A Love Affair with Olive Oil
Umut Kaplan and his brother, Cosku, are introducing the U.S. to imports from their Turkish homeland.
At the center of the Mediterranean diet—lauded as much for its heart friendly,anti-inflammatory properties as it is for deliciousness—is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Integral to the cuisine of north African, west Asian, and southern European cultures for centuries, EVOO’s health benefits and culinary charms have caught on in the United States.
Today most American supermarkets and food co-ops feature entire sections of EVOO, particularly Italian and Spanish varieties. But when Umut Kaplan (B.S. ’19) and his brother Cosku first arrived in the U.S., they were struck by what they didn’t see. “We never saw Turkish olive oil in the grocery store. That was really surprising to us, because the spread of olives happened in Mesopotamia, which is ancient Turkish land,” Umut says.
“You come to Turkey, and you see olive trees that date back a couple of thousand years. That tells you something about how special this is to our culture.” In fact, Turkey is the world’s fourth-largest producer of olive oil: ahead of Portugal, Egypt, and Greece. And while the quality of extra virgin olive oil can vary—even within a given producer country or region—the Kaplans grew up consuming world-class oil.
“It’s marketing,” Umut came to realize about not seeing Turkish olive oil. “Turkey did not emphasize it the way Italy and Spain had.” The Kaplans want to change that. And to help educate Americans about extra virgin olive oil, which is not all created equal.
Introducing ‘the good stuff’
“When people here see the words ‘extra virgin’ or ‘cold press’ and see that it’s a product of Spain or Italy, they automatically assume that must be the good stuff.” Yet that’s not necessarily the case.
“There’s a lot about the process that the consumer doesn’t know yet,” Umut says. Extra virgin, or unrefined, olive oil is produced without heat or chemical solvents, and it’s nutritionally superior to other olive oil. It’s also more flavorful, but achieving the oil. It’s also more flavorful, but achieving the best possible flavor can be a balancing act. Some producers do this more consistently than others, he explains.
The Ankara, Turkey-born Kaplan brothers first came to the U.S. as high school exchange students in New Hampshire—spurred by their family’s experience hosting an Italian exchange student. That opened their eyes to the possibility of a global, multilingual education. Intent on studying engineering, as their father did, the Kaplans began their undergraduate careers at Michigan State University.
The Big 10 experience wasn’t the right fit for Cosku, however, who decided to transfer to a smaller university. He was accepted at Minnesota State University-Mankato, and for the sake of being nearby—the brothers have always been Chris close—Umut transferred to the U of M. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and planned to enter the renewable energy sector. That’s still in the cards, but for now, building relationships and spreading the gospel of Turkish oil is his primary focus.
And Turkish towels. At their Edina shop, Coccinella, the Kaplans sell Oleavia branded EVOO and Aegean Breeze towels, both sourced from family businesses in their home country.
“We really did our due diligence; we met with 50 or 60 families,” Umut says. “And we now work with four [of them]: families who value the process, value quality, and value local commitment too. Most of our towels have tassels, and all of them are hand tied by community members.”
Artisanal quality, human connections
That patient, artisanal approach yields products the Kaplans are proud to stand behind and that give American shoppers an experience of Turkey.
Coccinella opened at 50th Street and France Avenue in 2018. Soon the brothers were supplying other Minnesota retailers, including Kowalski’s grocery store chain, with Oleavia EVOO. They also sell in more than 100 shops nationwide.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, a suggestion from a local customer, an attorney who was putting together client gift baskets, sparked their next big enterprise. The customer was creating appreciation gifts with Oleavia and Aegean Breeze towels, and they were a colossal hit.
“We started networking, and we realized a lot of companies do this,” Umut says. “But people can get tired of the same thing over and over again: the fruit baskets, the cookies, travel mugs ... they’re nice, but they’ve been overdone.” The brothers realized their offerings, paired with story cards that share a bit about their family and the families who produce their products, could make memorable corporate gifts. The storytelling enhances the appeal.
Repping Turkey with affordable luxury
Today the Kaplans have a warehouse in Bloomington, Minnesota, from which they shipped over 2,000 corporate gift packages last year. The duo also sell through the MN Alumni Market, hosted by the Alumni Association.
Their engineering degrees—Cosku earned one too—aren’t languishing; the Kaplans plan to follow their father into renewable energy when the time is right.
“Our company is actually called Midwest Sustainable Green Energy, doing business as Coccinella,” Umut says. “The outreach we’re doing, all this networking, is indirectly supporting our renewable energy [plans].
“This is special; it’s an experience,” Umut says. “That’s the purpose of gifting, to strengthen your relationship.”