520 N. Michigan
Hours: Mon-Sat 10 AM-8 PM, Sun 11-6
Didem Tapban keeps no fewer than six different kinds of olive oil in her house, each good for a different purpose. "I can't think of a dish without olive oil," she says. "You tell me one dish you don't cook with olive oil, so I can tell you that, actually, it'd be very good with olive oil!" In her perfect world, every home would be stocked with at least two bottles--a cold-pressed extra-virgin for bread dipping and salad dressing and a light refined version for frying and baking. Even for your grandma's cookies, Tapban will assure you, olive oil is just the thing.
Ta-Ze (pronounced "TAH-zeh"), the boutique that Tapban and her husband, Seza, opened in September in the North Bridge Shopping Mall (the one that houses Nordstrom), is Chicago's first store devoted almost exclusively to olives and their "fruit juice," as Tapban calls the oil. It's also the first U.S. franchise for Ta-Ze, which has locations in Izmir and Istanbul. Ta-Ze ("fresh" in Turkish) is the retail arm of Taris Olive Inc., a cooperative union of 27,000 Turkish olive oil producers and olive farmers. All of Taris's oils come from olives grown in Turkey's Aegean region, which Tapban calls the "Riviera of olive trees." "Very much like wine, the climate, soil, and wind--everything will affect the taste of the fruit," she says, resulting in oils with different flavors, fragrances, and colors.
Tapban had been a retail manager for Neiman Marcus and was working for the Italian linen company Frette when she started thinking about opening her own business. "I always dreamt of a place where I could set my own standards," she says. "I really didn't want to open another clothing store. It had to be something very extraordinary and unique." She and Seza were traveling in Nice a couple of summers ago when they chanced upon a few olive oil concept stores. "We fell in love with the idea," Tapban says. In Turkey shortly afterward they discovered Ta-Ze, and in the following months they contacted Taris and filed a franchise application. But they didn't hear anything until this past March, when Taris's marketing director came to Chicago for a vacation and contacted the couple. They saw eye to eye on how to put the concept over, says Tapban. "It's not just about selling olive oil. It's about explaining a culture to my clients."
That culture is one the Tapbans know well. Both were born and raised in Turkey; Didem moved to the U.S. in 1997 to be with Seza, who'd come a year earlier for a market-research job. Growing up in Istanbul, Didem knew the olive trees and their blooms. Her grandmother had several trees in her backyard, and the family ate olives every morning as part of the traditional Turkish breakfast: olives or olive paste, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, toast, and tea. Though she's never used any oil but olive (she used butter occasionally until Seza was diagnosed with high cholesterol in 2002), Tapban didn't know much about olives or the making of olive oil until she began planning her store. For instance, she found out that green and black olives don't come from two different trees--first they're green, then they turn black as they ripen. Oils from green, or early-harvest, olives have a stronger, grassier flavor; those from black, or ripe, olives taste fruitier. But she was a quick study. "I think the things that you love, you learn," she says. "The more I learned, the more I got attached."
Tapban's an evangelist for olive oil's health benefits--versus highly processed seed oils such as safflower and corn. A pamphlet she hands out in the store cites studies that suggest a diet rich in olive oil helps prevent diabetes, keeps blood pressure and cholesterol low, and aids in digestion, among other pluses. "This should be part of your life," she says. That's partly why the oils sold at Ta-Ze aren't the high-ticket bottles often found in epicurean markets (though Tapban will add a pricier artisanal variety soon, she says, to appeal to connoisseurs). Ta-Ze's oils range in price from $6.50 for an 8.5-ounce bottle to $42 for 68 ounces; the biggest sellers are 17- and 25-ounce bottles for $15-$25. "I want you to consume it," says Tapban. "I don't want you to treat it like something very special that you buy once a year and take out when your special guests are in the house. No! Consume it and come back and buy more. A 500-milliliter [25-ounce] bottle--I consume it myself in no more than eight days. That's the level I'm talking about." She concedes that even her lower-priced oils cost a good deal more than anything you'll find at Jewel or Trader Joe's, but at Ta-Ze you're not just paying for the oil--you're also paying for her staff's expertise and the opportunity to educate your own palate. "People have no clue," she says, about how to choose olive oil at their local grocery store: "They just pick the prettiest bottle." Like an uneducated wine buyer, someone who's clueless about the differences between oils will have a hard time finding one they like, or knowing which ones are suitable for which uses. "It's not like milk," says Tapban, "where no matter what brand you buy, you're going to have the same taste."
Tapban and her employees will gladly explain the difference between virgin and extra-virgin olive oil (the latter has a lower acidity and a more distinctive flavor) or the cold-press process by which much of Taris's oil is produced. A cold-pressed olive is one that's been cut open and squeezed without the addition of heat, which would result in more oil extracted but less flavor. Each bottle of oil at Ta-Ze comes with a small cardboard tag listing in very small type which city or town the oil came from, what variety of olives was used, when and how they were harvested (most are picked by hand), how the oil was extracted, and its shelf life, density, color, fragrance, taste, maximum acidity, and suggested uses. The store also has a tasting bar where customers can dip bits of bread into various oils, with a salesperson on hand for guidance. Just as it takes time to become a connoisseur of beer or wine, it might take repeated dipping to appreciate the subtle variations between some olive oils.
But a few, particularly the early-harvest varieties, are strong enough in flavor to make a vivid first impression. I chose a $23 bottle of Erkence ("AHR-ken-zhay") for my mother for Christmas: its flavor is described as "intense" and "medium pungent-bitter." Fresh-tasting and piquant, it tastes more like herbs than like olives.
Aside from 30-odd varieties of oil, Ta-Ze carries jars of olives, olive pastes and soaps, dipping bowls, cookbooks, and other goodies associated with olives or Mediterranean culture in general, such as sea salts, anchovies, and figs wrapped like candies and just as sweet. Tapban's quick to recommend recipes, such as a "to die for" chicken with pomegranate-glazed sweet potatoes and baby porcini mushrooms (also available at Ta-Ze).
The store gets a small but steady flow of customers, but Tapban says her friends were surprised when she left her solid, comfortable career for the risky world of concept retail. "Everybody had bets on me failing," she says. "A lot of people thought I was crazy, that I couldn't succeed at this. But my mission is much more than one store being successful. I want to change the eating habits and culture here. I don't believe in skim milk. I don't believe in low-fat yogurt. My grandparents lived very healthy until their late 70s, early 80s, and they consumed a lot of olive oil. When I hear about these American diets, low fat and all these other things, I say, eat less, but try to eat healthy things. Olive oil is one of the few things that is really good for your body. It's also extremely delicious."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.