Allison Lunko knew her specialty olive oil shop was a winner when someone asked, “How does it feel to have found something that people here didn’t even know they needed?”
A native of Johnstown, she opened Laurel Highlands Olive Oil at 140 E. Main St., Ligonier in June 2021. Almost a year later, she said things are going well.
Lunko sources her oils from groves around the world, in places as far away as Italy and Australia. From mild to strong, flavored and unflavored, more than 20 oil options are available. There are also black truffle, sesame and walnut oils.
Lunko also stocks a wide range of flavored balsamic vinegars, along with specialty food items, olive wood home and kitchen decor, soy candles, and CBD oil health and beauty products that she makes herself.
Part of their mission is to educate people about the joy of cooking with quality oils and vinegars and their healthy properties.
At the front of the shop is a table with several barrels of virgin, extra virgin, unflavored olive oil. “Single-Origin” means that the olives in the oil come from a specific grove.
Lunko is happy to give first-time visitors a short tasting.
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune Review
Shoppers can sample a range of olive oils, from light to robust, at Laurel Highlands Olive Oil in Ligonier.
“I start with the mild and work my way up to the medium and strong flavors, very much like wine tasting,” she said. “The mildest from Australia is so mild you could bake with it – you could even use it to replace the oil in brownies.
“The media is pepperier and hotter,” she said. “I like to tell people that the peppery spiciness they taste is actually the antioxidants. The sturdier it is, the healthier it is for you.”
At the back of the retail space is what Lunko calls “the playroom.” Shelves lining the walls hold vats of flavored oils and balsamic vinegar, and there’s more to discover here.
“The base oil in the flavored oils changes every six months depending on the crush season. Every six months, either the northern or southern hemisphere crushes olives,” she said. “In the first half of the year you get the Southern Hemisphere harvest and in the second half of the year you get the Northern Hemisphere harvest.
“You always get the freshest oil.”
Fused and infused
The oils come in large vats from Veronica Foods in Oakland, California, and Lunko bottles them in a variety of sizes, including sample sizes sold in mix-and-match four-packs. Some of the flavored oils are fused while others are infused.
In a melted oil, the olives and the fruit, herbs or vegetables that flavor it are crushed at the same time. An aroma extract is added to an oil that is infused.
The vinegars all come from Italy and are between 12 and 25 years old.
“It’s a lot of fun mixing and matching them for salad dressings and marinades for meat,” said Lunko. “You can marinate meat in vinegar and refine it with oil. You can roast veggies in one of the oils and remove them about a minute before they’re done and drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over them.
“It really takes it up a notch, changing the entire flavor profile and turning boring weekday veggies into something much more exciting.”
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune review
Laurel Highlands Olive Oil in Ligonier features a variety of flavored balsamic vinegars; specialty food, beauty and CBD oil products; and home accessories made of olive wood as well as a large selection of oils.
Lunko’s favorite preparation is to halve Brussels sprouts, toss them in butter oil and then roast them.
“Just before they’re done roasting, I pull them out and drizzle over the Vermont Maple Balsamic Vinegar and sprinkle a few bits of bacon on top,” she said. “He makes Brussels sprouts the very best.”
Customer favorites among the flavored oils are Tuscan Herb, Garlic and Greek Lemon. Sicilian Lemon is the pinnacle of vinegars, and Lunko calls it “probably the most versatile” for marinades, dressings and roasting vegetables. Black missionary fig vinegar is also popular.
After graduating from Johnstown High School in 1995, Lunko earned a degree in horticulture from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
After graduating, she stayed in the hemp growing industry as a consultant.
“I helped start Colorado’s first certified hemp farm,” she said.
She was inspired to open an olive oil store by a similar business in Fort Collins, but decided a location in Pennsylvania suited her better.
Tasty and fun
“I wanted something that was tasty and fun. I wanted an experience and not just a gift shop, a place to learn and create,” she said. “I decided I could never have done my dream out there because it would have been prohibitively expensive for me to do it in Colorado.”
The closeness to the family after 25 years in the West also played a role in the decision.
She found out about olive oils through “a lot of reading, experimenting and tasting”. My mother and I have also visited many olive oil shops across the country in our travels over the years.”
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune review
Laurel Highlands Olive Oil opened in June 2021 at 140 E. Main St., Ligonier.
Lunko said the retail space has great bones but needs a complete makeover. Before she took it over, it was a jewelry store and before that a Thomas Kinkade art gallery, reflecting the painter’s forest aesthetic.
“All the walls had dark green indoor/outdoor carpets,” she said. “The ceiling was dark green, the carpet was dark green and so were the walls. It was supposed to look like walking into a dark forest – and it worked.”
Renovations included removal of interior walls, white paint, open shelving, and light gray floors.
Flavored oils and balsamic vinegar prices start at $12.50 for a 200-milliliter bottle. The single source, extra virgin oils start at $15.50 for the same amount. The 60 milliliter samplers are $6 each, or four for $20.
Lunko’s future plans include offering cooking demonstrations and after-hours tasting parties with an educational component, possibly next winter after the busy times of summer, Fort Ligonier days and Christmas shopping.
Spring opening hours at Laurel Highlands Olive Oil are 11am to 5pm Monday and Wednesday to Friday, 10am to 5pm on Saturday and 12pm to 4pm on Sunday. The shop is closed on Tuesdays.
Visit laurelhighlandoliveoil.com for more information.
Shirley McMarlin is a Contributor to the Tribune Review. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .