In Conversation with Katerina Mountanos of Kosterina
Can you describe Kosterina in a few words?
Kosterina is a wellness brand that celebrates the Mediterranean lifestyle by leveraging premium, healthy extra virgin olive oil as a hero ingredient across a number of different categories in both food and beauty.
What made you take the leap to start Kosterina?
I founded Kosterina in 2016 as a passion project delivering our original extra virgin olive oil mostly to friends and family. They all really loved our EVOO, and pretty soon we started getting a lot of customers who I didn’t know personally who were really loyal too. When I got the call from Whole Foods that they were interested, I knew we were onto something big and decided to finally leave my full time corporate job around Christmas in 2019.
Can you share a little more about your background prior to launching Kosterina?
I grew up in a Greek-American family in Long Island, NY, but always spent summers with my extended family in Koroni (a small town in southern Greece, where my dad is from). I studied at NYU’s Stern School of Business undergrad and started my career in investment banking (first in New York, then in London) before attending Harvard Business School. After my MBA, I took a role as a Marketing Manager at L’Oreal where I encountered a completely new style of workplace, this time with lots more women and business goals that I felt much more connected to. I left L’Oreal in 2010 to join an ecommerce startup called Quidsi and that’s where my love affair with startups and entrepreneurship began. I worked for 2 incredible entrepreneurs that gave me a ton of autonomy and gave me the space to learn and achieve. I launched a prestige beauty ecommerce site called BeautyBar.com for Quidsi and Amazon, and then founded my first venture, Manicube, which exited to Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa in 2015. I then joined Jet.com as a General Manager just a few months before it was acquired by Walmart. After Walmart acquired Jet.com, I started the first internal incubation group at Walmart eCommerce which built digital consumer brands that sold direct-to-consumer online and also in Walmart stores (brands like Allswell and Glow Habit).
How was Kosterina first received by the public? How did you get the word out?
When I first started Kosterina, it was almost exclusively to friends and family. We only sold our original extra virgin olive oil, and they were all really in love with it and very loyal. Most of the growth from there was through repeat purchases and word of mouth referrals, and I stayed laser focused on delivering the highest quality EVOO in the most beautiful packaging. We now sell to plenty of strangers (now friends!) and since I’ve quit my day job at Walmart, we are doing a lot more marketing and PR, launching products beyond EVOO, and entering into new distribution channels, like Whole Foods and HSN.
Kosterina is high-polyphenol, early harvest, and extra virgin. Can you share more about what these terms mean?
Polyphenols are antioxidants that naturally occur in a few plants – notably, olives. Polyphenols are special because they act like medicine for your body and have been proven to reduce the risk of all chronic diseases. The Mediterranean diet is known for promoting longevity, and it is because of the high intake of polyphenols from olive oil. At Kosterina, we love polyphenols!
To get a lot of polyphenols from the olives you need to harvest them early – meaning before they are ripe and while they are still green. A lot of olive oil producers don’t do this because when you harvest early, you get less juice from the olive because it isn’t ripe yet. When olive oil is harvested early, it is during this period when the olives are still not yet ripe, so it is usually more expensive (due to less juice per olive) and has loads more polyphenols.
It is important to understand what makes an olive oil “extra virgin”. Think of it like this: real EVOO is 100% pure fruit juice squeezed from freshly picked olives. For example, a single bottle of Kosterina is juice from 12 pounds of unripe koroneiki olives. To be extra virgin, olive oil must have acidity below 0.8%, a polyphenol count of 55mg/kg or more (ours is 430 mg/kg… nbd), and meet standards for taste. If an olive oil doesn’t meet these standards, it is refined with other oils and no longer pure olive juice. To get the antioxidant benefits of olive oil, you need to be consuming pure olive juice and the best kind is high-polyphenol, early harvest, extra virgin olive oil.
How is Kosterina different from other olive oils on the market?
Kosterina’s Original Extra Virgin Olive Oil is made from olives that are grown, harvested, and bottled to maximize polyphenol content, freshness, and balanced flavor. It’s simply the best for you and the best tasting! It’s also beautiful – we hear from our customers all the time that they love leaving the bottle out on their counter or bringing it to the dinner table because it has an effortlessly chic look.
A couple months back, you launched a variety of new products. Can you share more about these new offerings?
We launched 2 new flavored olive oils, 3 balsamic vinegars, and 3 dark chocolate bars… but these are not ordinary oils, vinegars, or chocolates! Like our original EVOO, they are all loaded with antioxidants and have incredible flavor.
For the flavored olive oils, we launched Garlic and Greek Herb & Lemon flavors. Unlike most flavored olive oils on the market, ours starts with our Original EVOO so it is super high quality, polyphenol-rich olive oil. We then add a hint of Mediterranean flavor through garlic, herb, and lemon oil for that special flavor. The result is amazing! The Garlic is your perfect cooking companion and the Greek Herb & Lemon is amazing on its own as a salad dressing or as a marinade.
For the balsamic vinegars, we went outside Greece to Modena, Italy – the home of balsamics – to source our vinegars. They are so high quality and authentic! The 3 flavors are a classic Original Balsamic Vinegar, Fig Balsamic Vinegar, and Dark Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar. The Original is your tried and true, and the Fig and Dark Chocolate are so unique. Everyone is obsessed with the Fig BV — it’s the best on salad or some fruit — and the “DCB” is a total treat. I love it drizzled on vanilla ice cream or on yogurt in the morning, but it is also a great marinade for steak and really great to bake with. We sell DCB at Whole Foods nationwide – it’s that good!
Finally (and maybe most importantly), we launched our EVOO Dark Chocolate Bars. These chocolates are special because when you combine polyphenol-rich EVOO with the naturally occurring antioxidants in dark chocolate, the antioxidant benefits are actually amplified. Talk about best news ever! These chocolates are so delicious and come in 3 Mediterranean flavors: Nuts, Cinnamon & Honey, Fig & Balsamic, and, my favorite, Almond Butter & Vanilla.
Since starting your career, what are some of the biggest lessons you have learned as an entrepreneur?
I am a firm believer in rapid prototyping. You don’t wait for something perfect – the best way to tackle product development and get to the best possible product is to get it into customers’ hands, listen, learn, and iterate.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered along the way and what did you learn?
Having kids and working at the same time is really hard. I had 3 babies in 3 years and you just can’t be everywhere at once. You need a really good, reliable support and need to know how to turn off work and be present at home.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Our Kosterina Almond Butter & Vanilla EVOO Dark Chocolate Bar makes me happy every day because it has been my dream to have a healthy chocolate bar that is also delicious, so I am really proud of myself for creating that. 🙂 On a more serious note, my highlights have always been around the great teams I have built. At every company – Quidsi, Manicube, Jet, and Walmart – there have been moments where I felt like there could be no better group of people ever assembled, and it makes me proud to know I had a hand in that. I am energized to do the same at Kosterina.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our supply chain has been stressed by the pandemic and it has resulted in a few of out-of-stocks that make it hard to keep pace with our growth. Our supply chain is global, so when one piece has stress or, in the case of the pandemic, a total shutdown, it reverberates across the rest of the chain.
Where do you see Kosterina 5 or 10 years into the future?
I see Kosterina a wellness platform that spans food, beauty, and content. I’m excited about all the product categories we will be expanding into!
What advice can you offer to budding entrepreneurs/female founders who are trying to launch their own business?
I know everyone says, “take the leap!”, but I don’t recommend quitting your day job right away. There is a lot of downtime in product development and you don’t want to rush a product to market because you need to start bringing in money and feel financially stretched. Once you have the product right and are ready to run, then it’s time to focus 100% of your time on your venture.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
I think Entreprenistas are confident women who are leading others to create something out of nothing. Entreprenistas work hard to have a positive impact on the world.