By Pamela Dozois
Local food pioneers Craig and Cindy Makela, the owners of California Coast Naturals and Oleavicin LLC, will be inducted this summer into the Specialty Food Association Hall of Fame.
The hall’s mission is to “honor individuals whose accomplishments, impact, contributions, innovations, and successes within the specialty food industry deserve praise and recognition,” said Vice President Ron Tanner of the Specialty Food Association.
The Makelas will be inducted at the Summer Fancy Food Show as part of the Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Awards Ceremony, which will take place on Sunday, July 1, at the Javits Center in New York City.
“The specialty food industry is thriving because of your contributions,” Tanner wrote to the Makelas.
For more than 27 years the Makelas owned the largest specialty olive company in the United States, the Santa Barbara Olive Company, specializing in fresh green and black, glass-packed, olives and oils.
They began in the 1980s with land on Alamo Pintado Road in Solvang, with a warehouse, a packing plant and 1,000 olive trees.
“What an honor is this award for both Cindy and me,” Craig Makela said. “I guess the folks who made this decision know that we are getting old. This award makes us both feel very proud to have been a part of this industry. NASFT has come a very long way, and we are honored to have been a small part of it.”
Makela founded the Santa Barbara Olive Co. Inc. in 1983 and built one of the nation’s top olive brands. He has served on the board of directors of the National Association of Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), the National Food Distributors Association, the California Culinary Guild, and along wife his wife, Cindy, he formed the California Specialty Food Association.
He also is a board member and past president of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and is a guest lecturer at Cal Tech Pasadena, UCSB, Santa Monica City College and for several trade associations.
Cindy Makela is a board member of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
Craig Makela is the CEO of a medical development company, Oleavicin L.L.C. Oleavicin is a balm for cold sores, fever blisters, canker sores, and dry itchy skin.
The couple are considered pioneers in the gourmet food industry and are among the innovators of the county’s modern oil milling.
Craig recalls when consumers and chefs looked askance at olive oil that had color, flavor and character. He said that for him to sell bitter, pungent extra virgin olive oil required him to walk door to door on State Street with cases of his olive oil.
“The industry was just beginning to explode in the mid-1980s,” he said. “The history of gourmet food in the country before the ’80s was minimal. The only gourmet food came from Europe, and I knew that we grew better fruits and vegetables in the United States than in Europe.
“Small specialty shops were beginning to pop up all over the country selling ‘organic’ fruits and vegetables and gourmet specialties. Gypsy Boots was selling his organic fruits and vegetables on a cart, which he sold to people in his neighborhood. We didn’t realize at the time that our country was emerging in the gourmet industry.”
Chefs like Julia Childs, Wolfgang Puck, Roy Yamaguchi, Michael McCarty, Michael Hutchins, Michael Richard, James Sly, and Alan Hooker, who he said launched him into gastronomy, were beginning to embrace the idea of gourmet meals and lighter, healthier California cuisine.
In his opinion, the wine and gourmet food industries grew up hand in hand. The wine industry in California took off when, in 1976, Steven Spurrier elevated California wines when he won the “Judgement of Paris,” where European wine experts selected California wines in a double blind tasting, creating an uproar in the industry. The movie “Bottle Shock” tells the story of this amazing win.
In 2006 the tasting was repeated and again California wines came out on top.
“In 1983, I joined the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade and became a member in 1984, and later become one of its board members,” said Makela. “I fondly remember my first NASFT show in Atlanta in 1983 in a small hotel ball room with maybe 3,000 visitors. Today the show draws more and 30,000 visitors and more than 3,500 exhibitors. While at that first exhibit, two men from Neiman Marcus approached me and asked if I would be interested in having my olive oil and spiced olives in their Christmas Catalogue for 1984. That was the beginning for us. The Santa Barbara Olive Company was off and running.”
Craig graduated from Santa Barbara City College and transferred to UCSB, where he met Cindy. They have been married for 40 years.
The couple has many memories of their struggles to start the business.
“We couldn’t afford land in Santa Barbara. So in 1985 we leased 17 acres of land on Alamo Pintado, in Solvang, with a warehouse and packing facility and planted 1,000 olive trees,” Makela said. “After seven or eight years an opportunity came along to buy 10 acres on Calzada Street in Santa Ynez, which we did, and planted close to 1,000 trees there as well. We opened up the Olive House in Solvang, which is still there today. We sold the place in the late ’90s.”
In 2009 Cathy Latou was convicted of embezzling more than $800,000 from the Santa Barbara Olive Company, which she had gambled away at the Chumash Casino. That resulted in the sale of the Santa Barbara Olive Company.
In an effort to get out of the retail business and concentrate on distribution and growth, the Makelas sold the Olive House and their property on Calzada and moved to Goleta.
They rebounded by creating two new companies, California Coast Naturals, which produces olive oil and spiced olives, and Oleavicin, which makes a balm for cold sores, fever blisters, canker sores, and dry itchy skin.
California Coast Naturals can be purchased at Solvang Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays. Makela can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.cacoastnaturals.com.