Bryan Saba, 59, owner of Big Paws Olive Oil Company, is big on promoting San Benito County. Every chance he gets he tells his friends from the Bay Area to drop in and sample some country charm, as well as the bounty of products grown here, especially the olives. He first became aware of what the county had to offer when he and his wife, Susan, came to the San Benito Olive Festival in 2014. In fact, they were so impressed by the experience and the people they met that they sold their home in Saratoga in order to relocate not only their residence, but their business here.
Today, Saba runs his boutique olive oil company from a large metal building on five acres along Santa Ana Valley Road that he likes to say he bought and then the seller threw in the house for free. Free or not, it’s quite a house surrounded by farms and his own “hobby olive orchard” of a little under 100 trees. He figures if he’s able to harvest the entire orchard next year he may get a gallon of oil from it, if he’s lucky.
Fortunately, he has working relationships with three full-time farmers scattered around Northern California, and he’s working diligently to close deals with a couple closer to home. When Saba refers to Big Paws as a boutique olive oil business, he means it.
His entire production crew consists of himself and one other man who drives down from Campbell where the company was originally located to help out with the bottling. He’s tried to find local help, but said it’s difficult because production comes in spurts where he’ll bottle 40 to 60, or even 100 cases in four hours and then nothing for a while. He said the labor shortage also extends to the local olive growers because they are too small for labor contractors to want to deal with. But these are the very people Saba wants to work with because he believes as small businesses they can benefit one another.
Saba is not a farmer in any sense of the word. That’s why he doesn’t want to actually grow olives—beyond his hobby orchard. One bad crop would wipe him out, he says. What he is, though, is a salesman—who happens to also be a bottler of quality olive oils. He’s also an engineer who found himself without work as his 401k dwindled around 2009. So, he decided to basically reinvent himself.
He and Susan thought they should buy something tangible that they could retire with and have some fun too. Being a graduate of Chico State College, he says he had just enough familiarity with agriculture that he thought he might be able to do something ag-related—in the most generic sense. He joked that if it were a winery they would drink all the profits. Then they came across an olive oil company located on Mare Island for sale on Craigslist.
“We bought the company and moved it down to Campbell and we’ve been there almost ten years,” he said. “We partner with small, family-owned orchards in California, bring their olive oil to our shop where we do basically all the manufacturing, the bottling, labeling, certification. We do over 15 farmers markets a week in the Bay Area. We’re also in about 30 Whole Foods Markets in the Bay Area, and we do a lot of sales online.”
When he and Susan came to their first San Benito Olive Festival in 2014, they joked that they should move here because everyone seemed to love them. In a case of kismet, a local olive grower, who had 20 acres of olive trees along Nash Road, approached them to buy his property. They seriously considered it, but were also looking for opportunities around Paso Robles and Chico.
“We tried to buy that property, but got out bid,” he said. “We continued to look and ended up on the east side of Hollister, next to the Santa Ana Mountains. It’s turned out to be one of the best places. We planted a little under 100 trees this year and will probably plant probably 50 more.”
He considers his own trees, more or less, to fill gaps in production and wants to work more with local olive growers, including the new owner of the 20-acre farm that he didn’t get. He said the owner doesn’t really know what to do with the olives.
“We’re hoping to come to some sort of agreement to harvest them,” he said. “We’re trying to meet with other farmers to get our own Hollister brand going. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Saba said he likes to work with growers in different areas of the state because differing soils make for different tasting olives.
“We have three flavor profiles,” he said. “We have a spicy, or early harvest flavor, which has a lot of peppery taste to it. Then we have a mid-line, which is for a person who has never tried olive oils. It is a nice flavorful oil that’s a blend of three oils. And then we have what we call a late harvest that we describe as butter in a bottle because it is very smooth and isn’t overpowering. And we have an organic olive oil that people are looking for.”
Saba’s unabashed enthusiasm for San Benito County extends not only to making it the home base for his thriving business, but to the point that he now sponsors the Olive Festival’s food stage, where the chefs will use his olive oils, and the summer Guerra Cellars’ Concert series.
“I invite all my friends in the Bay Area to come here and see the shows and tell them this is where they really want to move and get out of there while they can,” he said. “We’ll be sampling our olive oil there this month for their wine-release club.”
Saba’s end game, he said is to try to entice people to come to Hollister to sample olive oils, walk through his gardens, fly kites and visit a car museum that he’s planning to build.
“I just want to create a place where people will want to visit and hang out,” he said.
Olive Festival Location has changed:
Just in case you missed it, the 4th Annual San Benito Olive Festival has changed venues from Brigantino Park to the county’s Historical Park on Highway 25, just south of Tres Pinos. Everything else, says founder Kathina Szeto, is pretty much the same as the previous three festivals, only bigger and better. The gourmet celebration that brings in visitors mostly from the Bay Area, but has begun to attract more than a few international travelers looking for something unique, will be held Oct. 14, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $20, Children 6-12: $10, Seniors 62+: $15, and VIPs: $35.