There's a bustling aliveness inside the Queen Creek Olive Mill.
The marketplace, which customers encounter as they enter the door, is a place like no other. Shelves are lined with an assortment of extra virgin olive oils, pressed from olives picked during different points of the growing season. Some are strong and pungent, perfect for those hoping to lend bold flavor to their next home-cooked meal. Others are rich with fruitier notes, made from olives harvested later in the season; they're ideal for drizzling over vegetables, baking or whipping up seafood.
Then there's the third kind, a Gold Award winner in the 2017 New York International Olive Oil competition, which the mill recommends for everyday use in light of its balance of strong and fruity flavor profiles.
Keep perusing the aisles and you might run into one of the many blended oils in stock. There's jalapeño, roasted garlic, Mexican lime, bacon and even chocolate. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.
Just past the market, there's a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner featuring lots of ingredients produced and sold at the mill. Plus, there's the serene groves where patrons can enjoy a relaxing meal with friends while listening to live music on Friday, Saturday or Sunday or relish in a romantic dinner date with a partner or spouse.
Not to mention the room where freshly picked olives are turned into oil. The onsite mill can easily be seen through a large window near the indoor dining area.
It all sits on 100 acres, with 40 acres encompassing the olive groves and an additional 16 dedicated to the the mill, marketplace and restaurant.
The journey for Perry Rea, owner of Queen Creek Olive Mill, and his family began while vacationing in Arizona.
At the time, Rea was working as the chief executive officer of an automotive parts company in Detroit, which had started as a family business but was bought out by a larger corporation. He was overseeing the company's North American operations when he decided, at age 40, to leave behind the industry and take an early retirement.
"It was kind of like, 'well, what am I going to do now?'" he said.
It was while Rea and his family where visiting his parents, who were wintering in Arizona, that the answer presented itself.
"We were walking around downtown Scottsdale, in Old (Town) Scottsdale, and saw all of these olive trees," he said.
They returned to Michigan and one night over drinks his wife, Brenda, brought up the idea of producing olive oil in Arizona.
"I've always been a little bit of a entrepreneur," Rea said. "I've never worked for anybody, I've always worked for myself. And I thought, 'you know what, let me investigate it a little more and see if it's viable to grow olives here in Arizona."
Through his research, Rea found a few small olive groves in Arizona that proved growing olives in the state is possible. It led to Rea participating in a series of classes at the University of California, Davis and taking trips to Italy to get a better understanding of production and harvesting practices.
He then bought the Queen Creek property, formerly the site for Country Thunder, purchased a small mill and began planting — starting with about 1,500 trees. Today, production at the olive mill has grown greatly. The property is now home to more than 11,500 trees and houses a much larger mill for pressing.
"This place opened in 2005 and we just kind of grew organically," Rea said. "We used to have one (type) of extra virgin olive oil and now we've got, with other local products and our products, probably over 300 different (types)."
Olive oils and other edible products produced at the mill are recipes created by Rea himself, which includes infused and co-pressed olive oils as well as balsamic vinegars. Other items based off Rea's own recipes, though made by co-packers rather than in-house at the mill, include products the mill has expanded into over the years like barbecue sauces, pasta sauces and tapenades.
Beyond providing Arizona visitors and locals alike with products that are grown, harvested and developed at the mill, Rea noted that Queen Creek Olive Mill also strives to champion other local producers.
"Anyone who has a real farm-to-table mission is someone we embrace," he said.
There are many products that line shelves in the olive mill's marketplace made by other Arizona-based and -operated companies, like honey produced by Valley Honey Co. and jams made by Carolyn's Classics.
"You'll see a whole number of different smaller producers that we promote and we put them on our shelf," Rea said.
He said that when local operations approach him about selling their product at the mill, he is generally open to placing the product on the shelf and seeing how it sells. And if it sells, it stays there.
"It's good for (us) because people see different products in the mill that they won't see at Whole Foods or Sprouts or something like that," he said. "If somebody comes to me and says, 'listen we make this in town and would it be possible to sell this?' I say, 'if it works with our concept then yeah, of course. Let's put it on the shelf. If it sells, it's going to stay on the shelf.'"
Farm-to-table concepts are becoming increasingly more popular among consumers. The movement has gained steam since the 1960s and '70s amid growing dissatisfaction with processed foods coupled with a greater focus on sustainability and supporting the local economies.
"The whole farm-to-table movement is something that people embrace right now," Rea said. "And the reason they embrace it is because a lot of them are very health-conscious and they want to know where their food comes from."
Farm-to-table is a critical part of the olive mill's mission, and it's ingrained in a lot of what the mill does — even extending to sustainability practices and efforts to give back to the local community.
The installation of about 600 solar panels on the roof that help to operate the mill and an onsite garden for fresh herbs are just some of the ways the mill is striving to keep sustainability in mind.
When it comes to farm-to-table, Rea noted the mill isn't any different from any other organization in the industry. However, there is a desire among consumers to understand how organizations grow and process the foods they sell, he said, as well as the passion and sustainability behind the products.
Through its tours and other activities, the mill strives to offer that education while also creating an enjoyable experience for customers.
"We create an education experience for the product that we produce and people leave here with a better understanding of how good extra virgin olive oil is for you," Rea said.
Similarly, when it comes to the scratch restaurant, meals are made in-house using only quality organic or locally grown ingredients. Located on Meridian Road, which marks the county line between Pinal and Maricopa county and the overlap between San Tan Valley and Queen Creek, Rea said that the mill tries to be a differentiator in an area where there is plenty of access to fast food.
"We pride ourselves on good food, we pride ourselves in customer satisfaction and we pride ourselves in this being a destination so that when you come here it's a great experience," he said. "We're not just a restaurant. We are really what I term as an agritourism or agritainment spot."
Part of the agritainment the mill provides is its regular tours of the mill as well as themed events like the annual Corn Roast hosted in June and the Garlic Festival held every fall. While the corn is provided by a local grower, the garlic showcased at the garlic festival is grown at the mill.
But food isn't the only thing the olive mill produces. The mill, which additionally operates a brick-and-mortar site in Kierland Commons in Scottsdale, also has its own line of beauty products that use — you guessed it— olive oil as one of their primary ingredients.
Started by Brenda Rea, the brand, known as Olivespa, focuses on using natural and plant-based ingredients in its skin and beauty products, whether it's soap, lip balm or hydrating body oils.
Brenda said she started the brand out of necessity when the couple's sons began experiencing problems with exceedingly dry skin. What started with a singular olive salve has now become a line of plant-based self-care products that even extend to products like facial toners and shaving soaps.
"My wife, along with my daughter Joey, who run Olivespa, are very passionate about the products that they produce," Rea said. "Everything is produced here. So the lip balms, the hand salves, the foot balms, the body oils, the face oil, body butter — everything that they make is based on extra virgin olive oil."
Olivespa is one of the fastest growing sectors of the olive mill, Rea noted, and there are plans currently in the works for opening up a brick-and-mortar store dedicated to Olivespa products in Gilbert.
Rea noted that the mill also has plans to expand in the near future to add a bit more square footage as the property sometimes attracts heavy foot traffic.
"We want to show our customers that we walk the talk," he said. "Success is based on listening to your customers, having a cool concept and really being passionate about what you do. That's all it is."