Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars
Liquid gold: Second location of specialty olive oil store and tasting bar openedby former Dell employee
The famed Greek poet Homer once famously referred to olive oil as "liquid gold." Throughout time, the aromatic, silky, verdant oil has become more than just a vital and popular means of nourishment. For Jeff Conarko, owner of Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars, the green oil was the driving force behind a much-desired change in his life.
Twelve years of working in the corporate technology world of Dell had left Conarko eager to traverse a new career path. Though Conarko and his wife Tabatha worked tirelessly day in and day out at Dell, they were able to occasionally venture off on European trips where they would sip Italian wines, eat delicious pizzas and pastas and taste specialty olive oil and aged balsamic vinegars.
It was in Italy specifically where Jeff cultivated a deep interest in and passion for olive oil. "We've always been big fans of great olive oil, but [Tabatha and I] could never find anything decent in the U.S.," Conarko says. "We could find high-quality olive oil in Europe, but we always had to smuggle it back in our luggage if we wanted to have it here. We decided we wanted to bring that concept back home [to Austin]."
In his personal readings and studies of olive oil, Conarko discovered that much of America's olive oil, especially extra virgin, is often not even real olive oil, and even if it is, it is usually rancid before it is sold on store shelves.
"Europeans only eat their olive oil during the year it's harvested, and at the end of that year, they either throw it out or sell it to the Americans because we don't know the difference," he explains.
Conarko says the book Extra Virginity helped him better understand the workings of America's availability and distribution of olive oil compared to Europe's. "What you see on grocery store shelves in most cases isn't even olive oil; it's often things like sunflower oil or soybean oil," he says. "[In fact,] you can slap extra virgin on anything and it doesn't even have to come from olives."
When Conarko took the leap and left his job at Dell to open his specialty olive oil store and tasting bar, Con' Olio Oils & Vinegars, in 2009, he knew it was a risky decision — especially since the economy was at its lowest point in the recession. Yet he saw a void in the food scene and wanted to fill it, so he decided to sell fresh olive oil that was cultivated during each year's harvest, similar to Europe's concept.
"We made a big gamble because there were lots of local businesses going under because of the economy," Conarko admits. "But we recognized that places like Uchi and Uchiko were here and that the food scene was ready for this." In fact, Conarko believed his store would not only survive – he believed it would be able to expand.
"Austin is a great foodie town, and we thought it was time that people could really appreciate the differences between high-quality olive oil and [generic] olive oil," he says. "We have so many people thanking us for bringing this concept here."
When he first opened the store's doors, Conarko would stand outside handing out tasting samples of the oils to get people to taste the difference between store-bought and gourmet olive oil. He also hosted private events and store classes to teach customers more about the products.
"Once people tried it, they said they'd never back to the olive oil on grocery store shelves. We're not blowing smoke or hiding our product by sealing it. You can always taste the difference," he says.
In a few short years, Conarko has grown his store to include 50 products ranging from mild to robust olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars. His product has grown in such high demand and popularity that he and his wife decided to open a downtown store location on Lavaca Street, which opens May 10.
The store will also include 20 additional oils and vinegars. "It was time to expand," he says." We want to grow this concept and eventually take it to other cities. My dream is to have a store in Europe one day."
Visit the new location on May 10 at 215 Lavaca Street. 512-495-1559.