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Aishwarya Iyer’s Bright Idea

In conversation with Brightland founder, Aishwarya Iyer

A bottle of Brightland olive oil is easy to spot on a grocery store shelf. The minimalist, white glass vessel, with its wooden stopper, san serif logo, and art-adorned label, stands out among its fellow pantry staples. But it’s what’s inside the bottle—cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil crafted with olives from small family farms in California—that really sets the brand apart from the rest.

Founder Aishwarya Iyer was inspired to start Brightland after she uncovered the complicated truth about olive oil: many bottles cause inflammation and other issues. She wanted to create a nourishing olive oil with high quality ingredients that people would feel comfortable consuming. She had also recently learned that her ancestors were salt farmers in South India, which further convinced her that she was destined for a culinary path.

Aishwarya debuted her first two Brightland olive oils in 2018 and shoppers were immediately obsessed. In the five years since, high demand and customer feedback has led the brand to expand its offerings to include flavor-infused olive oils, vinegars, and honeys. And while Aishwarya is tight-lipped about what Brightland’s future holds, it’s all but guaranteed to be delicious. Here, she shares the details behind her entrepreneurship journey.

Photography courtesy of Brightland.

Mast Journal: Why did you first start Brightland?

Aishwarya Iyer: I was inspired to start the company after a few things…going on my own cooking journey in my late twenties; learning that my ancestors were salt farmers in South India and feeling that deep connection to food and the land; becoming intrigued by the world of cooking oils and olive oils in particular; and realizing that I really wanted to create a product that could have a lot of emotion and make people really excited and happy about something so foundational as olive oil. 

MJ: That’s awesome. Did you have any background in food and beverage or in agriculture?

AI: I did not. I worked at L'Oreal and then I worked at a few tech startups in public affairs and brand marketing. I made a bit of a pivot to start Brightland. I did take some classes at the UC Davis Olive Center to educate myself on olive oil. I’m by no means an expert, but I got to at least learn some basics.

MJ: Totally. How did you know where to source olives?

AI: Taking the UC Davis class helped a lot. I talked to dozens of olive farmers in California. I was excited about starting with California olive oil because of its proximity to where I was, which is Los Angeles. And there was this notion of feeling like the California olive oil industry is sort of like the California wine industry. There's some beautiful wine and olive oil right here in the U.S., so I wanted to shine that spotlight, too. 

MJ: Oh definitely. Where in California do you source your olives?

AI: Central Coast, so in Paso Robles, Atascadero, and Templeton.

MJ: Such gorgeous places! For growing both grapes and olives!

AI: Yeah, there are so many beautiful similarities. 

MJ: And how did you decide what your first oils would taste like?

AI: I thought a lot about what I thought our customers would want. I also had about 40 of my friends taste different olive oils, which helped me decide and narrow down what we were going to do. We started with two different varietals. Similar to wine, olive oil is made from different types of olives. So we started with two different blends of olive types. One was a bit more buttery and rounded, which is called Awake, and the other one was more grassy and peppery, which is called Alive. 

MJ: Amazing. And how did you build the collection from there?

AI: We started with Awake and Alive, and then pretty quickly customers began asking us for flavor-infused olive oils. People were saying to us, ‘Hey, I'd love to see a lemon-infused olive oil or a basil-infused olive oil.’ So we took a step back and decided to come out with a series of infused olive oils. But to add a twist to it, because the brand has so much reverence for art and design and fashion, I wanted to partner with artists for the labels. So every single one of our infused oils that we subsequently came out with had an artist label that we commissioned.

MJ: That’s awesome. Those labels are definitely eye-catching. How did you choose the aesthetic of the brand in the first place?

AI: I wanted it to be something that stood out. Obviously, I loved the idea of a white bottle. I knew I wanted glass. I knew I wanted something that was opaque because one of olive oil's biggest enemies is light. So I wanted to make sure that we were protecting the oil. And then I'm of Indian heritage, and I love color, and a lot of Indian heritage is so colorful. So I wanted to make sure that the colors were always popping, that there was something vibrant about it always.

MJ: We love that. Who have you worked with for the artist collaborations? And how did you find them?

AI: I looked at local galleries and I looked at the Tappan Collective. The first one we worked with was a man named B.D. Graft. He's an artist in Europe. We worked with Marleigh Culver. She was based out of New York, now she's in L.A. We’ve worked with a number of really incredible artists.

MJ: That’s so cool. Has the aesthetic changed over time? Or is it the same as when you launched Brightland?

AI: We've definitely evolved. I've always wanted to make sure that we layered fun into the brand, too. So we've thought about different ways we can do that. But we’ve kept the original principles around color and vibrancy and brightness—it is Brightland, after all.

MJ: It is! And how did you come up with that name?

AI: On a trip to Tokyo, I was walking through these cool denim stores and Shazam-ed a few songs, and one of the songs was called The Olive Tree. And when I looked at the lyrics, it said, ‘I'm searching for the olive trees and to the bright land I go.’ I thought it was just so beautiful. 

MJ: Oh that’s such a good story. Do you still listen to that song? Or that artist?

AI: Sometimes I listen to that song. It was an Aussie folk band called The Seekers.

MJ: We’ll have to check them out! How did you decide to expand into vinegars and honeys?

AI: It was based on customer requests. It was based on things that we were really excited about, products that we had tasted ourselves. We met some really amazing vinegar farmer-fermenters, a husband-and-wife team who are making incredible vinegar here in California. So we said, ‘Oh, we have to partner with them.’ And we came out with a really lush blackberry balsamic vinegar and a citrus champagne vinegar. It was similar for honeys. We absolutely will continue to come out with new products, but do it really thoughtfully and carefully. 

MJ: That’s exciting. Are the honeys also from California?

AI: One's from California. One's from Hawaii.

MJ: What are your favorite things to make with Brightland products?

AI: I love taking chocolate ice cream and pouring the chili-infused olive oil on it and chopping up some figs and eating that. It’s crazy. It’s so good.

MJ: Wow, that sounds insane.

AI:  I love taking our garlic-infused olive oil and roasting potatoes and adding some parsley and some sour cream or labneh and just eating that. I love making a quick arugula salad with some pistachios, peaches, the citrus champagne vinegar, the regular olive oil, and some Parmesan.

MJ: That sounds fantastic, too. So you can cook with Brightland olive oils?

AI: Yes. Brightland olive oils have a really high smoke point because of the high quality and freshness. At the time of harvest, the oils usually have a smoke point of 410, so you absolutely can roast with them. They can even fry an egg.

MJ: Do the olive oils taste different with heat?

AI: They can taste more interesting and more nutty. I personally think our Awake olive oil is really great for roasting veggies and roasting chicken and all of that. I actually love using it for baking, too. I made some olive oil brownies last week that were so good.

MJ: You’re part of this generation of millennial founders. Can you tell us about some of the collaborations you’ve done with like-minded brands?

AI: Oh, that's a good question. We partnered with Food52 to do a special product with them one holiday season. We did a special Sweetgreen Brightland olive oil. We did a nonprofit partnership with the Slow Factory Foundation. They're a really incredible philanthropic organization. And then we most recently did another impact partnership with the White Buffalo Land Trust based out of Santa Barbara. And we came out with a special persimmon in vinegar with them. We did a spice blend with Burlap & Barrel, and then we also worked with a cool strawberry company called Oishi to do a strawberry vinegar with them using their delicious omakase berries. We did limited edition dish towels with Atelier Saucier.

MJ: That's awesome. How did all these different collaborations come about? What do you like about collaborating with other brands? 

AI: I like working with people who are passionate about what they do, so it's such a joy to collaborate. Some of them were inbound, some of them we reached out, some of the folks we didn't know, but we got to know. It's been really nice. 

MJ: Definitely. Now, can we talk about The Spout?

AI: Yes. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we heard was, ‘Hey, we love using the bottles to drizzle, but it always drips over the side.’ And so we introduced a brushed gold spout, super simple. People just love it. It just pairs so nicely, like the brushed gold and the white. It regulates the pours and it's definitely a hit. 

MJ: It’s the perfect addition. What would you want a new customer to know about Brightland?

AI: For someone who's never heard of us before, as a brand I’d say we're thoughtful, intentional, inspired, happy, and optimistic. From a product standpoint, we'll knock your socks off and look great on your kitchen countertop. Brightland also makes an amazing gift. You want to be the most thoughtful gift giver this holiday season? Shop Brightland.

MJ: One hundred percent. Food gifts are the best gifts.

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