Theo Stephan is doing the unthinkable. The owner of Global Gardens is missing the annual Los Olivos Jazz and Olive Oil Festival this Saturday. As the county's first commercial producer of olive oil -- her initial harvest was in 2001 -- Stephan has been a mainstay at the event. Her Global Gardens will still have a stand at the festival that will be manned by Stephan's daughters Sunita and Anita. Stephan will be two hours away attending a two-week certification program at Quail Springs Permaculture in preparation for opening her own permaculture school as part of Global Gardens in Los Olivos.
Stephan, whose parents came from Greece, considers herself an educator as much as a olive oil and artisan foods producer. That's not surprising for someone who spent eight years teaching at the college level in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
"Now we teach whoever stops by the Farm Stand how to use olive oil, how to cook healthy, all about flavor," Stephan said. "Extending the educational aspects of Global Gardens is important to me."
That extension is a planned permaculture after school and summer day camp program for kids in kindergarten through fourth grade on the 3-acre Los Olivos property, where Stephan lives and runs her business. Stephan said she already has county preapproval for the project relative to concept and square footage. There will be a barn, meditation "house," green house and chicken coop.
"Permaculture is a 100-percent sustainable living lifestyle," she explained. "We'll be teaching how to compost. We'll be cooking and gardening. We'll have chickens. Kids can go home with knowledge that hopefully will take them through the rest of their lives."
The plan is to open fall 2018 or spring 2019. "There is nothing like this in the county or even in the state as far as I know," Stephan said.
Being a pioneer comes naturally to Stephan. During her teaching years, she became a highly successful graphic designer, and even though she was in Dayton, acquired a considerable amount of work from Universal Studios in Los Angeles. She'd fly in for weeks at a time to oversee projects.
During one of those California visits, Stephan rented a convertible and drove to the Santa Ynez Valley.
"I literally ran out of gas in Los Olivos and got pushed to the pump. This was when Los Olivos still had a gas station, it was full service. While they were pumping my gas -- and this is no lie -- I flipped through one of those real estate magazines and thought, 'Wouldn't it be incredible to have a place here?'" she recalled.
She did more than that. Not long after, in 1995, Stephan purchased Rancho La Cuna in Los Alamos, and planted 2,000 olive trees.
The idea of getting into the olive business had been planted when Stephan made one of those weekend drives up to Sonoma County to the town of Glen Ellen where she visited a local producer and retailer of olive oils, the Olive Press.
"The industry was very young in the state and there were no producers in Santa Barbara County. I thought, 'Why not?'"
It took until 2001 for Stephan's trees to be mature enough to produce a sufficient number of olives to press. Still in the graphic design business, she used her early bottlings as corporate gifts.
That was also the year she adopted Sunita and Anita from Nepal after the sisters had lost their mother in a monsoon.
By 2003, Global Gardens' certified organic olive oil production was at a level where Stephan could open a stand, which she did at Buttonwood Farms in Solvang, remaining there until 2006. Then it was on to Los Olivos, where she had a full on tasting room -- called Farm Stand -- for her olive oils, vinegars and other artisan food products for nine years.
In the interim, Stephan sold Rancho La Cuna to Au Bon Climat owner/winemaker Jim Clendenen, leasing back the 2,000-tree olive grove she planted. She also bought her property in Los Olivos, and planted an additional 60 olive trees there. She opened Farm Stand there in September 2014.
In Los Olivos, she planted Koroneiki olive trees. She brought the trees over from Crete because there were none commercially available in the U.S. at the time. In Los Alamos, she has Koroneiki, Farga (her personal favorite), Mission Manzanilla and Kalamata trees. Each has a different flavor profile.
Stephan is dedicated to selling only the purist organic olive oils and to educating consumers. Global Gardens oils are labeled EVOO -- in large bright letters. That stands for extra virgin olive oil, a designation seen on almost every bottle of olive oil sold anywhere, but something that has become almost meaningless, according to Stephan.
"Seventy percent of olive oils in the grocery store are adulterated with other oils," she said. Many experts and researchers put that number even higher, up to 90 percent.
Stephan said she's been approached by Whole Foods and other upscale food retailers to sell her products at their stores. She's not interested. To maintain the tightest quality control, Global Gardens products can only be sold at Farm Stand and online.
That's worked out just fine, she said.
"I wouldn't be here without our locals. We have a wonderful community of olive oil lovers."
On Saturday, with Sunita and Anita behind the counter, Global Gardens' whole olives will also be available to taste and purchase at the Los Olivos Jazz and Olive Festival. It runs from 1 to 4 p.m. in Lavinia Campbell Park.