In addition to straightforward and flavored extra virgin olive oils, the mill's vast inventory flaunts infused vinegars, stuffed olives, tapenades, seasonings and sauces. Around 90% of the products are sold at the mill's headquarters in Queen Creek, with the rest making their way to its storefront at Kierland Commons along with farmers markets, boutique shops and grocery stores like Whole Foods Market.
Over the last 18 years, the once small family operation led by corporate businessman-turned-olive tree farmer Perry Rea has evolved into a model of agritourism. According to Rea, 650,000 visitors flock annually to Arizona’s only working and operating olive mill. They come for tours and Olive Oil 101 classes, shop more than 500 different local items in the marketplace, and nosh on antipasti, bruschetta and sandwiches made fresh in the onsite kitchen.
What started with the Reas planting 1,000 trees has blossomed into a sprawling orchard of 9,000 trees on 20 acres. Rea’s choice to go with an agritourism business model is a driver that influences his hands-on and in-depth approach to how the mill is run and the oil it produces.
“We grow, we process it, we harvest it, and we market it,” Rea says. “We’re always on our toes … thinking about what the next venture is.”
One such enterprise is Olivespa, the all-natural olive oil-based line of skin care products owned and run by Rea's wife, Brenda, and the Reas’ youngest daughter, Joey. Finding a solution to the Rea family’s itchy and dry skin caused by the arid Sonoran climate was the catalyst for side of the business, which they created in 2013.
However, an orchard and mill were the seeds that sprouted the thriving desert olive oil empire that would prove to become a fulfilling new calling for the Reas and a household name in the Valley.
Finding a second career
So where did the Reas get the idea to start an olive oil company in Arizona? In an Irish pub in Michigan, naturally.
At age 40, Rea retired from his executive corporate career with an international automotive parts manufacturing company headquartered in the U.K. He had run its North American operations, which were based in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Rea's parents spent their winters in Fountain Hills, and to get a break from the icy climate, Rea and his family would visit. While in Arizona, he always noticed how olive trees thrived.
After returning home one year, Rea and Brenda were having dinner at an Irish pub, reminiscing about their recent trip and talking about possible post-retirement plans. That’s when the thought ran through Brenda’s mind and emerged from her lips.
“It may have been after a pint or two, but my wife looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we make olive oil in Arizona?’” Rea recalls of the idea that inspired Queen Creek Olive Mill.
It became Rea’s second career. Or as he calls it, “Going from motor oil to olive oil.”
Oil comparison aside, corporate management and olive farming seemed to have little in common. But for Rea, the idea of indulging an interest on a serious level was exciting.
“I’m Italian. I like to grow things as a hobby,” Rea says.
So the family moved to Arizona in 1997 and hit the ground running. Rea spent the next several years researching the industry, taking courses at the University of California, Davis, and traveling to Italy to gain a hands-on understanding of farm-to-bottle olive oil production.
A combination of affordable land, plenty of water and a history as a farming community made Queen Creek an appealing location to set up shop.
“The town welcomed us with open arms,” Rea says.
The youngest of the couple's five children, John, was born in Arizona. Now, he works with his father as one of the mill’s two trained olive oil sommeliers, the industry’s equivalent to the wine world.
From seed to bottle
Rea relishes discussing everything olive oil, and his downright geekiness is a reflection of sincere enthusiasm.
In a typical 10-hour day, the team can harvest a full acre, with each harvest yielding 3-6 tons of olives. Each ton creates 35-40 gallons, or approximately 130-150 liters, of oil. Every oil is extra virgin, meaning it's extracted from the olive using no heat and by mechanical means only.
The process from harvest to storage takes a mere five hours. However, freshness is ensured by not bottling until needed. In the meantime, the olive oil is stored in 22,000-liter tanks and kept cool at 68 degrees beneath the cover of a nitrogen blanket to prevent oxygenation.
Queen Creek Olive Oil is sold in either tinted glass bottles or large 3-liter pouches designed for refills, both of which offer protection from heat and light.
The mill has earned its own spotlight but spreads the local love by carrying wares from other Arizona producers in the market and promoting them through events, like a recent weekend’s corn roast featuring corn and melons grown in the West Valley. There’s also an event focused around local tomatoes. The menu at Del Piero Kitchen, the onsite cafe, features dishes made with homegrown ingredients from Noble Bread, The Pork Shop and others.
“There are so many things grown in Arizona, and we embrace that in everything we do in our restaurant and marketplace,” Rea says.
When nature cooperates, most diners buy a bottle of wine or pitcher of beer and enjoy them on a picnic table with bites from the cafe in the grove at the front of the mill. Shade is provided by some of the original 1,000 olive trees that Rea planted years ago.
Sourcing further afieldVisitors who stroll among the olive trees may assume all of the mill’s oils hail from this orchard. But, in fact, Rea says that he has never made his oil using only Queen Creek-grown olives. To keep up with demand and maintain quality amid the whims of Mother Nature, he seeks reinforcements elsewhere.
Depending on the harvest and quality of the mill's olives, Rea sources from farming partners such as the Gila River Indian Community, which grows 360 acres of olive trees. A portion of Gila River olives are used in the vast majority of the mill's oils.
Additionally, Rea is able to source olives year-round from a farm in Chile, which has become a major olive oil producer in the last 15 years. Because the Chilean farm is in the southern hemisphere, harvest season is the opposite of when it is here. High-density farming and harvest done with a harvester — not by hand — meets Rea’s standards, yielding the opportunity to make a very good oil by getting it from harvest to milling quickly, he explains.
One of his representatives in Chile sends Rea a video of the process and then ships samples for him and John to try. The most recent shipment met their standards.
“We did a tasting today. [The olives have] a lot of good fruitiness, pungency as well as bitterness,” says Rea, who will give this batch a thumbs up.
Last year, Rea also sourced olives from California. But due to a plentiful harvest this year, he plans to stick with Arizona and Chilean olives only from here on out. Whether harvest occurs in his backyard or in another hemisphere, Rea is along for the process.
“Every step of the way is very, very carefully monitored by me and my son John because it's really important,” Rea says. “With the business model we have, we delve into it a little bit more.”
Rea is upfront about the oil’s origins, which are listed on the packaging. Where the olives are grown also is disclosed in the mill’s Olive Oil 101 classes.
“People want to know where their food comes from. It’s important they understand,” Rea says.
Rea says this isn’t an issue for most, especially if the product maintains the quality for which the mill is known. For some customers, however, only pure, straight-from-the-source oil will do. So, Rea offers a limited-production Estate Oil made with 100% Queen Creek olives.
Making sure that every olive harvest and batch of olive oil made meet his standards, regardless of where the olives come from, is something Rea has focused on from day one. Doing so requires more work and resources, but it never feels like a grind, he says.
“For me, it’s a passionate outlet. To have something that makes you want to get up in the morning that’s not a job is important to me,” Rea explains. “That’s the difference between a specialty boutique olive oil producer who cares about his product and one who doesn’t.”
Queen Creek Olive Mill
25062 S. Meridian Road, Queen Creek