Peter Liokareas was already a busy man. Between running the family business and chasing his four young children, a break was very much in order. But when Liokareas took a trip to Greece last fall, he didn’t go to relax. He went to harvest the first crop of olives for his new premium olive oil company.
Liokareas and his wife launched Oilio in May of 2014, though the roots of the business stretch much further back. “Really, it started generations before I was born,” mused Liokareas when we met at the offices of his Bethel Park construction firm. A quiet man with dark features and a broad smile, Liokareas reflected on the road that brought him to the sometimes scandalous world of extra virgin olive oil.
For generations, Liokareas’ ancestors tended olive groves in a tiny village in southern Greece, but a slumping postwar economy drove Liokareas’ father to America in the 1960s. He worked his way up in the construction business, eventually starting his own company. The olive groves were never forgotten, however, and his father continued to travel back to Greece for the annual harvest.
Liokareas followed in his father’s footsteps, making regular trips to Greece to learn to grow, pick and press the precious fruits. For years it was just a hobby, and Liokareas and his wife would only bring a few bottles home for their own use. But when friends started asking how to get more, they knew they were on to something. “We finally said ‘why don’t we try to market this and start a company?,’” explains Liokareas. So, with the help of a partner in the food industry, that’s exactly what they did.
That first harvest yielded about 1800 bottles of oil, an impressive number when you consider that Liokareas and a small group of friends and family do everything by hand. The scale and attention to detail set Oilio apart. Like wine, olive oil possesses a specific terroir, a character defined by its growing region. In Oilio’s case, that region is a tiny village just south of Kalamata, an area renowned for its meaty, fruity olives. The Liokareas’ family plot is filled with Koroneiki olive trees, a treasured relative of the better-known Kalamata. Unlike most olive oil on the market, Oilio is made from one variety of olive from one small plot of land; nothing else is added.
Like a single-origin coffee, this focus gives the oil a distinctive character. Oilio oil is thick and velvety, and greener in color than most store-bought brands. The aroma and taste are powerful, the polar opposite of a neutral cooking oil. A fruity, herbaceous bouquet gives way to a pleasant bitterness and peppery finish, with a tingle indicative of pure extra virgin.
Liokareas touts the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, which has long been celebrated for its heart-friendly, cholesterol-reducing properties. According to Liokareas, however, these traits deteriorate as the oil ages and gets exposed to sunlight. To that end, freshness and proper handling are top priorities at Oilio.
Oilio is certainly not the cheapest extra virgin olive oil on the market, retailing for about $22 for a 750 mL bottle. But judging it against those big plastic jugs at the supermarket is a bit like comparing Franzia to Dom Perignon. Many large brands reduce the price of their olive oil by cutting it with cheaper product, or chemically process inferior olive oil to mimic the taste of extra virgin. “We have to educate the public on what quality oil really is,” explains Liokareas. To gain exposure, they are working on getting Oilio into local farmers markets and searching for chefs who could showcase the oil on their menus. Oilio is currently available to purchase at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. and Salonika (both in the Strip District). It can also be ordered on Oilio’s website and shipped anywhere in the country.
The day I met with Liokareas, he was about to leave for Greece to harvest this year’s olive crop. Though he was hopeful that this yield would be larger than the last, he isn’t looking to strike international distribution deals. What excites Liokareas is the chance to bring a piece of his ancestral home to his home in Pittsburgh, and to share a family product he truly believes in. And though it’s meant a calendar that’s a little more crammed, Liokareas knows it’s well worth it: “It’s so rewarding because people really love the oil.”