I was sitting at the desk in my comfortable office, typing under the glow of fluorescent lights, when my boss came in. She was a partner in the law firm, and she had a way of knocking and then popping her head in before being invited. She thought it was cute and casual, but it served mostly to remind me of how little privacy and power I had as a senior associate in the Washington, D.C., office of a large New York firm.
I’d been dreading the conversation we were about to have. It was January 2009, and with the economy still in free-fall, law firms were laying people off in droves. Now my time had come. “I have good news and bad news,” my boss announced. “New York is no longer investing in your future—but you can, of course, stay for a few more months until you work out your next steps.” I’d spent nearly a decade building the foundation for a long-term career in law—one that was to be filled with American Dream kind of success—but the Great Recession, it seemed, had different plans for me.
My career was suddenly in a nosedive, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. My personal life wasn’t in much better shape. I’d come out of the closet a few years earlier, but my parents were still having a tough time with the news. In particular, my father, a well-educated Greek immigrant who had proudly raised his sons to follow Greek traditions, was struggling with the idea that one of his sons was gay. In fact, my father and I had managed to grow quite distant, which had become a real burden on my mother and the rest of my family.
In the middle of all this turmoil came still another challenge. Since boyhood, my brother and I had known that we were someday going to inherit nearly 5,000 olive trees, on the Greek island of Lesvos, that had been the economic lifeblood of our family going back many generations. Someday had at last arrived, and it was now up to my brother and me to take over the stewardship of those groves. But we were first-generation Greek Americans from suburban Philadelphia who knew nothing about olive trees. And then there was the part about my entire life falling apart. All in all, these trees felt like one giant ancestral burden.
I have very early memories of my grandparents proudly running their little farm in the village of Plagia on the island of Lesvos. My brother and I visited the farm every summer, riding the donkey and running with the chickens, and even as a child I was awestruck by the steep, rocky valleys of olive trees that unfolded with such vastness from the farmhouse that I could not comprehend how my grandparents managed it all. Every day before dawn they would head out in the darkness to tend to their olive trees, watering, fertilizing, and pruning. It was all they had, and it was up to them to protect their livelihood year round. Still, despite their hard work, they had very little control. Besides the challenges posed by everything from the weather to blight there was the fact that, as olive growers, my grandparents occupied the lowest spot on the olive-oil-production totem pole.
After gathering their bushels of olives, my grandparents would bring them to the only nearby olive press, which was owned by one family. After pressing, growers like my grandparents had three options: bring the oil home with them and try to sell it on their own—a challenge since most farms didn’t have the storage capacity for it; pay the press a hefty fee to store the oil onsite; or simply sell the oil to the owners of the press, who would then turn around and sell it again to companies in Italy and Spain—keeping all the profits for themselves. Like most growers, my grandparents sold to the press owners, at a price determined entirely by them. In a sense, the press set my grandparents’ salary.
That was then. Now my grandparents were passing the farm along to my brother and me. We’d always known that this, ahem, inheritance was coming, but as we prepared to take over the groves, the truth was that we didn’t know a thing about how an olive grew or a food-distribution business was run.
The first thing we had to do was come up with a plan. Whether or not it was convenient for us, my brother and I felt that we had little choice but to honor our commitment to the family. So we started to look around and weigh our options.
It was 2009, and the first thing we noticed was that even though the U.S. market was overflowing with Greek staples such as gyros, moussaka, and flaming cheese, there was little in the way of the simple-yet-sophisticated food that my grandparents used to prepare for us. That seemed like an opportunity, especially since Greek foods were starting to gain a foothold in the market. Greek yogurt was taking over the dairy aisle, studies were extolling the health virtues of olive oil and the Mediterranean diet, and social media was helping to fuel a new demand for natural foods.
Add it all up and it was starting to look like a good strategy to expand beyond olive oil and into other Greek delicacies. We also decided that, rather than continue to sell our oil to the local olive press, as our grandparents had done, we would launch an American company that would market our olive oil under its own brand, right here in the States.
This decision helped move our predicament onto turf where we felt we had a fighting chance. My brother had been a marketing major, and I had a law background. These combined skills, we felt, would give our fledgling company an advantage. We determined that our brand was going to have to stand out and present a different side of Greek food. We wanted it to project authenticity—reflecting our family, our experiences, and our love of traditional recipes—so we settled on the name Kaldi, which is our family’s last name in Greek. I used my legal expertise to research and navigate trademark rules and international trade laws, and to review the new vendor contracts that we’d need to run the business.
So far so good, but we still had to actually run this new company, and the complexities of operating a startup bottling operation in Greece were overwhelming. Fortunately, my brother and I knew someone who had precisely the background in advanced manufacturing and supply-chain logistics that we needed—our father, who had spent his career in the pharmaceutical industry, and who, having grown up in Greece, had a knack for that country’s particular brand of diplomacy.
There was no question, in other words, that my father would be a big help to the company. But what about the fact that he and I hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms since I’d come out? I wasn’t sure that we’d actually be able to get beyond our differences, but I wanted us to, and, in the end, I decided that it was worth trying. I was hoping we could overcome our painful awkwardness… and my brother and I needed his help. So we reached out to him. As ever, he was stoic, but I managed to detect his pride that his sons had undertaken this commitment to honoring the family heritage. He expressed interest in joining the company, but said that he’d only do so as an equal partner. We quickly agreed.
With the team in place, we set out to ensure that every aspect of Kaldi reflected the strength of our family and heritage. We went through a dozen or so iterations of our logo. Our goal was to take consumers to the Aegean Sea without hitting them over the head with a Doric column. So out went the Greek shepherds and the Greek gods. We eventually landed on a beautiful mosaic, its careful placement of tiles reflecting the preciseness of Greek cooking.
Next, we spent a lot of time working to articulate just what made our olive oil taste so good—our unique blend of the Adramytiani and Kolovi olives that grow only in the Northern Aegean region of Greece produces a fragrant, grassy-tasting, golden-yellow oil—and the story of how it is made. Picking our olives involves whacking the trees with long wooden canes until the ripe fruit falls into natural-fiber nets laid out on the uneven terrain. The olive-laden nets are then rolled up and taken down to the press, where, on the same day, they are washed, mechanically mashed, and put through a centrifuge to separate the olive oil from the water and pulp. The olive oil is then stored in a tank with nitrogen gas that prevents it from being exposed to oxygen and the aging process. Once the sediment settles, the olive oil is bottled without any additional filtration, which gives it a robust flavor. This same-day picking and pressing assures that our olive oil is low in free fatty acids, which adds still more flavor and value.
With our business strategy settled, we turned our attention to updating the process of producing and selling our olive oil. We decided to continue having our olives pressed at the same facility that our grandparents had used, and even to have the press bottle our olive oil for us, but we no longer sell the press any of our product. Instead, we keep it for ourselves to bring to the U.S. and sell directly to our distributors and retailers under the Kaldi brand. That has allowed us to keep more of the profits from our olive farming. In fact, as time has passed and our sales have increased, we’ve begun buying olive oil from other growers to sell under our brand. That helps us, of course, but it’s also led to more profits for other growers on Lesvos. We also now consider the family-owned press a partner. Together, we market the olive oil of Lesvos. The press is proud to proclaim that the olive oil it bottles is exported to the world’s largest economy.
That said, breaking into the olive oil business in this country isn’t the simplest of tasks. My brother, father, and I began by selling Kaldi online in 2010. From there we branched out into neighborhood stores in the areas where we lived, D.C., Philadelphia, and Central New Jersey. After attending a number of consumer and trade shows, we were eventually picked up by two national specialty-food distributors. Then, in 2013, we decided to launch a line of all-natural Greek cooking sauces, each based on traditional recipes. And we’ve just expanded our product line again, this time with a new line of Greek spices and rubs. Our specialty products are now in more than 500 stores nationwide, including leading markets such as Whole Foods, Meijer, and HEB.
The past six years haven’t been easy. Losing my job, launching a startup, and navigating family dynamics all at the same time was hard. But it was surprisingly satisfying, too. Working with my brother and father has brought us all closer, even though the emotions in our rambunctious Greek family overflow from time to time. We pool our educational and professional experiences to solve the issues that every small business faces. And, up until recently, we were doing that while also maintaining our day jobs. I had managed to land a job as an economic advisor in the Obama White House, while my brother is in marketing at a major telecommunications company, and my father continues to work in global pharmaceuticals. But given the trajectory of our little company, I decided late last year that it was time to take another risk and focus exclusively on Kaldi.
This thing that started out six years ago as an impossible burden has become a true passion. Our company honors my Greek heritage, which for the first time is not a constraint on how I live my life, but a source of solace and strength. As the business has gotten off the ground, in other words, I have managed to regain both my professional and personal footing. That has been especially rewarding when it comes to my father. Our daily business conversations about pricing, accounting, and shipping logistics forced us to interact and reconnect, and from there we slowly started talking about our lives again. Before long he was asking how my partner was doing, and, in typical Greek parent fashion, inquiring about what we were planning to make for dinner on a given night. That was him, by the way, joyously Greek dancing not so long ago at his gay son’s wedding.
Peter Kaldes is cofounder of the Greek specialty foods company Kaldi, which you can find at kalditastes.com.