Palermo grower never expected to own an olive-oil company—let alone two
The small brick house is almost unnoticeable, partially hidden by groves of olive trees and nestled on a secluded road in Palermo. Across the first driveway sits a small factory, just slightly larger than the house, filled with the humming of machinery and permeated with the smell of olives. Just outside, olives travel along a conveyor belt and a woman in jeans feeds lemon halves to a machine, adding the fruit’s zesty aroma to both the air and the olive-oil.
This little factory may not seem like much to the casual passerby, yet it is the home of two olive-oil labels that together serve cooks across the nation: Butte View Olive Co. and Stella Cadente.
Lewis Johnson is the third generation to work the 150 acres of olive trees that have been in his family since his grandfather first farmed them in 1935. The family grew olives exclusively for canning until 1996. Then, Johnson said, “the canneries told us that one of our olive varieties wouldn’t be accepted.” In response, he began work on olive oil, which he first produced in 1999.
The rest is history.
Though the company still cans olives for the table, Butte View is predominantly an olive-oil maker, with an array to choose from. In addition to regular blends, the factory also produces oils with a little bit of extra flavor: garlic, basil, lemon, lime, blood orange and for the first time this year, rosemary. “Pour some of our basil oil over fresh pasta, and you have something that’s delicious and ready to eat,” Johnson said.
Blood orange olive oil isn’t the only unusual commodity Johnson produces. His daughter Kristean, who helps make oils and extract zest from lemons, figured out a clever way to make use of old olive oil that had lost its flavor: soap.
“We only use the fats from the oil, so it’s a bit harder to make,” Johnson said, “but it’s a good way to use old oil.”
With the combined innovation of Johnson, his father, Don, and daughter Kristean, Butte View took off and is sold throughout Northern California and into Nevada—from Carson City to Reno to Orland to San Francisco.
“We’ve spread mostly through word of mouth,” Johnson said. “Folks go into a store and tell the manager they would buy our oils if the store had them. It works much better than me going around trying to sell my oil. There are about 400 labels competing for one shelf spot.”
In addition to producing Butte View’s oils, Johnson assists other outfits, allowing them to use his machines for pressing. It was this service that got Johnson the Stella Cadente label.
“We had been pressing for them and doing a lot of their work,” Johnson said. “The owners wanted to get out of the business, and we ended up buying the label from them a little over a year ago.”
Stella Cadente’s oils have wide distribution, allowing Johnson’s lifetime experience with olives to add a little flavor to food all over the country.