A Greek Success in Chicago

At a time when Greece has been experiencing knee-deep trouble, I looked around my house to see if I’m supporting their economy. Feta Cheese- Greek but US made, Greek Yogurt- also made here, those Kalamata olives- straight from the WholeFoods Cheese Bar… My hand soap and other toiletries are proudly made in Greece (Korres). Ah, even my landlord is Greek and lastly.. my best friend’s origins are also greek… I’m surrounded by Greece everyday and so many ways. Then I realize that even on my newborn son, I use a delicate Greek Olive oil which is not only the best, in my opinion, but the tastiest and healthiest. Greece surely has put its mark on (my) world when it comes to food, cosmetics and  friendship.

On that occasion, I thought it would only be fitting to feature an incredibly successful entrepreneur from Greece, Giorgios Karayannis (pronounced Your-Go), founder of Kolossos Olive Oil whom I believe, makes the Greek economy proud any day and in every way!

Who influenced you growing up?
First and foremost, my parents.  Both immigrants from Greece who traveled to an unfamiliar country, culture, and language, who eventually built a foundation to raise a family, live, and work.  I was privileged with the opportunity to observe their perseverance, dedication, and enduring love that has provided me with a base of core values and made me who I am today as an individual, son, brother, friend, and a member of society.  With their complete selfless devotion to my sister and me, I am greatly indebted and grateful.  My admiration and respect for what they have accomplished whether here in the US or in Greece, is a far more unattainable success I could ever imagine to achieve.

 

Did you have other interests or ambitions when you were younger or did you always know you were going to be in the family food business?

Ever since I was in diapers, I can recall the inside walls of a restaurant.  A place where we would call our second home, a place where I learned to appreciate food and hospitality.  I remember begging my father to let me work before the age of 10 at his restaurant.  To fulfill, a most likely spoiled demand, he would appease me.  He would place a bucket so I can stand as I could barley reach the hot plates coming out of the dishwasher to stack and stock.  By the age of 11 or so, I looked forward to working in our family’s several restaurants.  Our parents didn’t have an authoritative discourse, it just seemed natural for us to work there during our adolescent years and throughout college.  It is what excited me, to be around that environment whether is was to bus a table or the social interaction with a guest.  I held many positions in front of house and back of house, short of being a chef and sommelier.

Although, one would assume that the restaurant business should have been embedded with me, it was not entirely.  Even at the tender age of 17, I had this undying desire to start and build a business, a close second was to become a lawyer.  However, I was naïve to know what that was.  Upon completion of High School, I spent a short time in Greece to see how life was there and in quest of finding ones self.  I returned and began my studies at Indiana University.  During that time, I solidified a goal to create a business involving Greece in apparel as I became fascinated with its global trade.  Nonetheless, I never ventured in that industry and returned to my hometown to work in the family restaurant business.  Ultimately, never satisfying my entrepreneurial spirit until just a few years ago.

How did Kolossos come about?

Undoubtedly, I was never discouraged in trying to satisfy my entrepreneurial spirit.  So, I was still in a discovery phase with how to conduct business involving Greece and started to explore the resources within.  Throughout this point, I learned that Greece produced many wonderful agricultural products such as oranges, wine, olives and etc.  Then, I stumbled upon olive oil and its trade.  Ironically, never realizing this is an ingredient that my family uses more than any other and that our ancestors have been using for thousands  of years.  Many thoughts and questions started exploding;  why is olive oil such a staple in our diet?  Why does my family only purchase oil from our family friend in the village of my mother’s birthplace in Greece and not at the store here?  Where was the global market?  I immediately discovered that Spain, Italy, and Greece produced 90% of the global production.  In addition, Greece is the third largest producer in the world and 80 percent that is produced is of the highest grade, Extra Virgin.

Through various articles, I found that Spain and Italy dominated the market in the US and the US had been the largest consumer for the last 20 years and projected for the next 20 years.  Why was Greece not included in this? In addition, the empirical evidence supporting the health benefits of incorporating olive oil in your diet.

After speaking with our family friend, I had learned that most Greek farmers and producers sell their oils to the neighboring countries in bulk since those countries lack the supply of Extra Virgin.  Simply said, it was an easier process rather than dealing with the difficulties of bottling in smaller quantities and taking it to market.  Furthermore,  I continued to pursue what it would take to package and market here in the US.

Eventually, realizing this was a behemoth of a project to undertake by myself, I put it on the back burner.  Fast forward to December of 2010,  a discussion ensued with our now co-founder, Edward Billys.  We were discussing various subjects from real estate, how the tech industry was booming, and entrepreneurship.  Venting my frustration of never fulfilling my spirit for business, I briefly spoke about olive oil.  A few days later, Edward & I agreed to explore the subject further as we shared the same passion and enthusiasm for food, quality, entrepreneurship and both of Greek heritage.

Collectively and serendipitously, we had a list of mentors who we spoke with and gained a wealth of knowledge.  We quickly identified our direction and core ideologies, with a focus on integrity and how to build a great brand.  We founded Kolossos in February of 2011 and continued to develop a business plan for more than a year and half, finally launching our first products in September of 2012.
Was it easy setting up as an entrepreneur or were there challenges? 

I recall our first meeting with one of our mentors, he stated “creating a product is the easy part, getting people to want to buy what you are offering is the hard part.”  At the time, I denied the advice and his words of wisdom ring more truer every day.  

Having the entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm is the only easy part.  The thrill of embarking on a new adventure, the potential for success or failure, and implementing your passion into a business strategy is a challenge, almost everyday.  In addition, some real challenges are as such as learning that you will be faced with adversity, you will need patience and flexibility, and timing is everything.  You can list all the proverbs such as “Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness,” and they definitely become a reality.  Although, I’d be lying if I said I have made “great sacrifice” especially put in perspective when I have shelter, food, and the necessities to live life.  If I didn’t have the support from my parents, sister, and friends I would not have the opportunity to pursue one of my many goals in life.  

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Why olive oil? 

Extra Virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest foods on the planet! It has been produced and used for thousand of years due to its versatility.  It is very popular even today due to its health properties backed by countless studies.  EVOO is found to be effective against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and several other diseases.  In addition, it is a culinary ingredient and can bring an elevation of wonderful flavors to a dish.  It should be the only oil you utilize in your kitchen!  We are a food product company, Greek EVOO is the first line of our products and we will not discredit Feta in the future expansion of our lines!

Talk to us a little about the olive oil market/industry.
The University of California, Davis published a report on olive oil back in 2010.  Entitled tests indicated that imported “Extra Virgin” olive oil often fails international and USDA standards.  In this report, researchers found that 69 percent of imported and 10 percent of California-based oils labeled as olive oil did not pass the International Olive Council (IOC) quality and sensory standards for Extra Virgin olive oil.  We as US consumers are one of the largest markets in the world as we consume 97 percent of imported and 3 percent of domestic produced olive oils.  Why is this important?  Extra Virgin olive oil is considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet.  If we are consuming olive oil based on that alone, it actually can be harmful to ingest if it is not pure.  Ultimately, you will need to educate yourself on what to look for on a label and learn how to taste properly.  Premium Extra Virgin olive oils are like wine or craft beer, they have beautiful flavor characteristics that pair differently with other ingredients.  As consumers learn more about olive oil, we believe there is potential for robust growth in the premium segment, and not just in olive oil.  On a global scale, consumption has been on the rise due to other cultures who are learning about the benefits of olive oil versus other cooking oils.  While the US leads total consumption close to about 25,000 tons/year and Greece in total consumption per capita at about 25 liters/year.  Countries such as Japan, China, Brazil, Australia, the EU, have all seen continuous growth to as high as 31% in 2013.  I don’t not foresee it slowing down either as more countries and producers are starting to flourish due to the popularity.  Olive oil is timeless trend and the industry is boosting from it.

How did Chicago contribute to your growth?

The list is long for what one of the greatest cities in the world has contributed to our growth.  It is more than just the plethora of resources and services available.  The people, the culture, and the energy that surrounds you has cultivated us to a level that has exceeded our expectations.

Chicago has a progressive culinary scene and becoming renown as the city bears the most talented of chefs.  We cut our teeth by knocking on the doors of these extraordinary restaurants and became partners with these highly rated chefs.  It is truly an honor to see how these culinary masters utilize our products in their domain.

Furthermore,  we focused on sourcing the majority of our raw materials, services, and etc within 100 miles radius from Chicago. We have access to so many great companies such as our design firm Zun Partners and the founder Bill Ferdinand, who developed our brand identity and innovative packaging.  Also, it would have been difficult to conduct our market research without being in one of the largest US markets.  In addition, there are many unique platforms to promote your brand such as Dose Market, where you and I met.  There is a great sense of community as well, we have had fellow entrepreneurs who have connected us to individuals in order to build relationships.  It is a level of support we are forever thankful for.

Do you think the midwest/US has a better appreciation for the health benefits of the mediterranean diet, in particular EVOO?

It seems logical that US has an appreciation for health and well being, contributing to the fact we are one the largest markets for EVOO in the world.  Research data is revealed almost daily on the benefits of consuming EVOO, which is a basis of the Mediterranean diet.  It is attributed to some the longest living cultures and a myriad of benefits for several diseases.  As people are more educated on the health properties, they tend to use more.   In case, you now see regional and national retailers revamping and expanding their olive oil sections as the industry has steadily seen increase in consumption.

What tips do you have from your family for a long, healthy prosperous life?

To live a healthy and happy life.  Many factors are involved; include social interaction with friends and family, take a walk on the beach, a siesta and minimize stress.  This is part of the Greek culture, including a more natural lifestyle by eating fresh ingredients.

What are your expansion plans? Do you want to go nationwide/international? What’s your goal?

We launched our food service products in September of 2012 and the retail products in July of 2014.  We did everything direct in food service and retail up until we partnered with a major distributor in October of 2014, with an outreach of nationwide.  We redirected our efforts from restaurants to grocery retailers as direct sales can only take you so far.  Since, we have gained traction in over 100 retailers in multiple Great Lakes states with stores such as Mariano’s in Chicago and recently expanded in the Florida market with Whole Foods.  Currently, we are awaiting responses in 2 other major regions outside of the Midwest.  The US is one the largest markets in the world, I believe it will keep us focused for a few years while we expand locally, regionally, and nationally before we even consider the international markets.  Our envisioned future is to produce more premium food products with our goal to continue to build a high-performance, lifestyle brand.

What advice would you give a budding entrepreneur that wants to follow your footsteps?

Have integrity, this by far is the most important.  Have passion.  Do everything right and of quality.  Don’t listen to naysayers, including yourself.  Have patience.  Have drive, determination, and resilience.  Don’t be afraid of hard work and show up.  Take all meetings, you never know who you can meet and build relationships with.   Don’t deny technology.  Know your strengths and weaknesses.  Always educate yourself, cause when you’re not, someone else is.  The opportunity of success is achievable with a little projecting and analyzing, don’t ever underestimate the value of it.  And the list goes on, just have some fun in the process!

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What’s exciting you right now and what’s next for you?

This may sound sad and boring, but olive oil!  There is a movement happening with food in general, and we are lucky to be a part of it.  The opportunity to witness retailers assimilate to the movement and how they continue to evolve their business models as consumers are becoming more educated about where our food comes from is an experience in itself.  Also, from the time we started a few years ago, so many Greek olive oil producers have evolved, and it is an honor to be a part of the growth.  Furthermore, I have always been curious and intrigued of how products and brands are built.  I follow the rise of these entrepreneurs through various social media channels, which is exciting to see.  I think Kolossos will keep me busy for the next few years as we develop new products and continue brand building.  When the time is right, I’ll move on to the next adventure in life.

What quotes do you live by?

Professionally: “When everybody else zigs, zag.”

Personally: “Celebrate life”.

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