Specialty shop is transforming how Campbell Riverites eat

It started out as a way to combat boredom, but it’s become a specialty store thriving in Tyee Plaza with an “incredibly” loyal customer base.

Signature Oil & Vinegar is a one-of-a-kind store that keeps Campbell Riverites coming back for more.

Lisa Whitmore, who owns the store with business partner Sigrid Lees, says the community has really responded to their business which prides itself on being the only place on the North Island where you can get organic, pure extra virgin olive oil.

“People are so loyal to our store, they’re incredibly supportive,” Whitmore says. “I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I’ve been out of olive oil but I’ve waited until I could come into this store to get it because it’s different and it’s special.’

The idea for the store spawned from Whitmore and Lees’ existing wine shop in the Comox Valley. Attached to that business, the pair also operated a giftware room.

Whitmore says, however, that “after awhile that became boring so we started investigating ideas of what we could do with that space.”

Figuring oil and vinegar were the perfect pairing to wine, Whitmore and Lees sought out opportunities for establishing a store that would sell those very products. After traveling to various facilities over the span of three months, the pair opened the first Signature Oil & Vinegar in Comox in February of 2014. By that summer, Whitmore and Lees were seeing so many people from Campbell River coming into their store that they thought they better expand.

The Campbell River store opened in Tyee Plaza in November, 2014 and has been off and running ever since.

And it’s no wonder when all of the products are sought out specially by Whitmore and Lees so that store is selling oils and balsamic vinegars that are consistently rated best in class.

The pair also spend a great deal of time and effort on getting the oil to the store as quickly as possible.

Whitmore says while olive oil has the greatest amount of anti-oxidants of any  food product, those qualities begin to decline as soon as the olives are picked.

“In North America, it’s usually already declined by the time they get here, so we sourced the planet and we can get them here in store three weeks after being picked,” Whitmore says. “We shop all over the world and we follow the harvest.”

That means for the first six months of the year, the olives come from the Northern hemisphere, places like Spain, Italy and California while in the later half of the year product is shipped from the Southern hemisphere, from countries such as Chile, Peru, South Africa and Australia. It’s what makes Signature Oil & Vinegar unique in these parts. Particularly because it’s genuinely authentic, which can be difficult to find.

“There’s a tremendous amount of fraud in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar,” Whitmore says. “About two-thirds of the olive oil that is marketed is fraudulent.”

She cites a study done by UC Davis University in 2010 that tested olive oil from several stores and found that two-thirds came back fake.

“It is difficult, if not impossible, to get organic, fresh extra virgin olive oil,” Whitmore says. “There is nowhere else you can get it other than our store on the North Island.”

And to prove to their customers their product is the Real McCoy, all of the products brought into the store are analyzed at an independent lab and their chemistry is posted above the gleaming silver fusti which holds the product.

“The truth of it is right there in black and white,” says Whitmore who will only sell top of the line product. “Olive oil is created like wine, out of 100 points, we don’t take anything that rates below 90.”

The benefits to securing such good quality product are many.

A study done by Dr. Mary Flynn, an associate professor of medicine at the Miriam Hospital and Brown University found that “consumption of extra virgin olive oil has been related to decreasing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, lipid disorders, cancer, in general, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Flynn said in her report that “published studies show that no other food comes close to extra virgin olive oil for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease.”

Whitmore says that’s part of the business – educating their customers on the benefits of their products.


“Although it is delicious and is a complement to food, there’s much more to it than that – it’s been around for 6,000 years,” Whitmore says. “That is really our thrust. Not to beat people over the head with the medicinal aspects of it but to make them aware that it’s a special product. It takes us back to a time when food was medicine, like how it was 100 years ago.

“And balsamic vinegar, same story. Most of what we buy at the grocery store has never been to Italy and never seen the inside of a barrel.”

Whitmore says there are only two places on the planet that produce real balsamic vinegar and Signature Oil & Vinegar happens to import from one of those very places – Modena, Italy, where the balsamic is done in the old-world, solera-style of barrel aging.

“They’re barrel aged 12 to 14 years and they’re infused with organic botanicals so there’s no thickener, no sugar,” Whitmore says.

And, like olive oil, balsamic vinegar is also good for your health, as it offsets acidity in the body and helps to restore a person’s alkaline balance.

Signature Oil & Vinegar offers more than 50 different oil and vinegar products to choose from to get that healthy product into your diet, and at an affordable rate.

“Although the store is pretty, we’re priced just like the butcher or the baker, our products aren’t expensive,” Whitmore says. “At $5, everyone can afford to have good oil in their diet. Once people come in and taste the products, they speak for themselves.”

And customers don’t just have to take Whitmore’s word for it. Signature Oil & Vinegar is also a tasting bar, and customers are encouraged to sample the different products before buying.

Their best-selling product is the Tuscan Herb olive oil but their most special product is a Baklouti Green Chilli oil, and a vegetarian, lactose-free extra virgin olive oil.

Balsamics of all flavours, such as black cherry, dark chocolate, tangerine, cinnamon pear, mango and coconut also grace the shelves of the store.

While oil and vinegar are the top sellers, the store also prides itself on selling items local to Vancouver Island, such as their herbs and spices, items from Artisan Edibles in Parksville, product from the Mustard Lady in the Comox Valley and soups and breads from Snowden House Gourmets, which is based in Sidney, near Victoria.

It’s something that Whitmore says her customers see the value in.

“Our Campbell River folks are fiercely loyal, they really support that we strive to be organic and they particularly support that we strive to stay local,” Whitmore says. “It’s important to us and we see it as important to our customers.

“It’s sort of a unique shop but that Campbell River store is a destination shop,” Whitmore adds. “Right now we have no neighbours on either side of us, so people are going specially to Tyee Plaza to shop at our store. It’s not that we have people who happen to just be walking by and wander in.

“There is really an understanding of the need for quality food products to get back to a simple, healthy way of eating.”