Oil Baron

Olives fill a pressing need for this family

contis_lead_hor-0218After a 27-year career with IBM, Vasilios Contis turned to his Greek heritage for a new direction. His company, Elaioladon-Contis Imports Inc., in Jericho, imports fine Greek olives and olive oils and Tellicherry black pepper for retailers throughout the Northeast and customers across the United States and Canada.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

“The problem with us Greeks is we’re used to good quality olive oil.” That’s Vasilios Contis, speaking about why he started his Jericho company, Elaioladon-Contis Imports, after retiring in 1993 from a 27-year career with IBM.

“I was going from store to store looking for good olive oil,” says Contis, who confesses that he “cooks everything” in it. “Every time we’d go to Greece, we’d bring back a good five-gallon can with us.”

Contis knows good olive oil when he encounters it; he was raised on it. “The harvest will start now,” he muses, “and go through January or February. My family had about 100 trees. We had to take mules from my village to where the olive groves were — about three hours — and we’d stay there about 10 days to harvest the olives.”

Contis laughs as he tells how, in March 1955, he left his native country for a 16-day ocean voyage to the United States aboard a ship called the New Greece. “It was the last trip on that ocean liner,” he says, “and then it went into the scrap. When we left Greece it was 75 degrees; when we reached Halifax, our first stop on the American continent, it was below zero!”

The journey was far from a laughing matter, though. Contis was 18, and in the five-plus years following the end of the Greek civil war in 1949, nearly 600 young people from his village had emigrated, seeking employment to support their families back home. Contis had waited five years for official approval of his application to enter the States and live and work with his father’s brothers in Pittsburgh. In New York, an uncle was waiting at the pier.

Contis went to work as a dishwasher in his uncle’s restaurant. “My uncle had to guarantee me a job, but I didn’t know any English except for whatever I learned on the boat, so I couldn’t help with anything but dishwashing because I couldn’t communicate with the people.”

He studied English at a special school for immigrants for about six months. He learned quickly; in a year or so, he began taking night classes in civil engineering and mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh.

After three years at the restaurant, his uncle told him they could no longer afford him. Following six months at another relative’s restaurant, he found a job at an athletic club.

Things came to a halt in 1958 when he was drafted into the Army. After six weeks at Fort Jackson, S.C., he was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., and then to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he boarded a boat for Germany.

In Munich for 22 months, his affinity for numbers brought him luck. “I was in artillery, doing all the computations of the guns instead of being in the mud moving around and loading the guns. It was a nice, cozy event.”

While he was in Germany, he traveled three times to Greece, compliments of the military. He was assigned as an attaché doing translations for the Greek attachment at NATO headquarters in Munich. “Another really good job!” he says, laughing again.

Contis was released from service on Jan. 15, 1960, and returned to Pittsburgh, where he moved in with his brother, who had followed him here. He soon found a room and a job, with the same athletic club that had employed him before, and registered to continue his studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He worked out a split schedule arrangement with his employer so he could attend classes he needed. “I had to work, make a living, and help the family back home,” he says.

In 1962, he found work with another restaurant, which offered him the same deal and a loan to pay for college and let Contis repay as he worked. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in mathematics and a minor in economics.

Before the graduation ceremonies, he had landed a job with IBM at Fishkill, N.Y. Fishkill proved to be an auspicious placement. On a trip to visit his sister, a nurse in New Jersey, Contis joined her for Easter services and was introduced to Theodora Xenakis. They married in 1968. Their first daughter, Christina, was born in 1969.

In 1970, IBM sent him to Manassas, Va. Angelike, their second daughter, was born there in 1972.

By the late ’70s, says Contis, “the economy wasn’t that good, so they closed the laboratory.” He moved to Vermont in November of ’77. In 1984, the company sent him to Paris for three years, after which he returned to Vermont to work with a unit doing internal marketing of special applications for worldwide customers.

“We got a new chief in Armonk in 1993, and I said, ‘That’s enough!’ I retired the end of August that year, and said, ‘What am I going to do?’”

For three years, he did income tax returns and bookkeeping for small companies, “but after a while, it became very burdensome,” he says, noting “those small boxes you have to fill out.”

He and Theodora started to talk about olive oil. In 1996, they began visiting various locales in Greece to taste oils and decide which ones they liked. They ordered samples by phone, then went back to visit and taste some more. It took them three to four years to find the product they liked well enough to market.

They decided on two producers: Mistra Estates, located in Sparta about 40 kilometers from Contis’ hometown in central Peloponnese, and Dimarakis, south of the famous theater of Epidauros. Mistra produces unfiltered olive oil; Dimarakis produces Authentikon (an organic oil) and Kalliston.

The unfiltered oil “has the fullness of the bouquet and taste of the olive fruit,” says Contis. “The other is also a quality product, but it has gone through filtration. Both are full-bodied and really light in texture, and very thick oils, because they’re 100 percent olive oil, and not oils from any other location or year.

“I only sell extra virgin or first cold-pressed olive oil, which means the olive has to be harvested and pressed within 24 hours,” he continues, and explains that terroir — the special characteristics of geography that give particular qualities to such as wine or coffee or cheeses — also applies to olives.

The Contises named their company Elaioladon-Contis Imports Inc. Elaioladon is a mixed word meaning olive oil, he says, noting its pronunciation as eh-le-OH-la-don. “Elaio means the fruit itself, and the last two syllables are the oil.”

“I’ve always been most impressed with his ties back to Greece, but also his dedication to his business in Vermont,” says Deb Rorris, loan officer at North Country Federal Credit Union, who has known the Contises for years through church. “It’s almost like a really well rounded, international exchange, bringing the best of Greece to Vermont.”

Contis is president, Theodora is vice president and controller, and their daughter Angelike, who lives in New York, is, he says, “my press secretary. She does my newsletter and updates my website — things I’m only somewhat capable of doing.”

They started importing the oils for sale in January 2001. “We tested the ground with one pallet, says Contis with a laugh. “Then we went really fast to half of a 20-foot container, which is five pallets. Sometimes I go as much as seven. I ship it twice a year, because I want to get fresh oil; in six months I move it all.

I order it a month before I know I’m going to go dry; we don’t want to have inventory. I learned that from IBM.” Boxes are stored in the basement of the Contises’ Jericho home.

He uses DHL and Derringer to arrange shipping through ports in New York or Montreal. Shipping costs the same to either port, but New York’s high fees make it more economical to ship through Montreal when possible.

Five years ago, his daughter Christina married a fellow architect from India whose family produces Tellicherry whole black pepper in the Malibar region of southwest India. “This pepper is what you call the top pepper from all over the world,” says Contis. It’s packed in an inert gas to keep it fresh.

“This one is a little hotter than any other pepper, and the aroma is amazing! I do the tastings at City Market or Healthy Living, and people there are amazed at the quality or the aroma of the pepper.”

This year, Contis started importing olives from the growers who make his oil. He markets 11 varieties of green and Kalamata, pitted and whole, stuffed with pimento or garlic or feta and sun-dried tomatoes, and tapenade.

In the early years, sales grew between 15 percent and 20 percent a year. “This year, because of the economy, we’ll be lucky to break even,” he says, adding that the introduction of olives could mean a 10 percent increase by year end.

Retailers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, and Vermont sell the company’s products. Contis uses his Toyota Camry to deliver about 40 cases once a month to the Vermont retailers. He talks to each customer at least twice a month, “because if you forget them, they forget you.” He ships his products to customers across the United States and into Canada. A New York City health club orders it in bulk for its members, he says.

He and Theodora are active in the local Greek community. He sings in the choir at the Greek Orthodox church and is the chanter there. But his passion is olives. From his youth — working in the olive groves, when he would cut slabs of bread his mother made and toast them in the coals before dipping them in olive oil with a little oregano — he has cherished that taste.

“So I get quality olives; my producers, my suppliers, they are consistent. I don’t want people to have something that I don’t eat.” •