Stories Behind the Booze: We Olive Cincinnati's Leah Jones

Leah Jones, co-owner of We Olive Cincinnati.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The olive tree is surely the richest gift from heaven.” This statement could not be truer for Coby and Leah Jones, franchisers of We Olive Cincinnati. We Olive was born in Paso Robles, California, as a small business that specializes in California olive oil. Our local We Olive is located next to Fountain Square in the heart of Cincinnati. We Olive is a place where Cincinnati meets California and starts a beautiful marriage – similar to Coby and Leah Jones. I had the pleasure of getting a chance to make a new girlfriend in Leah, who greeted me with a warm hug and one of their specialty cocktails, “The Peach Balsamic,” which, of course, included balsamic vinegar. We discussed her love for Cincinnati, the We Olive franchise, cocktails, and turning passions and inspirations into careers. The Jones’ philosophy is to be a local neighborhood spot where you can dine, drink, shop, and have a full culinary experience. Leah’s vision for We Olive is to be a place where conversation, stories, and relationships are formed. She wants to know her patrons by their first names and for them to be able to unplug. “We are in such a confined world that is not connecting or unplugging. People ask me if we have Wi-Fi. My response is we don’t have it and we don’t need it,” she told us.

Interview by Kim Dietz. Photography by Aurore Fournier.

What inspired you to put balsamic vinegar in a cocktail?

The inspiration for our entire concept is that the things we sell are incorporated into the menu. So, olive oils, tapenades, sauces – everything you can find in the shop, you can find on our menu, too. If you really get down to it, balsamic vinegars are essentially grape and flavor, so you’re getting a flavor profile from, let’s say, the peach balsamic. It tastes like peach; it’s kind of dense and sweet like a syrup, so it’s like putting a simple syrup into a cocktail. Think of it like we’re adding a flavored syrup, and it’s a little more approachable. It is really delicious, and people love them.

We Olive's cocktail menu

How did you get into this industry?

School of hard knocks. Just kidding. We’re part of a franchise concept that originated out of California. The original inspiration for the entire thing was California olive growers and highlighting that amazing product, and it all sort of blossomed from there. So that includes beautiful California olive oils, California balsamics, and, as a Cincinnati location, we’re able to incorporate a lot of Cincinnati artisans. Why not feature great local products if we got it right next door? As much as we can, the idea is to feature smaller, artisanal style things, because we have tons of great artisans locally and throughout the country. Why not feature them rather than importing things if we don’t need to?

A huge part of the inspiration for myself and my husband, who co-owns the business with me, was just this idea of finding a social experience and something a little bit different then your everyday wine bar or retail experience. We just felt like something unique, different, and fun – and more conversational – would be unique to Cincinnati. So for us, it is more about the experience – the culinary experience, learning about food and learning how to incorporate all of this beautiful stuff so you can cook at home – and same thing with cocktails and wine.

What made you want to bring a California based franchise to Cincinnati? Was there something lacking in this market?

A little bit. When we first discovered this concept, it was a lot more about like, “Come in; take your time,” so I think that’s what really got us excited about this. They’re coming into a place where we recognize them when they come back, and they can learn something new each time, get to know the process and be inspired to eat a little bit healthier or cook a little more frequently and have a little bit more fun with it.

We are in such a confined world that is not connecting or unplugging. People ask if we have Wi-Fi; my response is, “We don’t have it; we don’t need it.”

What is the story of how you met your husband and fell in love with each other and decided to go into business together?

We were both raised in Cincinnati. I graduated from Indian Hill High School, and I come from an Italian family where staples like olive oil and olives were always on the menu for Sunday night dinners. Dinners included conversations, wine, and wonderful Italian food. This was an experience I was missing.

Coby, my husband, was a Loveland High School graduate. We both attended University of Cincinnati. I decided to pursue a degree in early childhood education. Throughout college, I worked in the food industry, where I met my husband. We both worked at Max and Erma’s. I remember after meeting him that I loved his high energy and thought that I’d hit the jackpot.

We both had a love for the fast-paced environment and the social aspect. This was a tough path to choose; we wanted to do something more passionate. We wanted to explore more, which led us to light the fire of opening our own business. We started talking with the franchise owners and we realized this was a match made in heaven.

Did you have the freedom with this franchise to put your own personal stamp on it?

This can be a major misconception in this industry. We had the freedom to have a franchise and not be restaurant chain owners. We were given the freedom to design our own space. We kept the staples of what we loved about the La Jolla location [that we visited in California], but were able to incorporate our own aesthetic. We didn’t want to stray away from the concept, but I added my own personality, such as the woodwork – for which I was able to use a locally owned company. I was able to outsource to local companies: Northside Distillery, Dojo, Molly Wellmann cocktails.

One of We Olive's cocktails

I read that some of your cocktails are inspired by whatever is playing at the Aronoff?

Yes, we do follow the theme of whatever play is playing at the Aronoff Center. Like right now: “The Book of Mormon.” We were able to have a cocktail theme for that play.

[Editor’s note: “The Book of Mormon” played at the Aronoff Center from July 31 to Aug. 5.]

Who has inspired you the most to be an entrepreneur?

For sure, my mother. She said in life one must respect themselves, love themselves, and stand up for themselves.

What advice can you give other women who want to follow in your footsteps?

Have a strong support system. Take risks. Know your city. Be social. You should have coffee with a new woman once a month. Have a strong personality and want to know people.

What is your favorite aspect of running a business?

Knowing the people that come in here. I want to know their likes and dislikes. I love introducing them to our chef, Jessica. I want them to unplug. We are in such a confined world that is not connecting or unplugging. People ask if we have Wi-Fi; my response is, “We don’t have it; we don’t need it.” I like hiring a staff who has knowledge, but a strong personality. Our staff engages in our wine tastings and our menu with our wine makers. Our wine distributors from all over share their stories. I love the stories that involve the romance of wine.