Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Friday Feature:
Alexa Dombkoski of Bellemille

How Bellemille is bringing the Italian lifestyle to America with its high quality olive oil.

When Bellemille founder Alexa Dombkoski studied abroad in Florence, Italy in college, she had no plans of moving there for good. But then, she explains, “I’ve always been really bad at leaving a party unless someone tells me it’s time to go. So I just stuck around. I’ve been in Italy for ten years, and it’s home now.”

As an expat in Italy, Alexa built her career around tourism, but when COVID hit, the tourism jobs dried up. Alexa says, “I was unemployed for quite some time. I went home to the States to figure out what I was going to do, and I was looking at jobs in marketing or other corporate positions. But then I thought, ‘Why?’ My experience in Italy hasn’t necessarily been resume-friendly, but it’s an invaluable experience that I should find a way to apply.” So Alexa ditched her corporate applications and began dreaming up a brand that could “build a bridge between [her] adopted city of Florence and [her] home in America.”

Alexa had noticed that consumers tend to trust the “Made in Italy” stamp unequivocally. She says, “They know it’s a quality product when it’s coming from Italy, so they don’t ask questions. Because of that, the branding hasn’t been very creative. It’s a lot of the same — tomatoes on the vine, red, white, and green, and Antonio’s secret recipe.” Alexa wanted to create a brand that modernized the typical made-in-Italy branding, one whose exterior packaging matched the quality of the product inside. She explains, “I always say I want to take well-known pantry items and make them sexy. Right now, I’m doing that with olive oil, but eventually, I would like to create a whole line of products.”

Launching Bellemille

Alexa had never worked in CPG before, but through her work leading tours in Italy, she had an in-depth understanding of where the best products were made and where the highest quality ingredients were grown. Bellemille’s olive oil is “first cold pressed, single state oil, meaning it’s all made on one farm.” Alexa explains that much of the olive oil we buy in the States is cut with different additives. “There is not as much quality control in the States. The family I work with has been doing this for generations. The area itself has been certified as the city of olive oil, so they’re known for producing high-quality olive oil.”

Once Alexa locked down the farm she would be sourcing the olives from, she then had to get the oil packaged. “Starting Bellemille during COVID was a nightmare,” Alexa says. “We had to figure out how to get glass bottles at the height of the supply shortages.” When she finally found glass bottles, she had to address the next problem: how to ship her precious Italian olive oil to the States. “Shipping is our biggest and most expensive hurdle to this day,” she says. “I’m bottling [the olive oil] in Italy and shipping the individual bottles already packaged. But I’m still learning and down the road that might change. I might start shipping big tanks of [olive oil] and bottling it in the States. I’m sort of building the plane as I’m flying it, so I’m still figuring out what’s the most cost-effective.”

Another hurdle the brand faces is the fleeting nature of the olive harvest. “Depending on how you look at it, the single yearly harvest of our olives is both a positive and negative.” The negative is that Alexa is reliant on one vastly changing harvest to supply enough olive oil for her customers. “Everything is always changing and the production of olive oil can go up and down drastically. There have been years where it is up or down 90% in Tuscany, so depending on the weather and how things go, it can be rough on makers.”

The positive, “if you want to look at it this way,” Alexa says, “is that one of the selling points of Bellemille is that we aren’t mixing it with other stuff. So once it’s gone, it’s gone. Get it while it’s fresh and make the most of it. In a way, [the scarcity] is a selling point, but as we grow bigger, that’s something that has to be managed.”

A surprising legal challenge

A few months into building Bellemille, Alexa was hit with a cease and desist letter from a large corporation. “I was only four months old, bottling everything by hand, and I was told by a lot of people, ‘You should take it as a compliment because obviously, they see something [in your brand] if they think they have to put a stop to this.”

That said, the compliment didn’t make the process any less challenging. Alexa explains, “I had to rebrand everything, change the name, and get the company’s approval. It ended up going much better than I thought it would, but it was not fun. I had to pay for lawyers, which I had zero budget to pay for, and I took it hard. There’s so much self-doubt going into something like this, and I was just starting to get the wheels going and then I had to halt everything.”

Eventually, when the corporation realized Alexa was a one-woman show, they backed down a bit, and she was able to rebrand with a name that had just as much meaning as the original. “Bello means beautiful in Italian, so I used the female plural of the word — Belle — to represent the women of Italy. They’re the ones who are carrying on the traditions and teaching the next generation, so I wanted to respect and honor them. And Mille means 1000. Olive trees can last for hundreds or even 1000s of years, so I also wanted to honor the trees and the fruit that produce our olive oil.”

The future of Bellemille

Alexa hopes to expand Bellemille’s offerings to include other Italian pantry items. “The idea was to create a product and make a name for the brand that is associated with quality. From there, I can hopefully create a line of products that are just as premium and high quality but don’t have the same production problems as olive oil. I’d love to do balsamic vinegar, sauces, pasta, dips, or even an aperitif or tableware line.”

She explains, “I want to show people how the Italians live. I want Bellemille to remind people to slow down and enjoy, even if it’s a quick meal, you sit down and savor. That’s part of the design around the bottle — to proudly display it on the table just as you would a bottle of wine. I hope Bellemille can remind people to slow down for a second, chill out, and enjoy.”

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