The Partnership: Nick’s Hickory Smoked Olive Oil and the Rotary Club of Fair Play
Nick’s Hickory Smoked Olive Oil and the Rotary Club of Fair Play
Nick Lewis is known at local markets as the “Oil Baron” in the black apron and fedora, the man whose hickory aroma can be tracked from the parking lot. Alongside his wife Connie, he is always cooking up something—from steak to peaches, popcorn to cabbage—in their own liquid gold, a seasoning olive oil smoked for hours over hickory chips.
Nick loved smoked olive oil the first time he ever tasted it, prepared by a man who lived near the Lewises in Naples, Florida. But that didn’t mean he thought it would sell. In fact, Nick laughed when his friend announced his ambition to bottle and sell the stuff. “That will never work! It will take too long and no one will buy it.”
Fast forward a decade, and observe Nick and Connie Lewis standing in their South Carolina kitchen in their signature “Oil Baron” aprons, cooking five dishes at the same time, all of them starting with only their own smoked olive oil and a pinch of salt. A dozen bottles of certified “Nick’s Hickory Smoked Olive Oil” are displayed atop a wooden slab on their kitchen table. The entire kitchen smells of bacon, but there’s not a slice to be found. The rich smell and flavor is from the oil, a few drops of which transform meats, vegetables, even fruits into robust delicacies.
After Nick and Connie moved to Anderson to be closer to Connie’s family, Nick tried to track down the Florida man to find out how he’d made that delicious oil. When he could never get in touch with him, he gave it a try anyway, cooking the oil low and slow over wood chips. He experimented until he got it just right, determining that extra virgin oil wouldn’t work (because it isn’t recommended for use at high heats) and that hickory was the only way to go. Friends and family who tried it loved it, so he started making it as Christmas gifts.
When Nick became disabled a few years ago and was forced to stop working as a pastor and social worker, he knew he needed a new plan. He relied on his entrepreneurial spirit and newfound passion for healthy living to turn his smoked olive oil into a business venture. After all, he’d heard “you should sell this” so many times that he decided to do just that.
For months he smoked the oil in two smokers set up in the back of his Honda Civic. Demand eventually exceeded supply, and Nick was once again forced to be creative. He heard about a large kitchen in a dilapidated elementary school in Fair Play and teamed up with the Fair Play Rotary Club to update it. The certification process took months and was a labor of love for the 13-member Rotary Club, but saving the kitchen was an important way for all of them to contribute to their community. After some expensive upgrades made possible by a grant from the Rotary Foundation, Nick had access to a huge commercial kitchen where he could set up his smokers. His arrangement with the Rotary Club was to rent by the hour and help advertise the kitchen for party rentals and other events. Rotary president Peggy North says Nick and Connie have been great advocates of the Rotary Club. Not only that, but “he allowed us to not have to close the doors on this facility.” Rotary members gather around on smoking days to nab a bottle as soon as a new batch is sealed.
A little more than a year after becoming certified to sell the oil, he’s perfected his smoking and bottling methods, so that now the couple can smoke, strain, and bottle almost a thousand bottles in one day. It only takes one smoking day every month or two to keep the bottles in stock in several local stores and markets. And the couple has found ways to be resourceful. The hickory chips come from Connie’s uncle’s farm, and all the food used in their market cooking demonstrations is from other market vendors such as Satterfield and Walker Century Farms. Possum Kingdom Kreamery provides the feta that forms the base of their cheese dip, a favorite of football party hosts and the third graders Connie teaches at a local elementary school. The students may call it “orange gunk,” but that doesn’t stop them from begging their teacher to bring it to school for every special occasion.
The Lewis family thanks their olive oil for positive transformations in their eating and thinking about food. Their adult son, who lived with vegetarians in college, brags that it makes everyone feel like they’re eating a bowl full of bacon with no meat at all. The smoked oil adds depth and richness to dishes in no time, so fresh foods taste enhanced and like they’ve been cooked for hours. Their involvement at local farmers’ markets has also increased their awareness of food sourcing. “Now I can tell you where every bit of my food comes from,” Nick says. “Everything I eat comes from either a person or a farm.”
Although labeling requirements mean Nick and Connie have to list “natural flavorings” as an ingredient, nothing is added to the oil except, as Nick says, “heat and time.” The most common reaction to the food samples they provide at the market is disbelief, even skepticism: “That’s all you did to this? Add oil?” The couple offers demonstrations at every market because they have to cook in view of shoppers to be believed. When parents see zucchini sizzling on the griddle, they say, “Oh well, my son doesn’t eat zucchini.” “You’d better tell him that!” Connie has cried more than once. “He’s on his third piece!” Enthusiastic customers often post recipes to the Nick’s Smoked Olive Oil Facebook page, all of them competing for the most unique ways to incorporate the oil. Peaches cooked with smoked oil and pumpkin spice, served over ice cream, has become a staple.
The business wants to grow; Nick and Connie just don’t have enough manpower. Soon Nick’s son is moving to Anderson to, as he told his friends, “help his dad in the oil business.” Until then, Nick is taking it one market Saturday at a time, creating oil evangelists out of every passerby with a nose.
Nick’s Hickory Smoked Olive Oil
Nick and Connie Lewis
1207 Williamsburg Drive