When Texas native Aishwarya Iyer moved to New York, she subscribed to the typical Manhattan-dwelling diet of empty fridges and trendy restaurants. With so many cool places to eat out, how can you make the case for preparing food at home?
Then she met her now-husband and they began to nest, using cooking as a way to connect and learn. But they kept getting sick.
Was it bread? Was it dairy? Cutting out the usual suspects didn’t do the trick. Finally they realized the cause of their issues was actually a very basic pantry item: olive oil. “When we found out that was the culprit I was really floored, and started doing a lot of research and found out that a lot of the olive oil that Americans consume is rotten or rancid,” Iyer says. As one example, a University of California, Davis report from 2010 found that “samples of imported olive oil labeled as ‘extra virgin’ and sold at retail locations in California often did not meet international and US standards. Sensory tests showed that these failed samples had defective flavors such as rancid, fusty, and musty.” The university found that 86 per cent of the oils in its study had negative results. “When I moved to California a year later, I started visiting farmers and farms here and was really excited by the opportunity to shine a spotlight on something that was local: really beautiful, nuanced oil coming out of California that’s really nourishing,” Iyer continues. With that, Brightland—Iyer’s company of clean, pure, sustainable, American-made olive oil—was born.
Sitting on the sunny patio of her Downtown Los Angeles headquarters (which she shares with another it-brand: J.Hannah), Iyer reflects on how she started down this olive oil path and where she hopes the wellness industry goes from here.
So. Once you realized there was a problem with olive oil, how did you educate yourself?
I think it was so much reading, so much just asking people who are in the industry, people who had been studying this. And the UC Davis has an Olive Center, so I took courses there to really understand from a molecular and kind of sensory level how to think about and evaluate olive oil.
How did you find your oil producers?
I think the course at the UC Davis Olive Center was really impactful in that it helped me put together a key quality indicator checklist of what I was looking for in a farm. And then I just had tons of conversations with people, and ultimately I chose a farm that had a lot of the quality indicators that I was looking for: it’s on the central coast, it’s family-run—it’s a husband and wife team, so there’s a woman who is also kind of leading the helm which I thought was really cool, and they’re really great people—and finally, the oil they’re producing is wonderful.
What’s been the biggest lesson for you so far?
Oh, it’s everything. It’s super humbling. Everything from, oh my gosh, shipping—it’s a logistics business at the end of the day, so shipping and logistics, fulfillment. Every single piece of it, to be totally honest. Social, acquisition marketing, just every single aspect of it and how it all closely needs to tie in together; you’re really the conductor of this orchestra, and you have to make sure the tuba and the violin sound right together, and know what the other person’s doing. So it’s a really beautiful thing to take a step back and see that everything’s kind of coming together. But I’ve always been pretty comfortable with discomfort, so that’s been like, “Ok. I know that it’s never going to be perfect. And every single piece of it, there’s going to be problems along the way.” So that has been very true and part of what makes it enjoyable, too, I think. Who wants boring consistency?
It seems like branding was as crucial to you as the oil itself.
That was really important, because I thought a lot about how people think about the products in their home, and when you’re cooking you’re using this foundational food all the time—but you just have not cherished or thought about it in any way. So I really wanted people to feel like they could be excited by it, and I also wanted people to feel like it’s something that was a part of their home from a design standpoint. So it was both of those things that came into the mix. If the product inside was going to be so outstanding, I wanted it to reflect that on the outside, too.
You’re a business owner, which can be an all-encompassing job. How do you take care of yourself?
I put on my bathrobe, I use a jade body roller—it’s a body roller not a face roller, so it’s actually bigger—and I actually roll my scalp which is weird-sounding, but I love that. And then I watch Succession on HBO, that’s my way of feeling really disconnected and nice.
I have a dog, so that’s really wonderful; I feel like animals always remind you that there’s more out there than your phone and these screens. And my husband and I love to cook together. There’s this restaurant in LA called Night+Market that’s very popular and they have this crispy rice salad, so we just tried to recreate it with our own twist on it—and it was interesting. But that’s the stuff that we do. And I put my phone away once a week in a drawer for the whole day, usually on a weekend. It sounds silly but I think that stuff matters a lot; I think we’re all on our phones way too much. I certainly am.
What other dishes do you like to cook?
This summer was panzanella salad summer, so lots of panzanella salads, lots of cheese boards. My husband’s amazing at making north Indian food, and I love making dosas; we also love making Mexican food because I’m from Texas, so we love making enchiladas. We’re vegetarian so we do a lot with veggie tacos, we love tofu, we love seitan. We’re figuring out how we feel about Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, but we like it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s a marathon and at the end of the day, you’re only racing against yourself.
What does that mean to you?
It means stay focused on you.
It’s easy to feel knocked down because you just have so much information coming at you, and we’re not meant to take in so many images. And then you fall asleep and those are the images that have been imprinted on your mind, rather than reflecting on something or even reading a book.
What’s one of your favourite ways to use Brightland right now?
Take a plate of medjool plump dates and pour Brightland on top, and let it soak for about an hour. And then drizzle some really beautiful flaky sea salt or Himalayan salt on top, and then you can just eat it as a snack or dessert. The Brightland has soaked into the dates so beautifully, and it’s really delicious. It’s the perfect sweet treat, and it actually looks really beautiful, too.
At the end of the day, Brightland is about wellness. Where do you see the industry going?
I think it’s just the beginning. I think people really do want to feel connected to the food they consume—they want to know the story behind it, they want to know the makers, I think they want to understand the health benefits. I think within the wellness ecosystem, beauty has done an amazing job of talking about these benefits, whether it’s a face oil or a mask: you know you get Vitamin C, or that these rosehips are doing this to your face or your body, and I feel like food doesn’t necessarily do that in a way that’s really memorable or impactful. So that’s something that we are really focused on: that overall well being component. Because especially for us, olive oil is such an original superfood, so there are many benefits and things to champion around it.
Do you have plans to branch out into other products?
Definitely. We’re just getting started.
This interview has been edited and condensed.