LIQUID GOLD: How Bill McArthur and Myrna Burlock brought true extra virgin olive oil to Canada
When purchasing a bottle of extra virgin olive oil at one of Liquid Gold’s stores, you likely have little idea of the steps it took to get that product there. The journey that oil took was one fraught with danger, full of opportunity for swindlers and even the Mafia to dip their fingers into the vats. Protecting the quality of the product that they sell is all part of doing business for Liquid Gold’s owners, Bill McArthur and Myrna Burlock. “There’s nothing more in these steel containers than olives that have been crushed and bottled. If none of these oils can be trusted, then all the flavoured oils we sell have to go out the window too,” McArthur says.
McArthur and Burlock love extra virgin olive oil, often referred to as EVOO, and know their stuff for sure. But they rely on a true expert when it comes to sourcing product. Paul Vossen, known as the godfather of California olive oil, is the man who has their trust, and it is Vossen who travels the world in search of the very best oils, reporting back to the couple. “Paul is the guy we depend on. If they pass his tastes at the mills, we’re probably in line to buy it,” says McArthur. “But that’s not where it ends. That’s the start of a lengthy process to get it into our stores.”
The oil gets packed, and undergoes testing to create the scientific data that you’ll see displayed beside the stainless-steel vats of EVOO at Liquid Gold. Then it gets shipped. But it must be tested again once it arrives in North America. “Some of the fraud in olive oil happens during the shipping process,” says McArthur. “Especially when you’re shipping into port in New Jersey, which is so Mafia influenced. They’ll take the good stuff, change it with the bad stuff and ship the good stuff off somewhere else. So, once it gets to this country we get it tested again to make sure what Paul tasted is what actually turns up.”
Finally, once verified, the oils make it to Liquid Gold’s shelves, where customers are encouraged to slurp and sample. For EVOO virgins, this can be life-changing.
“Most people use olive oil all the time because they know it is so healthy, but they have this idea of what it is in their head, and could never drink it because they can’t get past the smell,” says Burlock. “When you convince them to try it here in the store, either straight up or with a little bit of bread, you can see in their faces that this was not what they expected. They’re hooked.”
Getting hooked on the good stuff was what started this entrepreneurial couple on the road to their EVOO empire. Burlock got McArthur to taste it in exactly the same way that she does with customers in their stores today.
The Back Story
Between 2008 and 2009, Burlock and McArthur were living in Arizona working on a building project. “It was the worst time, when the economy was in full collapse,” says McArthur. “We decided to head back to Canada, with a view to moving back, but wanted to try something else in the meantime.”
While living in Arizona, Burlock came across a boutique selling authentic olive oil from stainless-steel drums, the same as you see in Liquid Gold’s stores today. This was the olive oil that she remembered from her youth, that her father had sourced on his travels, and her mother, a nurse, had given her to help with her eczema. “She had not been able to find it previously because most of the stuff you get in the grocery stores is industrial cooking swill for the most part. She brought some home and introduced me to it,” says McArthur. “Like most North Americans, at that point I could not have told you the difference between extra virgin olive oil and transmission fluid. But when she brought that home and got me to try it, it was a revelation.”
Once the couple moved home, they started to run out of those bottles and started looking around for more, but couldn’t find anything that came close to it. They found the name of the importer on the back of one of the bottles, and reached out to them in California to find out where they could get it in Canada. Turns out, nowhere. And so they found that “something else” to work on.
McArthur says that they thought that Canada, and Nova Scotia, was ready for artisan olive oil, so the business didn’t seem like that much of a risk. After all, trade for artisan coffee, tea, wine, beer and cheese was already robust here. “We said to ourselves that if that palate desire is there, we might have more success in establishing the olive oil branch of that tree, as opposed to trying to plant that tree. This helped us achieve some measure of success more rapidly than if we had to start this whole artisan thing from scratch. We owe a whole lot to those people who blazed that trail before us.”
They secured their first location in the Hydrostone, and Burlock says that they knew they’d be successful from the day they opened the door back in October 2010, though they were met with some bemusement in the lead-up to opening. “When we were getting ready to open that store, people would stick their head in the door and ask what we were doing. We’d respond that it was going to be a tasting bar for extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and they’d say, ‘What?’ And, ‘That’s a business, is it?’” says McArthur with a grin.
Those kinds of attitudes didn’t worry them, though. “One of the things we had to accept that our greatest opportunity and responsibility was going to be to teach and introduce. We’ve been doing that daily in every one of our stores for the past seven years,” says McArthur.
Incidentally, the initial plans were never to open multiple stores, says Burlock. “I thought, this is a comfortable spot with he and I working the store. Then we realized that if we wanted to protect ourselves in the Maritimes, we would have to get out there and expand.”
Growing an Empire
Within eight months of opening that first Halifax location, they opened a second store in Charlottetown. After that there was a store in Saint John, then Moncton, then Bedford. The Saint John store is no longer operating, as it didn’t perform as well as it needed to, but the other stores are “hale and hearty,” says McArthur. Add to that another seven boutiques (kind of pop-up locations) across the Maritimes, and you can see that Liquid Gold has a firm hold here. “I think we’ve successfully entered the food chain here, and we’re happy about that, and happy that it has evolved in this way,” says McArthur.
Since opening, there have been many imitators, but this doesn’t bother the couple. “That’s just the way that an idea percolates through a community. You have a vanguard and then other people take notice,” McArthur says. In fact, they’ve consulted with many others looking to start similar businesses in Canada and the U.S., and encourage growth even if it doesn’t directly benefit their bottom line. Liquid Gold was the first olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting bar in the country. McArthur says that there are now about 60, and that he and Burlock helped 58 of them get started.
“We don’t have the desire to put a Liquid Gold everywhere that we can think of,” says McArthur. “It makes us very happy that we have been anointed the godfather and godmother of the extra virgin olive oil in this country by other entrepreneurs, most of them couples who’ve opened similar stores in Revelstoke, in Winnipeg, in Sault Ste. Marie, in Victoria. In fact, some of our former employees have gone on to open their own stores in other communities, and we’ve been only too happy to help them.”
Learning the basics
If you’re yet to enter one of Liquid Gold’s locations and are wondering, “How good can this stuff really be?” then you owe it to yourself to find out. Burlock and McArthur import olive oil from all over the world, and love to share their knowledge with customers. “We never lose sight of the fact that teaching and advocating for this product will never go away, and if we don’t do it, no one else will,” says McArthur.
Tasting the oils and vinegars at Liquid Gold is a pleasurable experience indeed. True EVOO tastes fresh, herbal or green as a freshly mown lawn — an altogether different experience than you’d have sipping the types of olive oil you get at most supermarkets. Each EVOO is displayed with a certificate of authenticity and a chemical breakdown that shows the good fats and bad fats in the oils and what polyphenols are in it. You may not understand why any of that is important when you enter the store, but you will when you leave.
“Everybody that walks away from our store walks away with a bottle of oil, but also the knowledge of how to tell real extra virgin olive from a fake,” says Burlock. “If folks leave understanding what the good stuff is supposed to be like, it becomes a lot easier to avoid the bad stuff, whether it’s in a mimic store or a grocery store.”
Once people get hooked, they start to understand the differences in the makeup of the oils and develop an addiction for certain varieties. Because peak freshness is a huge concern to Burlock and McArthur, the oils switch every six months to match harvests in the northern and southern hemispheres (olives are harvested in late fall and early winter). People apparently get quite distraught when they find out their favourites are going, and eagerly await their return six months later.
Burlock and McArthur have clearly tapped into a real desire with their business, and it is clear that once you’ve had the good stuff from them, there’s no going back.