July 2015 Small Business Startup: The 1000 Islands Cruet

The 1000 Islands Cruet

Tom J. Novobilski, co-owner, The 1000 Islands Cruet. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Tom J. Novobilski, co-owner, The 1000 Islands Cruet. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

The Initial Idea 

Tom J. and Cindy A. Novobilski, the husband and wife team behind The 1000 Islands Cruet, don’t just sell their products — they live them.

The couple fell in love with the idea of a boutique extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar store on a visit to North Carolina. In fact, they liked it so much that they bought eight bottles to bring back.

“There wasn’t anything like that here,” Mrs. Novobilski said. “We started talking about it and said it would be great in Clayton. It was just finding the right location.”

The Novobilskis kept their eyes open for an ideal spot in Clayton or Alexandria Bay, and in late 2013, they found it. After connecting with the right supplier for the goods and creating the right aesthetic for the shop, the duo set out to build the perfect tasting room.

Target Clientele

The Cruet’s products are niche, but the target customer is not.

“We actually have them from four or five years old to 80 years old,” Mr. Novobilski laughed, and his wife added that they do encourage the interest from young children.

Since the store opened last year, Mr. Novobilski said it’s common for women to discover the shop, and then return with husbands, boyfriends and families.

“It’s become a destination,” he said.

The couple agreed that one of the most rewarding aspects of running The Cruet has been seeing customers interact with each other. Shoppers share opinions, stories and recipes while they browse and taste. A couple have even hailed down passersby to join the party, Mr. Novobilski said.

“It’s like a store conversation,” he said. “It’s how we all learn.”

The Cruet offers a variety of extra virgin olive oils from around the world, white and dark balsamic vinegars from Italy, salts and seasonings, rubs, teas, bread dips, skin care products, locally-made jewelry and more. The store offers a military discount, as well as a customer loyalty program. Planned summer hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

The Journey

After that fateful olive oil and balsamic vinegar discovery in North Carolina, the Novobilskis knew it was only a matter of time and location until they opened a similar shop in the north country.

Once they found a spot on James Street with the help of Melanie Curley, owner and broker at Weichert, Realtors — Thousand Island Realty, the next step was to find a supplier. After exploring their options, the couple picked Veronica Foods Company because of its highest standards, Mrs. Novobilski said.

“The quality is above the rest of the market,” Mr. Novobilski agreed.

Veronica Foods, a family-owned business based in Oakland, California, has specialized in extra virgin olive oil since 1924. The company’s standards extend past its products to the businesses they supply. The Novobilskis had to write a proposal explaining why The Cruet was a good fit for Veronica Foods products.

The couple began leasing the space in November, hoping to hear a “yes” from Veronica Foods by the start of the new year so they could set up shop. While they did get the positive response in January, the Novobilskis hit a roadblock around the same time. Their perfect location had water damage, and the move-in date was pushed to late March.

For the next two months, they built wooden shelves to line the walls and constructed their displays, opening for business on May 29, 2014.

Since, customer service has been the No. 1 priority, Mr. Novobilski said

“We try to greet every person. We try to explain what’s new,” he said. “People who aren’t familiar with it, we walk them through the store. It’s important for them to know what the store has to offer and to try different things.”

The Novobilskis have been pleasantly surprised by customers’ genuine excitement, as well as the number of people who have passed through their doors.

“Going into this business, we knew it was going to be busy,” Mr. Novobilski said. “We didn’t know how busy it was going to be. We’ve had 30 or 40 people in here at once.”

People have even told the couple they should open a restaurant to showcase their products, Mrs. Novobilski said.

“We would love to expand to that level,” she said, “and that’s why we’re trying to work more with the restaurants.”

A couple of local chefs, including the head of the kitchen at Lyric Coffee House & Bistro, have begun to use the shop’s products in their dishes.

The success of The Cruet comes down to that community atmosphere.

“If [the customers] walk out of my store with more information than when they came in, I’m doing my job,” Mr. Novobilski said.

In Five Years

Right now, Mr. Novobilski, a retired fire lieutenant, runs the store with the help of two or four employees, depending on the season. Mrs. Novobilski is employed full time by IBM and works at The Cruet on the weekends. Looking to the future, the Novobilskis have a couple of plans in mind.

Mr. Novobilski said he’d like to get certified as an olive oil taster soon. This accreditation is similar to that of a sommelier for wine, he explained.

Further ahead, they hope that Mrs. Novobilski can retire. Then they might open a second location, each of them running a store, Mr. Novobilski said.

“And hopefully we’d take two months off in the summertime,” he added.

Mrs. Novobilski laughed.

“Ok,” she said, “you’re dreaming.”

— By Lorna Oppedisano