Q&A: Empowered by oils and vinegar

Keely Garrity, owner of Ampersand Oil & Vinegar Taphouse in downtown Lewiston, poses for a portrait in front of the dozens of different olive oils and vinegars she has available on tap on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.

Shopping in New Mexico helped prepare Keely Garrity to open Ampersand Oil & Vinegar Tap House, a business that’s flourishing in Moscow and Lewiston.

At the time, Garrity, a University of Idaho graduate, worked in marketing for Los Alamos National Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the state. She lived within a short drive of the Santa Fe’s famed plaza, a collection of art galleries and boutiques, including three that specialized in upper-end oil and vinegar.

When she moved back to the Palouse, those ingredients were part of almost every meal she made, but she had difficulty finding them in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington.

Garrity’s solution was to go into business in 2014 to share what she loved, hoping to strengthen the community by encouraging people to bond over food.

She offers cooking classes and encourages customers to taste samples. Recipe cards are found throughout the store, and she posts many more on social media to help people understand the versatility of the store’s oils, vinegars and other gourmet foods. The stock is rounded out by cookbooks, kitchen gear and gift items.

“If I can teach people how to make quick and easy meals at home that are healthy and delicious and flavorful, they’ll come back,” she said.

The Lewiston Tribune spoke to Garrity about what she did before opening Moscow’s Ampersand Oil & Vinegar Tap House, how she’s made the business successful and her Lewiston expansion.

Lewiston Tribune: What did you do before you were a business owner?

Keely Garrity: When I graduated college (in 2007), the economy tanked and so no one was looking for someone with an interior designer or architecture degree. But the University (of Idaho’s) education is so well rounded that ... I was able to turn it into marketing (with my graphic design classes and my minor in business).

I worked for the city of Moscow, assisting in their arts programs, including the farmers market. It was my job to get the artists for the music. I’d have to hear music, decide what I thought would be appropriate for the market and then book people.

Then my husband finished his Ph.D. in environmental science, and we took off to Columbus, Ohio. I worked for an environmental nonprofit doing marketing. When we were in New Mexico, I discovered real olive oil.

We moved back to the Palouse when he got a job at Meter (a company that makes scientific devices) in Pullman. He’s very good at designing products for scientists to use. I worked at Washington State University, doing marketing for programs at the school’s student recreation center.

LT: Another entrepreneur helped you develop your business. What can you share about that?

KG: My mother-in-law knew I loved cooking and entertaining, so when I visited, she was like, “You’ve got to go check out this store. You’re going to love it.” She was correct. So I asked (the owner), “Are you making this stuff?” She said, “Yes. We’re making it.” I said, “Well are you thinking about wholesaling?” She said, “Yes. I’m starting to do that.” She told me the key to success is teaching people how to use your product. I have never owned a retail store in my life or worked in one. I just continued to ask about how business is going, what’s (the) business model and things like that. She gave me some pointers and totally helped me.

LT: What made you think Moscow was ready for Ampersand?

KG: When we moved back, it was like Moscow had kind of done this little revitalization. There were lots of farm-to-table restaurants that were popping up — Maialina, Sangria, Bloom, Nectar, all of those great restaurants. It was a good time for me to pursue my passion of food.

LT: Part of your business model involves being selective about every product on your shelves. That’s particularly tricky with olive oil. What about the industry makes that so?

KG: There is a lot of (poor quality) olive oil that comes over from Europe. They’ll basically take (olive paste that has been pressed once), press it again, dye it, flavor it, cut it with another oil, bottle it up and bring it over and make billions of dollars off of Americans.

LT: How do you ensure your olive oils meet your high standards?

KG: They are all certified from their country of origin. (My supplier) was one of about 2,000 people to come to Chicago about four years ago and get certified. She was only one of 15 people to pass. It’s very difficult. She knows her oils. She can spot a good oil versus a bad oil by smelling and tasting it. We’ve traveled to Italy together and visited some of the farms we get our oils from.

Olive oil is the healthiest fat you can consume. It brings your good cholesterol up and lowers your bad cholesterol. It’s great for your skin and hair. There’s so many health benefits to it.

LT: Can you share an example of one of your most popular olive oils and how much it costs?

KG: Caramelized garlic olive oil is amazing. It’s all naturally infused. There’s no artificial flavors in it or any of the oils or vinegars that we have. When you caramelize garlic, it kind of sweetens it. I roast (meats) in it. I saute vegetables with it. It can be used to dip bread and make salad dressings, pasta sauces or marinades. It costs $5.50 for 100 milliliters, which is a little less than half a cup or 3.4 ounces.

LT: What else did you pay attention to when you set up your store?

KG: It was really important to me being a designer that the space was inspiring. All of your five senses are being treated with experiences. It smells good when you walk in the door. You can pretty much taste everything on the shelf. The music is worldly. The textiles are lovely and rich. Visually it’s stunning. We get (people) every day (who say) “This (doesn’t feel) like I’m in Idaho. I should be in Italy, or I should be in Seattle or San Francisco or New York.”

LT: How well did your debut go?

KG: It’s been growing since day one, substantially, which is awesome. I have been able to take a paycheck home every two weeks. We opened right before Thanksgiving. I didn’t stock very much, because I didn’t know what it would be like. It went so well my husband, on Thanksgiving, had to meet my brother in Missoula and pick up a whole shipment of oil and vinegar herbs and spices so he could bring it back to me so I had stuff to sell (for) Black Friday and Shop Small Saturday.

LT: What prompted you to expand in Lewiston?

KG: Lewiston’s wine industry is on the map, and there are some impressive wines. My husband and I attended Walla Walla Community College before the University of Idaho. We had that knowledge in our back pocket of what wine can do for a community. Lewiston’s downtown is amazing. Lewiston was about to hit a renaissance, and I would say it’s happening now.

LT: The city of Lewiston changed some of its parallel parking to diagonal spots. How much did that help you?

KG: I saw it the first week. My foot traffic increased by 10 percent to 15 percent. You get people all the time who are like “Oh I drove by, but I didn’t want to stop. There was no place to park.” Now there is.

LT: A number of area restaurants use your products, which has helped you grow. Which ones are are they?

KG: Tapped (in Moscow) uses our blood orange oil in ice cream and our truffle oil in aioili for a truffle burger. Lodgepole in Moscow is always coming in and adding some of our oils and vinegars to at least an item or two on their menu when they switch it up. IMUA Hawaian Style Restaurant and Brava’s in downtown Lewiston use our products all of the time.

LT: Now that you’ve been in business for five years, how do you feel about your choice to leave your job at WSU for something that, at least at first, seemed more risky?

KG: I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I love my decision. It’s empowering.

Elaine Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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