by Ashley Lodato, Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
Those who know Portland, OR’s Wellspent Market owner Jim Dixon, those who have heard him expound upon the virtues of really good olive oil, may be surprised to learn that for a time in his life, he bought his olive oil at Costco. “I considered myself a well-informed cook at the time,” Dixon says, “but I had never tasted good olive oil.”
In the mid-1990s, however, Dixon’s life–or at least his palate–changed. Dixon and his wife, a “New Jersey Sicilian American,” traveled to Italy, where Dixon had his first taste of delicious, bona-fide extra-virgin (a term that is unregulated in the US) olive oil. There was no going back. “After that,” Dixon says, “we went back every couple of years to support our own habits. All I ever wanted was an endless supply of good olive oil.”
The couple brought home as much good olive oil as they could each trip, but after a few trips it wasn’t sustainable. “We could get enough oil home to last until the next time,” Dixon says. “So in 1999 we were traveling along the Amalfi Coast, and stopped at this great little farm-to-table place–before farm-to-table was a thing–and they made their own olive oil. We cut a deal on shipping and decided to start importing.”
“We knew nothing about importing,” Dixon continues. “We’d ship a large quantity, sell half of it to friends to cover the shipping cost, and keep the rest for our own kitchen.”
Real Good Food, Dixon’s original import company, was founded on a mission of supplying his own pantry, but soon became a source of high quality Italian food products for others in the Portland area. Dixon came from a technical writing background and was thus connected with various Portland restaurant owners, including Genoa (now closed) and Nostrana, both of which, along with others, started buying his imported oil. Dixon soon added to his imports salt and farro, a grain with a nutty flavor and ancient roots and a staple of Italian cooking.
Dixon’s interest in farro led him to his ongoing relationship with Bluebird Grain Farms. “Brooke [Lucy, Bluebird co-owner] came down here in a pickup with all these 50-lb bags of farro and flour,” Dixon says. “We’d buy it and put it in small packages.” Farro’s whole-grain, nutritious profile appealed to Dixon’s sensibilities, and he likes to support small family agriculture, so Bluebird was a fit for him. “And then suddenly farro got popular and was sold everywhere,” he says.
When Dixon decided to open a storefront, he says it was very simple. “We didn’t have enough inventory, so we were spreading product out and filling the empty shelves with art and other things.” Dixon’s business partner recognized that there were other things the market could offer, so they started expanding. Eventually Wellspent Market began carrying “pantry staples from around the world,” ranging from vinegar to grains to beans to dairy to housewares to wines (which are managed by Dixon’s son, Joe), and everything in between. It’s “everything we love, nothing we don’t,” Dixon says.
Also for years–20 of them–Dixon’s operation was a one-man show. “I picked up pallets of olive oil in my old Vanagon, filled and labeled bottles, and made deliveries. I was the bookkeeper, recipe developer, and janitor, and I worked a day job [as a technical writer for the City of Portland]. As my long-time customers remember, the Real Good Food ‘store’ was only open a couple of days each week, and they had to wait if they needed oil or salt.” With the addition of Cable, Dixon was able to expand his offerings and focus on his passion: real food, good food.
“There’s a lot of cool agricultural stuff going on around here,” Dixon says. “Bluebird Grain Farms fits into that for us.”
“We increased our revenue. We’re still not making a lot of money, but at least we didn’t go out of business,” Dixon acknowledges cheerfully.
Dixon keeps his pantry stocked with good olive oil and salts, sources of acid like vinegars and lemons, and focuses on simple proteins and grains. “Most of my diet is beans, grains, and the cabbage family,” Dixon says. “I like whole grain pasta, different flavored pastas, Bluebird’s Einka & French Lentil Blend.”
Dixon credit’s Wellspent Market’s “fierce loyal customer base” with the store’s sustainability. Customers rely on the shop’s newsletter with new recipes, the shelves stocked with a comfortable blend of old favorites and new products. A customer or a restaurant chef might ask about a particular product the store doesn’t sell, and Dixon’s team investigates it and decides whether to stock it.