H. Olafsson International Specialty Foods was started by Haukur “Jim” Olafsson and his wife, Bjorg, in 1996 when they noticed a void in Omaha for specialty food products. They began their business by meeting delivery trucks and customers in parking lots, peddling imported foods out of a cooler in their car. They caught a break in 2001, when they moved into their current building at 29th and Harney, which was formerly an old gas station. “It was completely empty,” Jim said. “We brought in a folding table for an office, and then had to build all of the shelves and purchase the walk in cooler and freezer.”
Olafsson was born and raised in Iceland. After his mother applied for him to become a foreign exchange student in high school, he moved to Paullina, Iowa, and finished his high school degree in Sioux City, Iowa. From there he traveled back and forth between the Midwest and his original home in Iceland until he settled in Omaha. Instead of attending college, he chose to work, which is where he met Bjorg. They have been together for 46 years and have two daughters.
Putting in 10-12 hour days most of the week is fairly normal for Olafsson. “We go out of our way to service our customers as much as possible. It is not just the products we are bringing in. It is the relationships we are building with the chefs. They are always on the hunt for something,” he said.
While managing daily orders and deliveries, Olafsson often consults with chefs to build their menus. He believes educating is part of his sales, introducing new items or flavors to clients. “There is nothing really new in the food business, but rather it is that they are doing something new,” he said. For example, he explained that snail caviar is earthy and only used for specific applications. “It isn’t that we are getting second or third quality, we are getting the best quality. That is what impresses the chefs.”
Other products Olafsson typically carries include fresh truffles from Italy, France, and Australia depending on the season. He also sells several types of caviar and carries a large selection of cheese from local farmers surrounding Omaha and from around the world. He does not carry common cheeses such as cheddar or Havarti, but rather he strives for high quality and unique variety. Other popular items he sells include pastry shells, French fruit purees, edible gold sheets, glazes, grains, beans, rice, oils, vinegars, pastas, par-baked breads, cured meats, fish products such as anchovy fillets, octopus from the Mediterranean, and smoked salmon from Ireland. He has recently begun exploring importing vegan cheese and gluten-free pastas as well.
Olafsson often travels to food showcases within the United States and Europe. This helps him stay knowledgable about how food is being used in new ways. To support the local community, he invites vendors to showcase their goods at his shop or at Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts.
“I remember when I started introducing cheese and telling people about my travels to other cities and countries. I started talking to the chefs in Omaha about charcuterie boards 15-18 years ago,” said Olafsson. As chefs began to trust his wealth of knowledge, relationships were built to help one another create what they wanted in the Omaha food scene.
Expansion is not part of Olafsson’s goals. Instead, he wants to continue working harder to provide the best services he can for his customers in the Omaha and Lincoln areas. He enjoys having a business that can be managed by two people. “I am proud of the fact that business has done so well for us. We have been able to work our way from the beginning to own a house and pay off this building. We are blessed with what we have been able to achieve, and we have seen a lot of progress in the last 10 years,” he said.
One special part of those last 10 years is Copper, a 10-year-old Bernese Mountain dog. Copper greets every customer, including the delivery drivers who carry extra treats in their pockets specially for him. Olafsson said, “Good customers and friends of ours will just come in to visit Copper. He is a well-known entity.” Copper is also Jim’s companion when Bjorg travels to visit family in Iceland.
Community has played a large part in helping Olafsson find his midwestern home. “Omaha been welcoming and very good to us, mainly through our business,” he said. “Some of the first customers that I had were M’s Pub and Glenn Wheeler. We talk every week, 2-3 times a week.” Jim and Bjorg enjoy dining at many of their customers’ restaurants to make sure their products are meeting expectations as well as promoting the dreams of people they have grown to love.