Israeli olive oil makes its way to the Rockies

boulder, colo. | When Barbara Trager traveled to Israel in 2002, it was the first time she had set foot in the country since living there 32 years earlier.

“I had a wonderful time, but I was saddened by the state of affairs there,’ she said. The country’s people and its economy were struggling, she said.

When Trager returned to Boulder, she discussed the situation with four friends. After bouncing ideas off one another, the group of five — Trager, Ron Kahn, Linda Richtel, and Sandy and Dr. Steve Friedman — came up with a business idea that they hoped would help the region.

They would import and sell Israeli olive oil.

“No one seemed to have it,’ Trager said. “There are fine Italian and Spanish oils, but most people don’t know about the Israeli olive oils.’

The friends, who used to meet monthly for chavurah gatherings and Shabbat meals, formed the Halavi Import Co. and now spend much of their time boxing and shipping imported Olive Grove olive oil to area synagogues, markets and specialty stores.

One of the business partners, Steve Friedman, was strongly convinced of the oil’s health benefits and its place in the Mediterranean diet. After buying samples from the Kibbutz Beit Nir, an Israeli communal settlement about 1 1/2 hours from Jerusalem, the five Halavi members went to last summer’s Boulder Jewish Festival and used the event as a test market.

The group distributed 800 olive oil packets and signed more than 100 people to a mailing list.

“We had an overwhelmingly positive response and that’s why we decided to pursue it,’ said Richtel, the company’s director of business development.

The oil was originally targeted to the area’s Jewish population, but it became a bigger hit outside that community, Richtel said. Markets and restaurants, along with synagogue gift shops and specialty stores, were filling out orders for the kosher, extra-virgin oil.

After Halavi placed its orders last summer, however, the company hit its first speed bump. The Israeli dock strike delayed the shipment, so the five had to push their distribution plans to the end of January.

Despite the delay, Halavi was able to distribute to more than a dozen area restaurants and stores, including the Boulder Co-op Market, Har HaShem Gift Shop, Nabil’s Restaurant and the Boulder Cheese Co.

Saxon Brown, owner of the 6-month-old Boulder Cheese Co., said the uniqueness of the Olive Grove product appealed to her. She ordered 12 of the smaller, 250-milliliter bottles, which she hopes will be a fitting addition to her selection of Greek, Italian and Spanish oils.

“Everyone has the Italian olive oils and the Greek olive oils,’ Brown said. “I try to carry stuff that hopefully not everybody has.’

The Halavi five said they are optimistic other retailers will take the same path. The group is in discussions with three large grocery chains that will potentially carry the olive oil. “We’re starting to work out the kinks,’ Richtel said. “We have some reorders and we’re selling to individual people who saw the literature and the Web site,’

With help from friends, family and other businesses, including a couple of delis in Missouri and Ohio, the company has sold out of the 2,000 bottles imported in mid-January, Trager said. “What was first just a notion, started to grow into a regular, wonderful thing.”

The company also imports honey and is now looking into Israeli skin care products as a way to diversify its imports. But no matter how large or successful the business becomes, the five company founders say they will not lose sight of their initial goal: to help the Jewish state and its surrounding region.

Trager said the company plans to donate some of its eventual profits to the area.

“We want to bring not only prosperity but also peace,’ she said. “It’s so wrenching to see what’s going on over there.’