The industry may need to prepare for a different kind of oil crisis: Olive growers are seeing a dramatic decrease in crop yields worldwide. This shortage, combined with an ever-rising demand for olive oil, could mean higher prices for restaurants, especially those that use pure extra-virgin olive oil.
The 2014 total harvest of 2.56 million tons was roughly 20 percent lower than the 2013 yield, and the shortage has affected both U.S. and European markets.
“There was a poor crop in Spain because of weather, and in southern Italy there have been wide reports of different viruses that are affecting olives,” explains Ann Sievers, co-owner of Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company in Northern California. The problem is compounded by the influx of fraudulent oils made of poor-quality olive oils and vegetable oils, Sievers says, adding the cheap blends make real extra-virgin olive oil seem expensive in comparison.
“I’m assuming that the price will go a little bit higher for maintaining the quality and the demand,” says Antonio Matarazzo, managing partner of the Washington, D.C., Italian establishment Lupo Verde, which sources its olive oil from a small, family-owned producer based in Tuscany, Italy.
Olive oil is a perishable product, and the longer it sits, the more it degrades. Stale oil, experts say, will lose its flavor. But restaurants can keep costs from skyrocketing by knowing when to use which oils.
“There’s nothing wrong with vegetable oil if it’s properly processed,” Sievers says. She recommends these oils for frying foods. “Use the high-end olive oil for a finishing taste.”
Lupo Verde, for example, uses extra-virgin olive oil in dishes ranging from focaccia bread and salad to octopus, steak, and cake, and oftentimes it is employed as a final ingredient to brighten the flavors.
Like wine, olive oils come in a wide range of tastes and aromas. Some restaurant owners say they would be hard-pressed to find a viable substitute.
“You cannot turn walnut oil into olive oil; none of these have the same aroma quality to them [as olive oil],” says Kris Hardy, co-owner of San Antonio–based Stella Public House, which sources locally produced olive oil. “Texas olive oil tastes different from other olive oils [just as] you get a different taste out of a Chilean Cabernet than a French Cabernet.”
Even if prices rise during the shortage to meet demand, Hardy and Matarazza say they plan to continue sourcing the good stuff.
“We believe that long-term the quality is going to save money,” Matarazza says in his thick Italian accent. “To give the quality flavor, you just need a big spoon’s worth.”