By Helen Karakoudas
Special to the Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD – Anyone cooking or baking Greek at home can seriously step up their game thanks to a new vendor at Rockford City Market.
Laconic Foods, a Park Ridge-based seller of olive oil, olives and honey, is one of 18 new businesses to join the open-air shopping experience that’s become a Friday-night summer tradition in downtown Rockford. It adds to the authentic Greek options at the market that include the locally owned food truck The Olive Branch.
The lead product for this pandemic-launched business is Spartan Gold, a single-estate extra-virgin olive oil sourced from groves in the southernmost part of mainland Greece, the Peloponnese – a historically rich production region for the ancient elixir of Greece.
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That’s also the ancestral home of Maria Papadakis and Paul Manokas, the couple behind Laconic Foods. She’s the owner and from Argos, Greece. He’s the manager and from Sparta, Greece. Both were born in Chicago suburbs: Maria in Skokie and Paul in Oak Lawn.
When each was a preschooler, their families returned to Greece. Paul came back as a 10-year-old to visit a dying grandparent and stayed. Maria came back after finishing high school and stayed. Paul went into a family hospitality business. Maria earned degrees in aviation management and public administration from Southern Illinois University. They met at a Greek restaurant in Lake County.
And they’re old-school: Tag-teaming on phone interviews so they can get their three children off to Greek school on time; remembering to wish the Greek-American writer at the other end of the line a happy name day; and avowing every way they know that olive oil is life.
“I wanted to have a constant source of olive oil I can trust to cook with for my family,” said Maria Papadakis, an inflight crew scheduler for a major airlines, who said she ran short of the good stuff during lockdowns. “When COVID happened, I had to cut down my work hours to care for my kids and that’s when I decided I was going to take advantage of this time at home. We have all these olive trees in Greece and I’m buying someone else’s olive oil here? Didn’t make sense.”
The olive trees she relies on for the oil that meets her standards are on her father-in-law’s estate in Geraki, Greece, a village about 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Sparta. Paul Manokas, beaming with pride over the location, says he can document this land has been in his father’s family since 1914.
“The farther north you go, the lower the quality of the olive oil,” Manokas said. “What we have is the perfect climate, the perfect elevation, the perfect amount of rain.”
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He points to the rareness of Spartan Gold’s 0.21% acidity level.
As foodies know and olive oil sommeliers will confirm, the lower the acidity level the better the olive oil. The acidity range for extra-virgin olive oil is 0.2% to 0.8%.
Getting the goodness of those olives to markets in and around Chicago is a multi-generation operation on two continents.
Manokas’s father, uncle, and younger brother cultivate the groves in Greece and ship in bulk to Chicago. Maria Papadakis researched best practices for bottling, designed the labeling, and started selling the oil on Etsy in 2021. As she was gaining shoppers’ attention for her Etsy business, Paul Manokas happened to get a buyer for the grocery store he owned in Winnetka: “I said to Maria, now that I’m no longer tied to the store, we can take this to the next level.”
That was the summer of 2022. And they have.
The events page of their website shows just how busy they are. They’ve got farmers markets, street fairs and festivals in and around Chicago covered – not only with their olive oil, but with other treasures from the Laconian plain too: olives, olive paste, tree honeys, and mountain teas.
Rockford is one of several locations they’re committed to every Friday this summer. To help pack up goods from market to market, their children – ages 9, 6 and 4 – pitch in. So do all available relatives.
Tommy Papadakis, Maria’s brother, staffed the booth at Rockford City Market last Friday.
“It’s a big family effort: We’re all working together to create a brand,” said Paul Manokas, whose research on popular markets farther out of the Chicago suburbs brought Laconic Foods to Rockford this year. Rockford is their farthest drive yet.
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While Rockford doesn’t have any sit-down Greek restaurants, there are places with Greek options on the menu. For those looking to eat Greek food on the spot at City Market, you can stop by The Olive Branch, a locally owned authentic Greek food truck. It’s parked next to Joe Marino Park.
“We’re excited to have olive oil at the market on Fridays. We think Laconic Foods is a great fit and we’re confident the community will enjoy their products,” Becca Bartels, director of market engagement for Rockford City Market, said of this first-year vendor. “We’re hopeful and eager to see them engage, grow, and thrive while with us this season.”
So is family back in Greece.
“We’re building a good following so far. My dad and my uncle are ecstatic,” said Paul Manokas, explaining how vulnerable farmers like his father are. “They form co-ops in the small villages, and these co-ops can be taken advantage of by big oil companies. In the olive oil chain, these farmers make the least amount of money. We offer them a higher price than that wholesale price. What we do keeps my dad from being in a co-op.”
For a product where harvest time is as important as grove location, Manokas notes their current stock of Spartan Gold is from the latest harvest, which started in October and ended the first week in January. Laconic Foods olive oil comes in three sizes: $17 for a 250ml bottle, $27 for a 500ml bottle, and $65 for a gargantuan 3-liter tin.
Of course, for an agriculturally rich region of an agriculturally rich country, there’s more than olive oil to bring in.
“Right now, it’s vanilla fir season,” Manokas says, referring to a line of raw Greek honey they also sell, from wild thyme and orange blossom (go-tos for syrup-soaked pastries like baklava and galaktoboureko) to chestnut blossom and wild oak honey (alternatives to sugar in coffee).
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So proud are Manokas and Papadakis of their honeys, they put the longitude and latitude of their source right on the jar labels. Manokas is especially proud of Laconic Foods’ vanilla fir honey (37.6639° N, 22.2167° E), which comes from black fir trees in only one region in the world: Mt. Mainalon in Arcadia, Greece – about an hour’s drive north of Sparta.
He wants food purists to know vanilla fir honey is the only Greek honey that has a Protected Designation of Origin indicator from the European Commission. Not that nerdy, but curious about the foodie vibes of this pearly white stuff? Paul Makonas wants anyone building a charcuterie board to know vanilla fir honey makes for a thicker drizzle on cheese, spreads like soft caramel on toast, and never crystallizes. It’s $35 for a 14 oz. jar.
Laconic Foods also sells Greek mountain tea, chamomile hand-picked from Mt. Taygetos, and an array of Greek herbs and spices, also sourced from Sparta, Greece. Collectors of evil-eye art may want to nudge the person staffing the booth to bring “mati” (“eye” in Greek) dipping dishes to Rockford, too. This Friday, it’ll again be Maria’s brother, Tommy Papadakis.
Shop | Laconic Foods
In person: Fridays at Rockford City Market, on Water Street, next to TNT Funnel Cakes and two booths down from Crust & Crumbles.
This article is by freelance journalist Helen Karakoudas. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.