Olive oil feud: The social media row between Graza and Brightland

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but not in the startup world.

There was drama in the olive oil business this week — and it unfolded on LinkedIn, the online haven for startup feuds, over-sharing and self-mythologizing odes to #founderculture.

An angry post from olive oil entrepreneur Andrew Benin caused a stir in a small corner of the internet food world, in part because it posed a raunchy question: Who owns the squeeze bottle?

Mr. Benin is the CEO and co-founder of Graza, a direct-selling start-up founded in 2022 that sells olive oil in squeezable, forest-green plastic bottles designed for optimal drizzle and Instagrammability. Whole Foods sells it, Bon Appétit wowed it, and Food & Wine Magazine called it a “cool olive oil for kids.” As the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this year, Graza has found a “sweet spot” in the market with its two bottles of extra virgin olive oil, the Drizzle ($20) and the Sizzle ($15).

After quality and shipping problems last Christmas, Mr. Benin apologized to over 30,000 customers in an unusually warm and detailed email. That gesture, along with posts on Graza’s blog (the “Glog,” as the company calls it), painted a picture of an enthusiastic founder.

Then, as he wrote on LinkedIn this week, he faced what he called “#copycat culture.” In the post, he selected a competitor’s new olive oil, which is also packaged in a squeeze bottle and is marketed as something to drizzle over pizza.

“While friendly competition has always been welcome, I view this as blatant disrespect and choose to express my dissatisfaction,” Mr Benin wrote. He tagged the Brightland company and its founder, Aishwarya Iyer, and included a photo of the squeeze bottle in question. “#Founders know this day is coming,” he wrote, adding, “Personally, I think it’s okay to get angry when people screw you.”

The theme of the Graza founder’s pique: Brightland Pizza Oil.Credit…over Hellland

Some Twitter users said Mr Benin’s post “started the olive oil wars”, but it should be noted that the spat was one-sided. Ms Iyer and Brightland have not spoken publicly about the call. (Brightland declined to comment on this article. Graza did not respond to requests for comment.)

Reception of Mr Benin’s post seemed mixed, with many of the comments on LinkedIn chiding him for stirring up unnecessary drama. “With all due respect, you didn’t invent the squeeze bottle,” wrote Alison Cayne, the founder of Haven’s Kitchen. “Chefs and home cooks have been using it for decades.” Even the FAQ section on Graza’s website says so.

“Get used to it,” wrote Ju Rhyu, the CEO and co-founder of Hero Cosmetics, in a tweet about what she dubbed “olive oil copycat gate.” She included four photos of products that appeared to mimic one of her own company’s products, the Mighty Patch.

“I think that’s part of the territory,” Ms. Rhyu said. “It means that if there are copycats out there, you will achieve a certain level of success. We’re definitely trying to resist that, but it’s not easy.”

Ms. Rhyu said she first heard about the olive oil imbroglio on LinkedIn.

“I thought it was bad form to call another founder who is an entrepreneur and in a way has really reignited that category,” she said of Mr Benin’s appointment of Ms Iyer, who founded Brightland in 2018 his post. She added that she felt the post was an “overreaction.”

Mr Benin appeared to regret having pursued a rival. Hours after his original statement, he posted a follow-up on LinkedIn that included an apology to Ms. Iyer and his team at Graza. “I was heated and reacted badly and learned from the variety of comments everyone left today,” he wrote.

For some online, the cold-pressed social media drama has been a welcome distraction from more pressing concerns outside of the artisanal olive oil’s niche community.

“Honestly, god bless the olive oil war, this is exactly the kind of ridiculous startup brain worm low stakes drama the world needs more of right now.” tweeted Helen Rosner, a New York food reporting contributor. “No villains, no victims, just top-notch public ego goofballs.”

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