Step inside the cozy Fredericksburg, VA, shop, Taste: Oil, Vinegar, Spice, and you may not know exactly what to do first.
Lining the walls are two rows of silver tanks, each filled with one of Taste’s 40 varieties of top-grade olive oil and vinegar. A spigot at the bottom of each tank invites shoppers to fill a tiny plastic cup with the nectar. Do you dip in your finger? Do you instead dip one of the the petite salted crackers from nearby dish? Or is swigging the flavorful liquid straight from the cup the best way to get a taste?
“It’s up to you,” insist proprietors Jan Davis and George Farrar, who are always just a few steps away—ready to assist any customers with quizzical looks on their faces. “We get asked that question a lot.”
What is obvious is that Davis and Farrar—both former Navy officers who got married just four years before opening their first Taste in Culpepper, Va., in October 2011—are passionate about providing only the highest-quality ingredients to enhance shoppers’ favorite dishes.
“At Taste, we believe that fresh trumps everything,” Farrar insists. “That is why we offer only the freshest olive oils and organic spices from around the world, complemented by the most flavorful balsamic vinegars imported from Modena, Italy.”
One swig of the blood-orange-infused olive oil, followed by a sip of the cranberry pear white balsamic vinegar (which, when combined with a few other ingredients, makes what may be the best coleslaw ever), and it’s tough not to get addicted to the offerings at Taste.
To learn more the couple that founded Taste, scroll down for our interview.
To listen to our podcast interview on the Inkandescent Entrepreneur Show, click here.
Be Inkandescent: What made you want to open Taste?
George Farrar: We were on vacation in Maine, and saw a shop that was offering fresh, extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs) and balsamic vinegars. We had a grand time in there sampling everything. It was our first exposure to that business model, and through the rest of our vacation, we made a point of seeking out other oil and vinegar shops and then started doing some research. That was in May of 2011, and by October we had opened our first store.
Be Inkandescent: Wow, that is really impressively fast. Did you already have experience in the retail industry?
George Farrar: Other than working in a grocery store when I was about 16—absolutely none. Both Jan and I are retired Navy officers, and then we both spent about 10 years in the government consulting world before we launched Taste on our own.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us a little bit about your background, Jan, what was your career like, and what inspired you to open Taste in addition to seeing something like it in Maine and saying, “We have to do this!”
Jan Davis: Well, I joined the Navy decades ago, and I had a Navy career for years before working as a contractor for the federal government. As I was nearing retirement age, I started looking to do something else—something that didn’t involve a long commute. My little sister is an entrepreneur, and she has a frozen custard store in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, VA, called The Dairy Godmother. She was having too much fun to let her be the only one to do it. From there, we started looking for something that we could do that would be fun as well.
Be Inkandescent: Taste is certainly a great idea, and as a customer, it’s easy to get addicted to the aromatic flavors—not just because they are delicious, but also because they make cooking like a gourmand so easy. Did customers take a while to figure out the process of tasting the different oils, vinegars, and spices?
George Farrar: Well, we get a wide variety of people. Some have experience with this type of store, and to others, it is completely foreign to them. People who haven’t been in a shop like this before come in and ask, “Is this a wine tasting or coffee tasting?” Others ask for some tips to tell them what’s going on. We generally try to gauge whether or not the customer has had experience with this type of store, and if they haven’t we take the time to explain it to them; what the layout is, what’s in the different containers, and how to go about tasting. Then we offer them suggestions along the way once they get familiar with what they are doing.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about the different flavors and the things you can make with the oils and vinegars.
George Farrar: The main thing we like to promote is the extra virgin olive oil that is nothing but the olive. We have about a half-dozen varieties of olive, so you can have an extra virgin olive oil that’s very mild, one that is very robust, or something in between. People realize that extra virgin olive oil actually has its own intrinsic flavor that is very good. It’s much like when you go to the grocery store and get an apple that came from who-knows-where, that apple tastes okay, but if you go to the orchard in Rappahannock County and pick one off the tree, you’re talking about a whole different taste sensation. That is the real difference between our fresh extra virgin olive oil and what we think of as the maybe not-as-high-in-quality extra virgin olive oils that people often buy in supermarkets. That’s the “plain oil” business.
Be Inkandescent: Jan, tell us about the infused balsamics.
Jan Davis: That is a big part of our business, as well. We have many oils that are fused and infused with the essences of certain herbs and spices. They’re a great basis for many kinds of cooking. Like our “Tuscan herb” —you can rub it on a chicken that you are roasting, or put it in a dish and use it for dipping bread or raw veggies. It is terrific if you just drizzle a little bit over a grilled steak—you have instant Steak Florentine! There are so many things that you can do with all of these things. We have many vegans who come in and love what we have in the store.
Be Inkandescent: I see a cookbook in your future. For now, tell us what has been challenging about having your own business here and in Culpepper? How do you manage the two stores, and what has been the most fun thing about being entrepreneurs?
George Farrar: I think the biggest challenges are just keeping up with the flow. The inventory, which Jan does a great job of keeping up with, is something we have had to learn how to handle. We really have to keep a close eye on things because of the lead times needed to refresh any product we run out of. The most fun part to me is interacting with the people, our customers, and talking to them about the oils and balsamics and how they might use them. We also like to engage with what we call “the junior tasters” in a family group because one of the real highlights of our business is that it is a whole-family experience. You can have several generations all participating. There are not many activities, and certainly not tastings, that are multigenerational experiences where everyone from grandmothers and grandfathers all the way down to toddlers can enjoy it equally. Here, everyone is on an equal footing and everybody tastes. Everybody eats and everybody can enjoy the product.
Jan Davis: I guess one other thing that is challenging is that every single thing we do in running the shops is a first-time event for us. We don’t have prior experience in retail, so we keep discovering, “Oh, we have to do this.” Well, how do you do that? We have great friends and we talk to people on the street. They are all helpful about giving us advice.
Be Inkandescent: Clearly, you two are a power couple. What it is like to work together? Is there any friction or challenges or just lovely symbiosis?
George Farrar: Lovely symbiosis. Actually it has been very interesting. Jan and I have a small farm, a little orchard, so it is not like we hadn’t worked side by side before. Plus, our careers are both in Navy Public Affairs, so we share a lot of common experiences.
We’ve even been stationed at the same place, only at different times. So we never had any real direct overlap, until we met as part of the recommissioning of a World War II battleship. Jan was stationed in Chicago, and I was a part of public affairs on the ship. That is where we met and began working together. So we’ve worked together very closely and distantly.
The new thing for us was this day by day, side by side, working together. When we opened the store in Culpeper, it was our only store for about seven months. We worked daily side by side and occasionally one of us took the day off. For the most part, the big change came when we opened our second store, here in Fredericksburg. All of a sudden we needed to have one of us at each one of the stores. That changed our work style considerably.
Jan Davis: The other thing I discovered by working together that I didn’t expect to is that I learned a whole lot of new things George. He would do things and I would be like, “How does he know how to do that? He is so good at that!” So, it’s really been fun learning more about my husband.
Be Inkandescent: What do you talk about besides Taste and work?
George Farrar: We have great morning meetings in our pajamas. It is like the best staff meeting ever. Otherwise, we are like any other couple. We talk about current events. We both have an interest in politics and what is going on in the world and what the economic situation is and what the global situation is. We talk about travel, too; we both like to travel. Jan has plans for a big trip coming up.
Jan Davis: Yes, travel is probably the top thing that we talk about. We have a plan to go to Asia—to Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Be Inkandescent: What advice do you have for other couples that would like to take the plunge, but haven’t yet?
George Farrar: I would say that if you’re working together and find that there is some friction, then maybe you need to hire somebody else and give yourself some space. Actually, because we have two stores, we do have some space. One of the very unique things we do is alternate. I’m at one store one day and Jan is at the other. Then the next day you’ll find her at the first store and I’ll be at the second one. That kind of keeps us honest, working behind each other that way. You know that you need to leave the store in good enough shape that whenever your spouse comes in the next day, it is ready to go. That keeps us on top of things because we also both have a different eye. Jan will notice things that will totally blow by me, and I may see a few things or have recommendations that she may not have thought of.
Be Inkandescent: You also sell your goodies online, right?
Jan Davis: Yes! Just log onto our website, www.TasteOVS.com to order our 200 milliliter or our 375ml size bottles. We have our Top 20 listed there—our best sellers. And we have flat rate shipping of $15. You can order one bottle and it cost you $15, or you can six bottles and it costs you $15 for shipping.
Be Inkandescent: What is the price point for the different options?
Jan Davis: It’s $11 for the 200 mL, and $16 for the 375 mL bottle.
Be Inkandescent: That is probably on par with what you would pay at the supermarket, but you’re selling the gourmet version and the infused version. It is very exciting what you’re doing and building! What are your dreams for the future?
George Farrar: We have opened all of the stores that we plan on opening, at least in the immediate future. We just want to see this be successful. We are continually building our customer base, and it’s a loyal group that returns regularly because they enjoy the product so much. We are very devoted to keeping a very fresh, helpful product out there and having people enjoy it.
02 East Davis Street, Culpeper, Virginia 22701
815 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, VA 22401