Mike George found his second career almost by accident. The former Canadian Armed Forces member wasn’t looking to start a business selling olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but nearly two years later, he’s getting ready to open the bricks-and-mortar location of Aurelius Food Co. in the heart of Wellington West.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Much of Mike’s family lives in Europe, thanks to his economist grandfather, who took a posting to the United Nations in Rome and brought his wife and kids with him, including Mike’s mother. She returned to Canada for university and raised a family here, but many of her relatives are still based across the Atlantic, including her brother, Mike’s uncle, who grows olives in a town called Sacrofano, just north of Rome. About two years ago, while Mike was visiting, his uncle wondered if the olive oil produced by local growers at the village mill, using traditional methods, might sell well in Canada. He suggested Mike bring some back with him, and they agreed to ship over a single pallet—500 litres of cold-extracted extra-virgin—and see what happened.
Fortunately for Mike, what happened was a conversation with El Camino chef Joe Juarez, who tasted the oil and, though he was unable to use it in his Mexican cuisine, offered introductions to 10 local restaurants he believed might be interested in buying artisanal olive oil.
“Five of them got back to me, and four of them bought,” says Mike, who remains grateful to Juarez for his entrée into local restaurant kitchens. Riviera was Mike’s first customer and remains its biggest one to date, going through as much as five to 10 litres of oil each week. Those early successes gave him the confidence to continue, and he named his business Aurelius Food Co. as a nod to its Italian roots.
Other restaurant buyers followed, including Beckta, North & Navy, Les Fougères, the Clarendon Tavern, Eighteen, Whalesbone, Elmdale Tavern, Meat Press, Brasserie 460, and Art-is-In. But such high-quality oil isn’t cheap, and Mike’s profit margins were nearly nonexistent, because of importation costs. To diversify his product line, Mike also began importing a high-quality three-year-old balsamic vinegar, as well as some more delicate 15-year-old in smaller bottles. His next shipment will include some 25-year-old balsamic as well.
He also reconnected with a former Forces colleague who’d opened an olive oil and vinegar shop in Pembroke, and decided to follow her lead, taking over the space where Emulsify, a similar business, recently operated. Mike has renovated the shop with the help of family members, and found a supplier for high-quality flavoured olive oils and balsamic vinegars. He plans to stock about a dozen flavours each of olive oil, white balsamic, and dark balsamic, which customers will be able to taste before purchasing. The store will also stock the high-end olive oil and balsamic that Mike imports privately and sells to restaurants.
Mike hopes the shop, once it opens, will be more than just a retail establishment. He wants to educate customers about his products, host community events, and eventually support organizations like the Parkdale Food Centre. Several of the chefs who use his olive oil in their kitchens have already offered to host in-store cooking demonstrations.
“I want to try to be part of the community, not just a transaction,” he says. “To be a force for good.”
Aurelius Food Co. is located at 1283b Wellington Street West. The store’s soft opening period begins Tuesday, September 11, with a grand opening to take place later in the month. Meanwhile, you can see their products at Tastes of Wellington West on September 15, find out more online at www.aureliusfoodco.com, or follow them on Instagram at @aureliusfoodco.