2015-12-10 / News

Well of Greek olive oil hasn’t run dry Family business thrives at new location

By Molly Lovell-Keely Managing Editor

Daphne Rioux stores herbs for a mountain tea from Greece that are hand-picked by a friend and shipped to the United States. (Molly Lovell-Keely photo) Daphne Rioux stores herbs for a mountain tea from Greece that are hand-picked by a friend and shipped to the United States. (Molly Lovell-Keely photo) SACO – When Daphne Contraros Rioux is out and about, people often express condolences at the closure of the business she runs with her daughter.

The problem?

Lakonia isn’t closed.

“We are most definitely open,” Rioux said.

In fact, the business has thrived since moving to Saco’s industrial park from its retail location on Route 1 in Saco. Rioux and her daughter, Melissa Rioux, Biddeford and Saco residents respectively, sell Greek olive oil, olives, salad dressings and herbs, all from the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece, where the family owns land.

Staff used to bottle the products in the basement of the 575 Main St. location, but as the wholesale faction of the business grew, they needed more space; besides bottling, staff also cure the olives, hand-label the products and pack and ship them throughout the country.

Daphne Rioux and her best friend in Greece, Evegenia, who works for Lakonia, pick the good olives from one of Rioux’s many trees in land she purchased in Greece. (Courtesy photo) Daphne Rioux and her best friend in Greece, Evegenia, who works for Lakonia, pick the good olives from one of Rioux’s many trees in land she purchased in Greece. (Courtesy photo) One of the benefits of the Main Street location, Rioux said, was that people stopped in often to buy products or to refill their bottles of olive oil from their retail shop. That option is still available to customers, but most of them don’t know it, she added. While the industrial park offers the space the business needs to grow, it doesn’t offer the same visibility.

“People are still very welcome to stop by – browse our products and sample them,” Rioux said. “We’re doing a lot of gift baskets right now for the

Rioux grew up making with her mother the very salad dressings that she now sells; they bare the name “DÁFNI,” the Greek way to spell her name.

Rioux took many trips to Greece throughout the 1990s and upon her return, friends knew to ask for a sampling of the olive oil she’d bring with her.

“Word spread,” Rioux said, adding that soon, friends offered to buy it from her.

When Melissa was in college at San Diego State University in the early 2000s, Rioux realized she had the start of a potential business and her daughter agreed and encouraged her mother to sell it at the Saco Farmers Market.

“Melissa and a friend created beautiful tags and sent them to me. Friday nights my husband and I would be up until midnight or 1 a.m. bottling olive oil and packing it away in the car so I could be at the market at 7 a.m. the next day,” Rioux said.

“I went out and got this white, plastic table and a colored umbrella – not even thinking about presentation,” she said, laughing. “I’m telling you though, I was so busy.”

Now, Lakonia employs nearly 10 sales representatives on the East Coast to sell the product and a handful in Maine during summer markets in Saco, Portland, Falmouth, York and Brunswick.

When the business took off, Rioux purchased more land in Greece adjacent to a small piece of land she already owned.

“A lot of people think the land was in my family, but it wasn’t that way,” she said. “My family was too poor to own land.”

Rioux said she had 60 acres of land in Greece before correcting herself – she was measuring in stregmata, an ancient Greek unit of measurement. Rioux actually owns about 20 acres of land and 1,000 olive trees.

Growth of the business also meant that she could “lure” her only daughter from California to Maine, who had recently graduated with a business degree.

“She was smart and I knew she would do well,” Rioux said. “She also believed in the product, which is important.”

She believes so much in the product, in fact, that Melissa is currently in Greece, overseeing part of production, which includes picking olives and ensuring they’re delivered quickly to a local mill to be made into the olive oil.

“It’s very important that the olives are sent to the mill to be pressed within 24 hours after they’re picked,” Rioux said.

While Melissa is away, employee Kayli Goulet of Biddeford is making sure everything runs smoothly at home.

“I’ve worked my way up,” Goulet said. “I’ve done everything from jar olives to paperwork. Now I manage the sales team.”

She attributes much of the business’s success to the purity of the product.

“So many big companies say they sell extra virgin olive oil, but that’s not true,” Rioux said. “Their extra virgin olive oil may cost $10 while mine is $24, but you can tell in the quality, the taste.”

Rioux said a large percentage of the oil going out of Greece and to Italy is blended with that country’s oil and sold as extra virgin. However, Rioux said the blending of the oils makes it a lesser quality.

Rioux’s best friend in Greece, Evegenia, picks the company’s herbs that include oregano, bay leaf and mountain tea.

Evegenia picks the herbs from the top of Mt. Taygetos, part of the largest mountain range in the Peloponnese, near Sparta.

“It grows between rocks, untouched, up at the very top of the mountain,” Rioux said, intertwining her fingers.

The herbs are picked and dried – usually on Evegenia’s porch, but not in the sun – and put in bundles and hung. Lakonia also offers a mountain tea that Rioux thinks maybe only one other person in the U.S. sells.

“It’s a rare tea that has medicinal properties,” she said. “It doesn’t have caffeine and it’s great for anything from stomach aches to sore throats.”

The shepherds in Greece, of which there are still many, pick the herbs for the mountain tea from the very top of the mountain where the air is most clear.

“When they’re sick, they bring it back home for their wives to brew for them,” Rioux said.

Greek olive oil has people throughout the world seeking its purity and quality.

“China is a big buyer of it now,” she said. “It has taken a huge interest in buying and exporting it out of Greece.”

In an effort to spread the word about Lakonia, the Riouxs recently tried out for the television show, “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs make a business pitch to a panel of “shark” investors. The duo were not only competing with other Maine contestants, but others throughout the country.

“We have a unique product and we’re both so outgoing, even dramatic sometimes, that we thought we had a chance,” Rioux said, laughing.

They found out the following week that they weren’t chosen.

“There were so many talented people. Everybody had an invention and they were all fantastic,” she said. Rioux said the Lakonia’s roots remain strong. “Lakonia is a region within the Peloponnese in Mani. We are from the southern part of the Peloponnese, in Gythion. We’re compared to mountain people, we’re the best fighters,” Rioux said. “If you say you’re from there, you’re known to be a strong people, outspoken – someone to watch out for. I’m proud to be that.”

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