Although the “saint” in Olive Loew’s biscotti-making business Saint & Olive is actually derived from her great-grandmother’s name, Santina, it could also be indicative of Olive’s own mission—which is to create a venture that combines skills training for people in need with a profitable baking business. The “olive” part is obviously named for herself because, as she says, “I am in everything that I bake.”
In launching Saint & Olive, Olive Loew has also found an outlet that helps her combine her myriad interests, skills and experiences with her creative side. As a self-described “sufferer from an overabundance of ideas,” Olive is not a one career-track person, and she enjoys having a life and career with multiple threads because it provides her balance, she says. For example, before founding her business in 2012, Olive worked part-time as both a hairstylist and as social worker and addictions counselor, helping people who are “off the grid” for an extended period of time or coming out of prison or jail to get jobs. (She still maintains her hairdressing clients today even as she’s started Saint & Olive.)
In her personal life, Olive was an avid craftperson and baker who particularly enjoyed playing with recipes and changing things in them to see what worked. One of the things she made that worked was biscotti. Taken from a recipe sent to her by her great-aunt, Olive embraced the family biscotti recipe using baking as a salve during a personally difficult time. She then adapted it, adding different flavor combinations, to create something both but that also honored her family’s tradition.
“I feel like the baking was a meditative practice for me,” she said.
Although she enjoyed her job as a social worker, some of the challenges inherent in negotiating the system on behalf of people in need could be frustrating, Olive said. Then she became interested in trying to put together a skills training program for the populations she worked with, wanting to offer her clients “something direct and concrete” to help them get work. That led to the idea of combining her passions for baking and helping others.
“So then I started playing around with, ‘well, maybe I could do the biscotti. Let’s look at the market–how many other biscotti makers are there out there? Could the market hold it?’” she said.
After bouncing her ideas off a number of people, a friend suggested she take a class at the Women’s Initiative to develop a business plan. From there, she took her business plan to La Cocina and was admitted to their kitchen incubation business program, where she got advice on product development, marketing and operations, as well as help in obtaining a Kiva Zip loan so she could launch the business.
“The idea all along was for this to be a skills training program,” she said. “But that was more of a long way off. My idea, having worked at Rainbow [Grocery], was, can I turn this into a worker-owned cooperative and collaborate with other people who are interested in that?”
After being approached by another friend who works at ToolWorks, a non-profit job support program for people with developmental disabilities, Olive learned of an opportunity through one of ToolWorks’ operations, BakeWorks, a kitchen and bakery in Hayes Valley. BakeWorks had received a grant from the city of San Francisco provide job training for people from the Tenderloin who have either substance abuse issues or chronic mental illness.
“I came in because I’m interested in working in this population. It’s exactly how I want to run my business, and it’s an opportunity for me to explore that now and also offer [BakeWorks] support in terms of the skills training,” she said.
“It’s not exactly training people as bakers per se, although they’ll get general kitchen [skills], health and safety, sanitation, they’ll get their kitchen handler’s license but also general knife skills…but more importantly for my interest, customer service skills, how to work with co-workers, how to work with a boss. Those soft skills that will then be transferrable to a job that they might get after this.”
In addition to supporting the populations she wants to help, making biscotti also allows Olive to preserve and continue traditions handed down from her own family and their Italian ancestors.
Olive says “biscotti were originally created as food for travelers, wayfarers, and sailors. By baking them twice, first in loaves, then in smaller slices, the water content was diminished, and the food was ‘preserved,’ generally lasting for up to 6 months; it could then sustain the travelers on their paths. By dipping the biscotti in coffee or wine it was rehydrated and could then be consumed, this is why the majority of biscotti are quite hard. I bake my biscotti for a shorter period of time the second time around. I would prefer my biscotti not be a staple in folks emergency preparedness kits, but rather a tea time or breakfast staple.”
“It’s bringing something from the Old World, East Coast roots with a West Coast sensibility in terms of flavor combinations,” she said. And unlike on the East Coast, the market for biscotti in this part of the country is nowhere near as saturated. Olive also distinguishes her products by making both sweet and savory biscotti, including a savory family recipe for prosciutto parmesan biscotti and an olive oil, black pepper and parmesan that pairs well with wine, she said. She also makes seasonal biscotti, such as an apricot pistachio with rosemary or bee pollen and anise.
“Biscotti gives me a fair amount of flexibility in seemingly having different products while still having the same product,” she said. She’s also looking into making other products such as marzipan or balsamic figs dipped in chocolate in an effort to expand her product line.
“This integrates all of the things that I love. Being able to be creative and experiment, contributing to the community. I feel like that’s really important,” she said. “And building community through the process of a business. That was thing that was difficult as a social worker that I’m able to do as a business person that I never expected…I got it in running a business, as opposed to in social work, which was surprising to me.”
Saint & Olive biscotti are currently available at various outlets throughout San Francisco including BakeWorks, Borderlands, Contraband, the La Cocina kiosk at the Ferry Building, Philz Coffee and Rainbow Foods. Olive also sells through gift and food fairs and at some local tech companies. She expects the skills training program she will be running in conjunction with BakeWorks will begin sometime in the next four months.
What drew you to food?
I think what drew me to food in the first place and, in particular, to baking is the process of transformation. That you can take these ingredients that are one thing and through chemistry and heat and these processes, it becomes something else entirely different.
I love that metaphor, and I found it to be particularly healing for me. I started baking more during a time in my life when there was a lot of loss in my family. My brother died, and I had two uncles that died as well, so that was a way of me grounding myself and tending to that and being grounded in something close to the earth. I don’t have a garden in San Francisco. So I think that was what drew me to food. And it was something that I could also share with friends. I lived by myself. When I lived with friends I found that we would have potlucks, we would cook together, and then moving into my own place, baking was a way for me to still have community around food where I would bake and then I would be able to bring that to people and share that with them.
It was a family recipe. I’ve been baking it for years. I grew up in the military and I moved around a lot, so it was a way for me to feel connected with my mother’s family that I did grow up with for a period. It’s preserved food. It’s got a longer shelf life but, these days in the sustainable food movement, it can kind of fall into that category. But it’s also a platform that allows me a fair amount of creativity with the flavors without having to make huge changes, although I have made some that have ended up disastrous, so it doesn’t always work. I’ve learned a lot about chemistry by default through that process. Also it seems like on the West Coast there aren’t as many purveyors of biscotti as there are on the East Coast.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I’d say it comes from the farmer’s market. It also comes from other businesses. It comes from experimenting with traditional things and slight variations on those things.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I’ve been the recipient of so much good advice. The most helpful, perhaps, has been that there are many ways to measure success–use at least a few of them. Run the numbers, look at different categories of growth, reflect on how much you have learned. All of these things matter.
Advice I would share with others? Ask for help. Find mentors and community. Be fearless. Just be willing to learn from your mistakes. Take care of yourself. Explore with openness and curiosity – this is work, but this is also your life, so have fun.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
A friend of mine teaches teens in a culinary program over in the East Bay and as a part of their summer program, she brought them over to La Cocina, and I showed them around there and introduced them to my business and did a little overview of the business, and she asked me this very same question. And I searched around for an answer and I kind of talked around it and I realized when they left that the biggest challenge has been a lack of self-confidence. And then I was like, ‘oh, if I’d said that, these 14-year olds would have totally related to that.”
I think taking things personally and fear—both fear of success of ‘what will my life look like?’ but also fear of failure and what does that mean—have been my biggest challenge. That and time management.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I would say there are two things. One that is actually quite hard but has changed my life for the better, and one that has more apparent appeal. What is challenging, but so rewarding, is that there is no one but me accountable for the business. I cannot be distracted by blaming any one else for what isn’t working, I am responsible, and I must find solutions. It is easy to look outside for a critique, but it is harder to look within, to see clearly and to move forward…This has pushed me out of my comfort zone, has challenged my beliefs, shifted my limits. It has inspired incredible growth and creativity on my part. My work has become a spiritual path, in a way, and I love this framework.
The easy, best thing about what I’m doing for a living is I get to be curious. I get to wake up and explore the world. I get to bake tasty treats, I get to experiment in the kitchen, I get to ask, ‘what will happen if I do this?’ and I get to learn from the results. I get to share that…with folks, known and unknown. The fact that people buy my cookies and share them with people that they love, that they become a part of other peoples’ rituals and relationships, this is amazing. It is a gift, and I am incredibly grateful that I get to do this every day.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
That’s hard because it depends on the season, and it depends on the meal. That said, I have to admit the biscotti that I have eaten the most of is the chocolate almond toffee with sea salt. That said, I made a new flavor a couple months ago, it’s a white chocolate and saffron and I ate four or five of those in one sitting!
I guess the ones that I’m the most familiar with are the other La Cocina businesses. They were my introduction into the food industry, not having worked in the industry before. I did an internship with Mission Pie, and I love them. I think that they make a wonderful product, I love their business model and they are impeccable folks in the kitchen.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
I was a vegetarian for 14 years and then a vegan for four years. My grandmother’s Italian sausage called to me from across the country, and I have not been a vegan or a vegetarian since. I think her sausage and her rosemary potatoes.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
There’s a Nepali restaurant—I think it’s called Red Chilli over in the Tenderloin. It is the most authentic, it is…the best Nepali food. I love them. I’m such a creature of habit in terms of eating out. Sushi Zone—a tiny little place on Pearl and Market right across from the LGBT center. If you don’t get there like at 4:30 to get in line, you’ll wait two hours, but they have the most delicious, fresh, very tasty sushi there. I love them. That’s my ‘I go there for my birthday’ meal. Stella’s Bakery over in North Beach, they have the best cream puffs and decent cannoli over there. I love Leland Tea Company—they have great tea.
Saint & Olive
Photos courtesy of Olive Loew, Saint & Olive