Hundreds of Sicilian olives sit in white buckets as Alessandra Innamorato greases down a set of steel baskets.
Beside her is the 900-pound smoker Innamorato calls her “sexy beast.” An Earth, Wind & Fire Genius playlist buzzes up the air.
“It’s a ritual,” the spunky Venice resident and longtime chef and caterer says with a laugh.
She is preparing an item that has become a local and national hit— smoked olives.
The mouthwatering morsels are also known, Innamorato said, as vegetarian bacon. Roberto Rogness, general manager of the Santa Monica store Wine Expo, said they are “where crack meets the hot sex of olives.”
“People go crazy over them,” said Rogness, who sells the olives and serves them as a side dish at his store's wine bar. “I’ve never seen such a reaction to a food product before.”
Innamorato is one of the vendors taking part in the Eat Real Festival at Helms Bakery in Culver City this weekend. She is bringing her olives to the combination "state fair, street-food festival and block party" that emphasizes local and sustainable products.
Call it a happy accident with a smoker—Innamorato hardly set out to develop a sensation.
When she discovered smoked olives, Innamorato was essentially out of work. Her 14-year business as a private chef and caterer had crashed along with the economy.
Two years ago she found herself preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for herself and some friends, rather than for a client, something that hadn't happened in more than a decade.
Smoked turkey was the main course. Along the way, Innamorato started throwing anything within reach into the smoker. Fennel, duck, anything to clean out her fridge and cabinets.
Also in the smoker? Green olives, given to her by a friend’s mom.
She included the new dish on the Thanksgiving table, and the response was electric.
"We were all just addicted immediately," said Innamorato's best friend, Mimi Kent, whose mom had supplied the first batch of olives. "It was a revelation."
Soon, the product kick-started a new direction in her career. Innamorato joined Twitter, where she first connected with Rogness and started selling the olives to Wine Expo in bulk.
Favorable reviews started coming in. At the time, Innamorato was still doing handmade tags at home.
Then she found out that she had been accepted into the Artisanal L.A. Christmas Show. Innamorato rapidly designed new labels and located an option for packaging.
In less than two weeks, she said, she had built a business from the ground up, something she had initially resisted.
“I’m such a creative person—I don’t want to get bored,” Innamorato said. “I don’t want to get stifled creatively by doing the same thing over and over again.”
But she cooked up a catchy brand name, Orgasmo de la Boca, a self-explanatory description of the self-gratification she witnesses when people eat her olives.
She isn't the only producer of smoked olives on the market, but local distributors such as Wine Expo had never carried a similar product before, Rogness said.
Innamorato uses local California green Sicilian olives, naturally salt cured and without preservatives. Flavors include include spicy pickled garlic and Tandoori, the latter of which is both her newest flavor and her best-seller.
As an independent business owner building up a brand, exposure and connections are crucial. A recent Eat Real Fest social mixer provided at least one opportunity to mingle with like-minded food folks, Innamorato said.
Aside from that, it's all about converting olive haters, one by one.
"A couple that came by saw my sign about olives, and said, 'We hate olives, we can't stand them,' " Innamorato said.
She encouraged them to have a taste. They left with three jars.