Bull spotting on a Sunday morning in early September, I saw Bull City OliveOil’s olive bull logo and store front in Brightleaf Square. Little did I know that Julie Steinhauer had just hung her shingle and opened on August 24, 2016. Her store front was so Durham and fitting to Brightleaf Square, I would have thought she’d been there for years. I’d soon find out, that in a way, Julie has been around Brightleaf for years.
Moments later I posted pics on social media to share the latest bull only to quickly get a response from the owner herself. That’s so Durham.
It took a bit of back and forthing, but we finally a date and time to meet up. I showed up with freshly toasted gluten free bread from Bull Street Gourmet and Market to sample all the amazing olive oils and vinegars properly. Julie thought nothing of it because that’s Durham.
She welcomed me to her new store and walked me through the thoughtful layout of oils and vinegars. As she began to explain to me each of the delicious products, more customers began to gather around to learn more. It’s clear that Julie truly loves what she is doing and knows her stuff.
Julie helped each of the customers select the exact products they wanted for both themselves and for gifts, perfectly packaged everything and rang them up. As she did all of this Ben Neal, owner of The Little Dipper a couple doors down, stopped by with a special cocktail infused with her oils and vinegars to thank Julie for helping him out earlier in the day.
We got to speaking as Julie helped even more customers and he filled me in on the adventurous ongoings of the day and a bit of Durham history. I learned that the ceiling boards in Brightleaf, as well as in many historic Durham buildings, are the floorboards for the space up above. They are the original, North Carolina lumber from the trees that were in the surrounding area when the buildings were constructed around 100 years ago.
While the boards are a solid 4 to 6 inches thick, they don’t provide the best sound or heat insulation. Furthermore, when the tenants above him walk, tobacco flakes sprinkle down in his office. It’s enough that he has to frequently clean them out of his printer. Rather than being irritated by this, he thinks it cool to have ‘history snowing down’ on him.
All of that from food appreciation, commercial comradery and tobacco history sprinkles is all so Durham! It was a Durham moment for sure.
In between customers filtering in and out of the store, I asked Julie a few questions. She seemed very at home in both her store, but Durham as well. I asked how long she has been in the Durham area.
“My family moved to Chapel Hill in 1984 from New Jersey. My parents met at Carolina in the early 60’s. My mom from eastern North Carolina and my dad is from New Jersey. I’ve been in the area ever since, with the exception of 2 years in South Florida.”
What inspired you to open Bull City Olive Oil?
“I’ve always wanted to own my own business and I wanted it to be something food related. I didn’t know if I wanted to do a little cooking school or do something similar to a whole lifestyle kind of thing. My absolute favorite thing to do is make the whole table pretty. Every year, particularly around the holidays I insist on setting the table. If anyone else sets the table it really bothers me! I will go in and move it around. I have to have everything just so. I try to go outside and use something from nature.
Before my parents moved to the beach, their house in Chapel Hill had a huge magnolia tree, holly trees and things called nandina — it’s a shrub with a red berry. I’ll cut some of that. I’ll cut cedar and I’ll put some of that stuff everywhere. I would do individual place settings using pine cones sometimes.
Helpful hint- put them in the oven on low heat to bake all the bugs out. 250°F for an hour should do it, use tin foil to line a cookie sheet and voila!
I’ve always just loved to do things like that. I’ve always been the one in the kitchen helping my mom and my grandmother. Everyone in my family cooks. Everyone is a good cook.
I’ve been involved with something food related, always, it seems. I sold wine for a while. I waited tables. I had a brief stint as a caterer and actually got to serve the Mayor — quite an exciting thing. And a couple other private dinners more like private chefing than catering.
It seems as if everything my family does, from all of our big trips to weekend get-togethers, we always end up talking about the food. Thanksgiving one year when I was in high school, we went into New York City for the weekend and watched the Thanksgiving Day parade and had an extraordinary dining experience. Not just a meal, an experience. That was 33 years ago and every Thanksgiving my parents and I talk about that meal and the parade. There were snow flurries and Snoopy broke loose. Snoopy was literally hanging on by a thread over New York City.”
Julie can remember every last detail about that day and that meal down to cornucopia made of puff pastry stuffed with escargot in a mustard sauce. You can see how much she genuinely cherishes that story and loves food when she tells that story.
“We’ve been talking about it for several years, though. After my parents retired 3 years ago and moved from Chapel Hill to the coast, my husband and I were visiting. My mom and I went down to the waterfront and she introduced me to this “little shop” she knew I would love — an olive oil store. Sure enough, we walked in and it literally took my breath away.
“There I was, 47 years old, and I finally felt as if I had found my calling. We spoke to the manager at length, who happened to be the owner’s mother. My research and obsession started that very day.”
Julie’s love of food and passion for what she does absolutely beams through her every word. I was interested to see how Brightleaf square became a part of her story.
“Brightleaf kind of chose me. I looked in different places, some not even in Durham, and was granted permission from my supplier to open in Durham. I knew that there was a space here at Brightleaf, but it was small. I’m supposed to have at least 1000 square feet per my supplier. But I called anyway and Jo Ellen asked what I was interested in doing. I said that I wanted to open an olive oil store and she said, “A space has just opened up.” She said, “How soon can you get here?” And I said, “How soon can you have me?”
“I came down the next day and looked at the space. I did some talking with my parents and my husband and did some negotiating with the Brightleaf management and lucked into it. I got lucky. It’s the perfect space. It’s right in the middle of the courtyard. I have this gorgeous tree and this huge window that I LOVE. I didn’t really have to do a lot of renovation. The decorating and layout are still a work in progress, but I’m happy with it. My husband Wayne built all my fixtures, my grandparents’ kitchen table is one of my displays, all the pictures are my own personal photos of Italy. I want my store to feel like home when you walk in. I feel as if everything just came together as it was always meant to be.”
Yes. You read that right. A business owner said, “lucked into it,” not “locked into it.” Julie’s genuine love in what she’s doing is evident at every twist and turn. She also has no shortage of love for either Brightleaf or Durham as a whole.
“I love the feeling of Brightleaf; it’s very Durham. It’s kind of the first renovation project, that I know of, that went on down here. They turned it into retail and office space in 1984, which must be karmic because that is the year we moved here. I feel like I have come full circle. In my younger days my friends and I would come down here all the time. I lived a couple blocks away right off east campus for 6 years. I worked at several downtown businesses over the years.
“I wasn’t quite as decisive in what I wanted to do with my life then. When I had my sneak peek grand opening my longtime friend, who I was hanging around with back then, took a few minutes outside in the courtyard and said, “Can you believe this? We’re here. We’re old. We’re married. We have kids. And here we are in Brightleaf. Again. It’s all come full circle.”
“It’s nice to see that Morgan Imports is still here. James Joyce is still here. Toreros is still here. Devines is still here. It’s like I get to be a grownup now and get to experience the good times in a different way. It’s hard to put into words. Every morning when I walk in here I think it’s a really, really gorgeous place and it’s my second home. I get nostalgic and hopeful at the same time.
“I feel lucky and blessed to be here. It’s the perfect combination of old world charm and rejuvenation. It’s fun to be a part of that. I like the history and the progress at the same time. It’s a nice blend of the 2.”
With a love of the Bull City and a deep appreciation for the Brightleaf area, Bull City Olive Oil seems like an obvious, if not perfect choice for a business name. I was interested to see how Julie decided on the name your business Bull City Olive Oil.
“I was with my parents at the beach and we were messing around with the names. I said if I open my shop in Durham I could be Bull City Olive Oil and I can have a bull with an olive face for a logo. We all had a good laugh, but then it struck me that it was actually a pretty good idea. And so it began.”
4 months into store ownership and her 1st holiday season to boot, Julie shows no real signs of stress or frustration when you talk to her. Sure, she’s had all the challenges a new business person can expect, but overall she’s smiling, joking and rolling with it. I asked how being a new Bull City store owner is treating her. Our city’s renowned entrepreneurial support and appreciation beamed through her answer.
“Durham is great for small business. The entire community really embraces you from the start, from the planning department to the various licensing agencies to the other local shops and owners, right down to the locals and visitors alike…everyone just seems so excited to support and try new things. Durham has a very diverse cultural heritage, real international flavor, if you will, coupled with a craving for local producers and suppliers. It’s such a spectacular adventure every day.
“I’ve got such a great response, not just from people who live in Durham, but also the people that work in Durham, go to school here, or are just visiting here. They have been really welcoming and supportive. I think that my products are so different- I carry everything from local products, to artisanal cheeses and cured meats from around the country along with international merchandise- my store is really is like Durham.
“I think that I hit the market at the right time. I hope that it works. I hope that my experience in retail, hospitality and food will translate into a successful business. I don’t plan on making a lot of money. That isn’t my goal. Of course that would be a bonus, but I want to make people happy. I want people to have a Thanksgiving meal like I had and still talk about — have a memory.
“My hope is that my guests will leave my shop and either create a new memory or recreate something that brings back a fond remembrance. Food really brings people together.
“I don’t think that you’ll be good at anything unless you love it. I love this and I hope it shows. I’m passionate about it. I think that it translates that I love it. I like making people happy. I like when they come in to refill a bottle or taste a pairing they never thought of. I like watching someone’s eyes get wide when they realize how many different options one bottle of oil or vinegar can give them. It’s almost like the person giving the gift is as happy as the person getting the gift.”
As she spends her days creating shopping and food experiences that stand out to her customers, I asked what stands out to the most to her about Durham.
“The diversity. It’s really international. People from every walk of life. Literally the first week I was open I had customers from Palestine, Columbia, Israel and Russia. Along with locals, students, visitors…people from everywhere!
It’s a small town with a lot of culture and a lot of different things to do — the food and the shows. I could go see a Broadway play at DPAC. I can see any concert I want to. World class athletics. And the food… The food is insane. It’s so good. The food is getting more international flair. I love it. I love the flavor of Durham. It’s so cool.”
Then came time for the hard hitting question of which bull in the city is her favorite.
“Besides mine? I LOVE the “Hit Bull, Win Steak” bull at the ball park. That goes back to everything I said about hanging out in my 20s with my friends in downtown Durham. When we would go to games at the old ball park… It’s iconic. It’s Durham. It’s cold beer, good friends, hanging out, great sports. It’s everything that Durham is. Every time I drive by and I see it on the freeway it’s almost like he’s watching over Durham saying, “Yeah. I’m here and I’m always going to be here. No greater motivator! ”
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.