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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.