About nine years ago, during a day trip to Pinehurst with her husband, Will, on a whim Allyson Atherton stepped into a store stocked with items she had no idea how much she needed in her life: oils and vinegars. Two hours later, arms loaded with bags of bottles of oils and vinegars, she and her husband returned home to Hillsborough to begin cooking with their new finds.
Allyson was hooked, not just on the taste of the olive oils and vinegar dressings but on the whole experience of the shop in Pinehurst.
“It’s smelled wonderful,” she said of the store. “It was an inspiring kind of Tuscany-Italian feel to it. And the owner was so wonderful and so excited to share her product with me.”
Over the next two years, Allyson and her husband — both with careers in the corporate world — discussed the idea of opening her own store to sell oils and vinegars. And then Allyson gave birth to twin boys, and she knew she wouldn’t be returning to the corporate world. So, Allyson and Will worked out a business plan and started seriously thinking about opening a store in this area.
She spent a lot of time researching her products. “That was fun,” she said. “It was a little overwhelming because olive oil, true, pure olive oil is hard to come by. I spent almost two years researching different vendors for olive oil and you really could start to tell when you’re not getting a pure olive oil versus their really good stuff. I kept coming back to the distributor that I now use because I really felt like their product was the best of all.”
In 2015, Allyson opened the Gourmet Grove at 126 W. Clay St. in downtown Mebane. Her shop is warm, inviting with farm tables and wood display cabinets. It’s aromatic, and shiny with several dozen silver containers that dispense oils and vinegars. The store carries 55 varieties of gourmet olive oil and vinegar, as well as meal mixes, bread mixes, sauces, and pastas.
“I’ve used all of them at some point,” she said. “They’re my staples. They’re the ones that I use every day. There are ones that I bring in for a specific type of dish that I’m going to prepare, like for a stew, I’ll use the Wild Mushroom and Sage olive oil because it’s a great base. The Tuscan Herb you can use with anything. It goes with almost any kind of cooking, I think. I love to sauté with it. I roast with them all the time. I tend to not bring in too many new products as far as the oils and vinegars go, because the customers drive that decision. They like what they like. If I bring in something new and and they’re like, ‘I don’t know why you did this,’ I try to keep in mind what what’s going to go well for the customer.”
Allyson admits before she opened her shop she wasn’t aware of the difference using high-quality olive oil makes.
“You hear about the benefits of using olive oil and cooking with olive oil and how healthy it is for you, and you think ‘Oh, I’ll just grab a bottle off the shelf at the grocery store,’” Allyson said. “I always thought olive oil tasted funny. It just tasted off and and so it really didn’t much appeal to me. It wasn’t until I went to that store in Pinehurst and when I tasted a good, pure olive oil I was floored. I had no idea that it would taste that good.”
Allyson added that chain restaurants that serve olive oil with bread are most often using a lower quality option. “Go to your local places. Antonia’s in Hillsborough has a phenomenal Rosemary-infused olive oil.”
The decision to open her shop in Mebane was an easy one, although she originally had sought a space in Hillsborough. When that couldn’t work, she found her place on Clay Street, and she’s never been happier.
“I have always loved Mebane,” she said. “It’s such a great eclectic mix of businesses and restaurants. I came to meet up with some friends for drinks and I thought, ‘where’s this been?’ So, I came back during the day to browse the shops and met with owners. Everyone’s unique in their own specialties. It’s a great little downtown and it’s growing.”
Seven years in business is an admirable achievement, and Gourmet Grove boasts its share of devoted customers. That faithful following played a big role in helping Allyson keep her store open during and following the pandemic restrictions.
“Because we were not considered essential, we had to be closed for three months,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to re-open because my inventory had gotten pretty low. I didn’t know if I should order any more product because I didn’t know if I was going to be allowed to be open. And this product is shelf-stable for a little while, but I can’t keep it forever. It’s a big investment. We had a moment where we’re like, ‘Are we going to continue this? Are we going to shutter?’ And then I heard from so many customers during the pandemic who said, ‘Please don’t close.’ They offered to buy online, or do curbside pickup. I had to adjust to what my customer’s needs were. We did curbside pickup and we did appointment only. For a while I was able to be open only on the weekends because I had my children home during the pandemic school. We were able to adjust, and thankfully things have kind of returned to normal, although supply chain issues have been huge.”
Her store is still open on a reduced schedule, and Allyson is the only employee on payroll. She has a volunteer who helps out a couple of days each week. Business has been picking up, albeit slowly. Allyson said the 2021 holiday season was the store’s strongest since she opened her doors.
“I think people are realizing that small businesses have a lot to offer and that they need people to shop with them,” she said.