Business

The Unstoppable Journey of Yanni's Olive Grove

How this resourceful Greek couple transformed their struggling olive tree business into an award-winning olive oil producer on the frontlines of cutting-edge research in the battle against Alzheimer's.

Yannis Prodromou and Evi Psounou Prodromou (R. Elston)
Aug. 8, 2017
By R. Elston
Yannis Prodromou and Evi Psounou Prodromou (R. Elston)

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In the last five years, the hus­band-and-wife team of Yan­nis Pro­dro­mou and Evi Psounou Pro­dro­mou have weath­ered the Greek eco­nomic cri­sis by rebrand­ing their olive tree and olive fruit com­pany, Yan­ni’s Olive Grove, into an award-win­ning pro­ducer of extra vir­gin olive oil (EVOO).

Don’t stop believ­ing in your­self and in your prod­ucts. Always keep try­ing, regard­less of the obsta­cles.- Evi Psounou Pro­dro­mou

Located in north­ern Greece and spe­cial­iz­ing in early har­vest extra vir­gin olive oil, they are now work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Thes­sa­loniki Uni­ver­sity and Alzheimer Hel­las on the first clin­i­cal trial in humans to eval­u­ate the effects of high-phe­no­lic olive oil in pre­vent­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

I had the plea­sure to visit Yan­ni’s Olive Grove in Nea Potidaia, Chalkidiki (north­ern Greece), where I toured their beau­ti­ful water­front estate and spent the after­noon with the Pro­dro­mous and their fam­ily. We were joined by Athana­sios Gert­sis and his col­league Kostas Zoukidis, who were con­duct­ing research in the groves. Gert­sis is the direc­tor of the Kri­nos Olive Cen­ter of the Amer­i­can Farm School, Thes­sa­loniki.

The story of Yan­ni’s Olive Grove began in 2012, at the height of the Greek eco­nomic cri­sis. We were olive tree farm­ers all our lives and we were sell­ing our olives as fresh fruits to the big com­pa­nies,” Yan­nis informed me. Because of the eco­nomic cri­sis, we were forced to inno­vate. There is some­thing that we say in Greece: Every­thing that makes me ache makes me stronger.”

The cri­sis was, in this case, a moti­va­tion to move for­ward,” explained Gert­sis. There’s only one way to sur­vive: Inno­va­tion. Some peo­ple con­fuse inno­va­tion with state of the art’ tech­nol­ogy, but inno­va­tion can be some­thing very sim­ple. As the ancient Greeks used to say, wis­dom comes from sim­plic­ity.”

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As we walked through the lush olive groves, Evi related to me the gen­e­sis of their ven­ture. Yan­nis had a sim­ple idea. The olive trees are pro­duc­ing not only olives, but many dif­fer­ent other prod­ucts such as olive oil. But there was an imme­di­ate dif­fi­culty. The Chalkidiki region is known world­wide for its famous green table olives and we knew noth­ing about the pro­duc­tion of qual­ity EVOO. So we decided to go to school and to learn as much as we could. Our unstop­pable thirst for knowl­edge and progress drove us to a unique insti­tu­tion — the Amer­i­can Farm School.”

The Amer­i­can Farm School (AFS) is a non-profit agri­cul­tural school in Thes­sa­loniki founded in 1904 by Amer­i­can mis­sion­ary John Henry House to serve the rural pop­u­la­tion of Greece.

The Kri­nos Olive Cen­ter of the AFS con­ducts a rig­or­ous sci­en­tific analy­sis of the more than 6,000 olive trees that make up the estate. Evi pointed to a metered device installed at the foot of an olive tree. They mea­sure every­thing. Every grove needs dif­fer­ent things.”

They are also help­ing us with exper­i­men­tal fer­til­iz­ers that are envi­ron­men­tally friendly. It’s like a child. If you feed the child healthy food, it will become a healthy child. It’s the same with the olive trees. If we care about the olive trees, they will give us good olives.”

A pio­neer in Intel­li­gent Agri­cul­ture and Inte­grated Sys­tems Man­age­ment, Yan­ni’s green inno­va­tions have helped them min­i­mize their costs in numer­ous areas, from irri­ga­tion to fer­til­izer to pack­ag­ing. They are even imple­ment­ing the use of a large, low-fly­ing drone to spray fer­til­izer on their trees. With a recharge­able elec­tric bat­tery, the drone will replace a gas-oper­ated trac­tor, sav­ing on their fuel costs as well as their car­bon foot­print. And Yan­nis will now have a pilot’s license!” Evi told me with glee.

Yan­ni’s also recently launched a unique prod­uct for the North Amer­i­can mar­ket — Yan­ni’s Sun Dried Olive Snacks. Based on the Mediter­ranean diet, the healthy snacks are vegan, gluten-free, all nat­ural and low in salt con­tent with no added sugar. Com­bin­ing sun-dried green and black caramelized Chalkidiki olives with Kala­mata raisins and sun dried cran­ber­ries, pouches of these sweet and savory treats are already on the shelves in select loca­tions in Cal­i­for­nia and Texas, and will be avail­able for pur­chase across the U.S. and Canada in Octo­ber.

In the remark­able time frame of just of five years pro­duc­ing olive oil, Yan­ni’s has now won 35 awards for their high-qual­ity EVOOS, includ­ing a Gold Award at the 2016 New York Inter­na­tional Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion for Yan­ni’s Finest Chalkidiki and a Sil­ver Award for Yan­ni’s Lim­ited Chon­troelia Chalkidikis.

Qual­ity is our only weapon,” Evi empha­sized, regard­ing the pres­sures of their small, fam­ily-owned busi­ness to com­pete against the big indus­trial com­pa­nies. It was not an easy path. And the road was not full of flow­ers.” But the Pro­drou­mous per­sisted, and Yan­ni’s recently signed a dis­tri­b­u­tion deal with Kri­nos Foods (the largest importer of Greek and Mediter­ranean spe­cialty foods in North Amer­ica). We took one step at a time, start­ing at first to export just one car­ton of prod­ucts. Now we are export­ing pal­lets of our goods.”

When we started this busi­ness, we both decided that this busi­ness was for our chil­dren, not for us. Our daugh­ter Sophia is study­ing to become an agri­cul­tural chemist. Our son Nikos dreams to become an agri­cul­tural econ­o­mist. Our nephew Demetrios is an envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer, and he will deal with waste man­age­ment.”

Kostas Zoukidis, Yannis Prodromou, Evi Psounou Prodromou, Athanasios Gertsis

At this point, Dr. Gert­sis chimed in, The main prob­lem of the Greek cri­sis (in my opin­ion as an edu­ca­tor) is the so-called brain drain.’ There are more than 600,000 of the best Greek stu­dents and grad­u­ates who are going abroad. I don’t know how many of them will ever come back, and I doubt they will. But another side effect of what Yan­nis and Evi are doing is that they will keep their sons, their daugh­ters, in Greece.”

Another con­tri­bu­tion that Yan­ni’s is mak­ing to the future is their col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Greek Asso­ci­a­tion of Alzheimer’s Dis­ease and Related Dis­or­ders (Alzheimer Hel­las). Under the direc­tion of Magda Tso­laki, who is also a pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­ogy at the Med­ical School at Thes­sa­loniki Uni­ver­sity, Alzheimer Hel­las is con­duct­ing the first clin­i­cal trial in humans to eval­u­ate the effects of dif­fer­ent kinds of olive oil on amnesic patients diag­nosed with mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment, which leads to Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Stud­ies have shown that high-phe­no­lic olive oils may offer pro­tec­tion against the oxi­da­tion of blood lipids, in addi­tion to their anti-inflam­ma­tory, antiox­i­dant, car­dio­pro­tec­tive, and neu­ro­pro­tec­tive prop­er­ties.

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Early-har­vest extra vir­gin olive oils have an extremely high con­cen­tra­tion of polyphe­nols com­pared to other olive oils, and Yan­ni’s Olive Grove was the first com­pany in Greece to be cer­ti­fied to pro­duce P.D.O. Chalkidiki early-har­vest EVOO (Agoureleo in Greek), which is the only Greek early-har­vest EVOO cer­ti­fied as P.D.O. in Greece. Chalkidiki is the ear­li­est region in Greece to har­vest olives each year, and all of Yan­ni’s har­vest is done man­u­ally from around mid-Sep­tem­ber until mid-Octo­ber.

Yan­ni’s donated a stag­ger­ing four tons of their high-phe­no­lic olive oil to this impor­tant study, which amounts to about one-fifth of their total olive oil pro­duc­tion. The main rea­son is that we wanted to help. My father died from Alzheimer’s,” Evi related. We all lived through this awful ill­ness. So we wanted to do what­ever we could to help pre­vent this dis­ease.” The two-year clin­i­cal trial, named MICOIL, is cur­rently under way in Thes­sa­loniki, with pre­lim­i­nary results expected by the end of the year.

As we con­cluded our inter­view over an amaz­ing mezze lunch at their favorite tav­erna, Evi summed up their com­pa­ny’s jour­ney with a dash of her phi­los­o­phy: Don’t stop believ­ing in your­self and in your prod­ucts. Always keep try­ing, regard­less of the obsta­cles.”

For those liv­ing in the U.S. and Canada, Yan­ni’s Grove extra vir­gin olive oil and sun-dried olive snacks are imported and dis­trib­uted via Kri­nos Foods. And Yan­ni’s early har­vest extra vir­gin olive oil is also avail­able for pur­chase on Ama­zon.



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