
And beyond that, too. In addition to olive oils infused with flavors like vanilla, chocolate, lemon, chili, and bacon, Rea has other products he has co-developed and has co-packed for him including pasta sauce, BBQ sauce, and pasta packs. Vinegar from Modena, Italy, as well, which he sometimes barrel-ages. "Everything that goes onto my shelf has to be unique," he says about the nearly 350 SKUs of his own -- and a few other local products. Rea's oil will also be used by his onsite café and bistro to prepare, for instance, Italian food -- or even cupcakes.
Rea says, "I can't say that the production of olive oil is our main business: Our main business is really entertainment." To that end, Queen Creek Olive Mill's calendar is chock full of seasonal events. When CompanyWeek spoke with Rea, he was preparing for an Arizona sweet corn roast, at which olive oil would substitute for butter on the grilled cobs. He expected 2,000 people would show up that day.
"We've grown every year -- including through COVID -- almost 20 percent year-over-year," says Rea. "And during COVID, even higher numbers."
Rea's journey to becoming a full-time olive oil entrepreneur began after he transitioned from the automotive industry. "I tease people I went from motor oil to olive oil," he says. His Italian immigrant father started a company that manufactured fluid handling systems for automobiles, eventually moving it from Detroit to London, Ontario, where Rea grew up. Rea took over the business, returning it to Detroit, and then stayed on for a couple years after selling the company to a European concern.
While vacationing in Arizona, Rea's father pointed out all the olive trees in the area. Later, Rea's wife, Brenda, said to him, "Hey, why don't we just make olive oil in Arizona?" And that's just what they did, after purchasing the Queen Creek farmland. It made sense to him. "I'm Italian," says Rea. "I like to grow things." Today, Brenda and the couple's daughter, Joanna, oversee the Olivespa line of olive oil-based soaps sold at their retail outlet.
"I'm very particular about what I put in my bottle," says Rea about his oil, some of which has won awards. "At the end of the day, anything that I put in my bottle, I'm putting my name on it -- and it has to be damn good."
Challenges: "Like any farmer, the biggest challenge is the environment -- Mother Nature," says Rea. "We can have a hot spring -- and a hot spring could bring high temperatures and burn blossoms during the blossoming time in April." Still, in terms of water, the trees use a third of the water that an Arizona cotton crop would require, he says.
Opportunities: Expanding on the agritourism possibilities by creating more opportunities to experience the farm. "The biggest opportunity right now would be to grow in this segment -- but carefully grow in this segment," says Rea. He tossed out the idea of a potential wedding venue, for instance. Queen Creek Olive Mill has already established a second retail operation in Scottsdale at the Marketplace at Kierland Commons to vend its range of products, as well as to promote the farm location as a destination.
Needs: "Finding workers," says Rea. Labor shortages have increased over the past couple of years, especially on the restaurant side.