An interview with the owners and managers of Port Plums and Newburyport Olive Oil as conducted and written by Margaret Leahy.
To say Karen got here by a roundabout route is an understatement. Originally from Washington DC, Karen came to Massachusetts for college and never left. Working at Bread and Circus in Cambridge while still in school, Karen helped grow the chain from one store to seven, and was an intrinsic part of opening the first natural foods deli and bakery in the area. She knew she always wanted to work in food, but not necessarily as a chef – so she created recipes for Bread and Circus, started a personal chef catering business, and built a culinary network of chefs, health professionals, and business owners. She transitioned into the corporate world for a while, but knew she always wanted to get back to food. It wasn’t until her daughter Katie spent a semester abroad in Granada, Spain that the dream of owning a food-related business started to become a reality. When Katie found a listing for Newburyport Olive Oil, they were off and running.
“There’s such a great community here,” says Karen. “It’s beautiful, the people are friendly. It’s all about teamwork. People just want to help each other out – it’s so cool!” Karen and Katie jumped into Newburyport Olive Oil feet first with the intent to focus on the gourmet aspect, but there was still something missing – Newburyport needed a good cookware store. When the space next door to Newburyport Olive Oil opened up, the idea for Port Plums was born. “Our focus is on quality and buying local. Most cookware stores are about volume and utility. But we’re about finding beautiful table linens, antique pieces, unique pieces – we’re not just about cooking, but also about entertaining.” Karen’s favorite products in the store are from Epicurean, who specialize in beautifully-designed cookware made in the USA from recycled, dishwasher-safe materials.
Thinking ahead, Karen is most excited for the upcoming enhancements to the store. In the works are a demo kitchen, where cooking classes and demonstrations will be held; a tasting bar, for special events such as wine- and cheese-tastings; and talks given by local health professionals, free to the public. “People are thrilled to be here,” she says. “They always learn something. We provide a resource and new experiences for them. We want to be different in a meaningful way.”
When not at the store, Karen can be found working in her office at home. When she does take a break, she enjoys caring for her horses and goats, going for long walks in the woods with her golden retriever, and cooking with Katie. “We’re in go-for-it mode,” she says. “Start before you’re ready. Do that every day, and you’ll go places.” Tried and tested.
Throughout her life, Katie was clearly always destined to work in food. A West Newbury native, Katie’s passion for beautifully-presented gourmet cuisine was lit while overseas. She became truly inspired at an open-air market in Provence, France, by the way the food was presented with such love and passion; and again while studying abroad in Granada, Spain, where the vibrant tapas scene opened her eyes to new and innovative culinary possibilities to be explored stateside. She and Karen put their heads together and developed numerous business plans, bouncing ideas off each other and seeing what stuck. Through a stroke of luck, Katie happened upon a listing for Newburyport Olive Oil, and they hit the ground running. They were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome they got from fellow business owners. “They all work together and support each other, and it’s a really nice feeling. We’re always asking, ‘How can we help each other?’ Really, there’s no other way to be.”
In the coming year, Katie is most excited to host events in Port Plums, which is available for rental – plan to have your next baby shower, corporate mixer, or bridal shower in this fabulous and bright space. “Whenever we host events, everyone always has a blast,” says Katie. When not on the premises (which is seldom), Katie loves to travel, scope out new restaurants, and cook with her mom. “I’m always thinking about the next place I can get a delicious snack,” she laughs, “and when you find that perfect dish, that’s the best moment – and the simpler, the better.” Katie’s favorite part of the job is meeting customers who come back time and again with friends and family members, because they just had to share it with others. “When they’re just as excited about a product as we are, that’s the best.”
Leighann is a self-professed Newburyport townie, and wouldn’t have it any other way. A licensed and practicing esthetician, Leighann was pleasantly surprised upon discovering how much her prior training and current career intersect: “I now know how healthy these oils can be, not only for your skin and hair, but your whole body, inside and out!” The Pumpkin Seed Oil is Leighann’s favorite, because it’s rich in vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium and zinc – not to mention it tastes great drizzled over vanilla ice cream.
Leighann is looking forward to the upcoming changes in the store, namely the greater focus on bringing in even more American-made products from small, previously unheard-of businesses and artisans. Her current top pick are the Cuppow line of coffee mugs and lids, which transform any glass Mason jar into a portable drinking cup. But new and exciting products aren’t the only reason people should visit the store. “We offer friendly faces and are happy to help our customers, and answer as many questions as we can.” Her favorite part of the job? “The joy of customers. They come in, taste our oils, have conversations with us about recipes and cooking, get really excited about what they find here. They walk out the door with a head full of ideas, beyond excited about their purchases.” And that’s what it’s all about.
A born-and-bred local, Maggie has a fondness for Newburyport and its inhabitants. After graduating from Northern Essex Community College with a Liberal Arts degree and a concentration in Photography, Maggie became a part of the team at Newburyport Olive Oil and was hooked right away. Unfamiliar with the nuances of olive oil prior to this, Maggie has since discovered and become fascinated with the massive range of olives, oils, and balsamics out there. Her favorite combination is the Pineapple White Balsamic and the Blood Orange Olive Oil, which she turns into a stellar salad dressing or bread dip (“You can even use the oil in brownies or cupcakes,” she adds – bakers, take note.)
For Maggie, the store’s biggest asset is its staff: “We all make it a point to know what we’re talking about, and to use and enjoy the products we’re selling.” The staff are like a little family, Maggie says, who bounce ideas off each other and work together like a well-oiled machine. She is excited for the changes the store will see in the new year, and in the meantime, continues to enjoy her favorite part of the job: helping customers find exactly what they’re looking for, even if they themselves don’t yet know what that special something is. In her free time, Maggie can be found attending concerts, taking photos, and hanging out with her cat Gertie.