The launch of the Grape Seed Oil in Croatia
After years spent looking at spreadsheets and giving business advice to others, a group of four investment bankers and consultants decided to try something new. Marko Makek, Nadja Schaps Horvat and Krešimir and Marko Lesić found a new business niche by following the same advice they’ve probably given dozens of times. They found the solution to an ongoing problem by seeing value where others saw just waste. They found Dopo Dropo – a premium-quality grape seed oil made from winemaking by-product – pomace.
Grapeseed oil is a novelty in the Croatian market. Dopo Dropo was launched at the end of 2020 with a strong PR campaign explaining the oil benefits. The brand’s name fits perfectly with the idea since it explains the product – it means ‘after pomace’ (dopo is the Italian word for after, and dropo is derived from Croatian work drop, which means pomace).
The playful combination of Italian and Croatian comes from a bilingual Istria. We went straight to the source and got answers to questions we had about the idea, the product, its use and the benefits.
How does one go from investment banking and management consultancy to the production of grape seed oils? And why grape seed?
We believe that after years spent surrounded by spreadsheets, financial statements, and providing business advice to others, it becomes very appealing and challenging to set up and run a production project on your own, to try ‘to roll the sleeves up and create something tangible’. The idea to produce premium unrefined cold-pressed grapeseed oil came to us during a natural cosmetics project we became involved in two years ago.
We were then introduced to this precious base oil used in top-line cosmetic products. When we gathered more information on grapeseed oil, we understood that it is highly appreciated in cosmetics and gastronomy, which opens a broader market for a producer.
On the other hand, a few Croatians from the financial sector found their real-sector alter-ego in olive oil, so there must be something in this. However, we decided to make a lateral step and try something similar and different simultaneously.
We think that grapeseed oil perfectly builds upon the best of the two worlds, two large areas Croatia is very well known for – winemaking and olive oil production. If Croatians can produce great vine and excellent olive oil, then their grapeseed oil must be great as well, right? We hope this will contribute to building our brand, brand awareness, and sales in export markets.
You introduced Dopo Dropo to the public at the end of 2020 with high-quality branding and packaging made by Octopus Ink, and you had nice coverage in the media.
Starting strong but on a limited budget, it is a start-up, after all. Octopus Ink has been a great business partner on our journey since the very beginning, and it succeeded to capture our vision and turn it into a great brand and product design.
Our goal is to position Dopo Dropo as a premium brand for products originating from winemaking pomace, primarily grapeseed oil and grapeseed flour. Many products can be made based on grapeseed oil and/or flour, and that is the primary line along which we would like to expand our business in the next five years.
The product portfolio would consist of edible cold-pressed oil, grape seed flour, and fortified food and skincare products based on cold-pressed grapeseed oil, all being positioned as premium products.
In one interview, Nadja Schaps Horvat said that you basically choose the site for your plant by looking at the map because you need to be close to the ‘material’. What was the initial response from the locals when you came to them with the idea?
Our financial and consultancy background made us understand that the only viable option was to set up production close to the resources needed. That is especially important in our project since you need a large quantity of grape pomace (100 kg) to produce just one litre of cold-pressed filtered grape seed oil.
Istria was a great choice to set up the production for two main reasons. Firstly, there is a significant number of reputable winemakers relatively close to each other. Secondly, it is an all-year-round ethno-gastro destination which should be advantageous in normal non-pandemic circumstances.
The response of the winemakers was very positive as they were allowed to dispose of their grape pomace by-product (waste) continuously day-by-day for free during their wine production campaign, which they, otherwise, have an issue as to what to do with it.
Namely, only a more minor part of grape pomace is used for brewing spirits while most of it becomes, unfortunately, pure waste. So, this project is a successful example of business synergy in action.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. You saw the opportunity in the winemakers’ problem of disposal of the by-product. On top of that, your idea is to make Dopo Dropo a zero waste product?
Yes, grape pomace is a by-product with absolutely 100% zero-waste potential. Grape pomace consists of grape seeds and grape pulp (grape skins). After the oil is pressed out from grape seeds, the remaining ‘cake’ can be milled into highly nutritious food-grade grape seed flour.
Alternatively, the ‘cake’ can also be used for the production of heating pellets. On the other hand, grape pulp can be dried and milled into food-grade grape pulp flour or used for forage/pets food, mixed into heating pellets, etc.
Of course, grape pulp without seeds is also a much better input for brewing spirits than the grape pomace. Our goal is to reach that 100% zero-waste production. However, as this requires investments for each of these products down the line, our approach must be gradual in line with our financial capabilities.
You make White and Red Grape Seed Oil. Are there any specific grape varieties that you use or don’t use? And do you pair it with food in a similar way to how wine is paired?
We use grape varieties that our partners’ winemakers have in their vineyards. For White Grapeseed Oil, we mostly use Istrian Malvasia and Chardonnay, while for red Grapeseed Oil, we mainly use Merlot, Teran and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties.
Dopo Dropo White Grapeseed Oil has a more delicate nutty flavour with wine nuances, giving it a variety of applications in gastronomy – ie. smooth mayonnaise, various sauces salads, as an extra ingredient for your bread, focaccia or pizza dough. It can also be used in cakes and pastry.
On the other hand, Dopo Dropo Red Grapeseed Oil has a more intense nutty flavour with wine nuances that make it ideal for sautéing, roasting and frying meat, fish, and vegetables, e.g. as an addition to black risotto and for finishing steaks. However, in the end, it is all about personal preferences and taste.
Rudi Štefan, the owner of the Pelegrini restaurant, is your informal ambassador and counsellor. I assume one can try the recipes using your oil in his restaurant. Do you see Dopo Dropo as a regular at the tables of other Croatian restaurants?
At the start of the project, we saw top-line Croatian HORECA as an important channel for promoting and distributing our Dopo Dropo products. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this channel remained closed, and we were able to provide chefs with our cold-pressed grapeseed oil for them to taste and try in preparing various dishes.
However, we are proud that the feedback from such top gastro professionals was very positive regarding our cold-pressed grapeseed oil, making for an excellent base for future cooperation once HORECA re-opens.
Just recently, you added Grape Seed Face Oil to your product range. Do you plan to make a separate range, a cosmetic product line?
Grapeseed oil is a great base oil in cosmetics due to its highly beneficial impact on human skin, i.e. moisturising, antioxidant, and antimicrobial protective benefits rich in Omega 6 Vitamin E and containing Omega 3, 5, 7 & 9 fatty acids.
Our Dopo Dropo Grapeseed Oil could be identified as a facial care serum for all types of skin, which is designed to preserve the identity of our grapeseed oil fully. The oil contains only small interventions with only natural ingredients that improve texture, absorption and feeling on the skin.
It was created in collaboration with Croatian plant specialist, pharmacist and biochemist Dr. Stribor Marković. This product is a mere extension of the already broad application range that grapeseed oil has for human consumption and use.
At this moment, this is the only form of grapeseed oil that we made more accessible for those who want to explore its benefits for skin application rather than as food. We will closely monitor how the market responds to this product and will make future business decisions based on clients’ feedback.
One can already find your products at Gligora, Tvornica Zdrave Hrane and some other health food stores in Croatia. You also have a shop on your website. Do you plan to go worldwide?
Our ultimate goal is to go worldwide, but in the first phase, we will focus on the EU markets. We are fully aware that the Croatian market is relatively small for such a niche product as grapeseed oil is and that higher sales volumes are achievable with a dominant share of sales from export.
Topline HORECA, delicatessen and specialty stores will remain our targeted channels for distribution. At the same time, we will also try to position our cold-pressed grapeseed oil as a premium ingredient for top-line cosmetics.