Con’ Olio Oils & Vinegars serves up authentic goods with a side of community compassion.
By Raylyn Nicole, Pictures courtesy of Con’ Olio
Walking into Con’ Olio Oils & Vinegars is like walking into a European shop. Outlining the store are metal containers filled with different olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The center of the store houses spices, wine and cooking accessories. Pasta from Italy, mustard from France and beans from Spain line the shelves, and cookbooks are in a nook by the front window.
Jeff and Tabatha Conarko were inspired by their honeymoon to bring a piece of Europe to Texas. Jeff Conarko left his corporate job to open the store in 2009, while Tabatha Conarko kept her job at Dell. By 2012, Tabatha Conarko was able to quit her job and work full time at the family business, and the couple opened the second Con’ Olio location in downtown Austin. The Bee Cave location opened the in 2013.
“That was crazy,” Tabatha Conarko says. “I don’t know what we were thinking. … Hey, we handled it.”
She is now the sole owner of Con’ Olio’s after Jeff Conarko died unexpectedly in 2016.
“The first year was really hard doing it by myself because we’re partners,” Tabatha Conarko says. “It’s good now, you know. I’ve got the groove of everything. Luckily…we backed each other up 100 percent, so if he couldn’t cover something, I could cover it and vice versa.”
While she no longer has a co-owner, she says she has a great team backing her up and is thankful for the partnership she had with her husband. She gives credit to her employees, the team she says is now like a family.
“I went through [a] deep, deep grief period just trying to survive without him,” Tabatha Conarko says, tearing up. “[My team] just took care of everything so that…I could have that time to really just grieve. … I didn’t come into the shop I think for a month, one full month.”
While she never could have planned on losing her business and life partner, Tabatha Conarko says she is in a good place now and hopes she’ll still be talking about “food and great olive oil and balsamic vinegars” 30 years from now.
Con’ Olio has offered Olive Oil 101 classes since the beginning and teaching is now a staple of Tabatha Conarko’s job.
“Education was a big, big part of what we really wanted to do with our business,” she says. “How do we get people to understand the difference between a really great olive oil and bad olive oil? You know, we didn’t know that what we bought at the grocery store wasn’t real olive oil or good olive oil right until we went to Europe and experienced this fantastic product.”
Regular classes are hosted at the store as private events, giving customers a chance to taste the variety of oils the store offers. Tabatha Conarko hopes customers leave with the ability to discern between good and bad oil. Extra virgin olive oil, for example, should have a green, earthy taste with a peppery finish, she says. The taste of pepper is a sign of natural antioxidants. The store is now offering children’s cooking classes as well.
As a single mom and business owner, Tabatha Conarko says she tries not to do it all by herself. She feels empowered as a business owner and in turn wants to empower her employees to take charge in their work.
“You don’t have to be everything all the time,” Tabatha Conarko says of her message for fellow working moms. “You know, don’t beat yourself up as long as your kids are happy, they’re loved…your career is going well, your job is going well. Take care of yourself. Always take care of yourself. Make time for yourself.”
Her three children grew up in the store. When the couple opened the first store, their youngest was 4. Their kids are now 19, 16 and 13 years old, but Tabatha Conarko says they still help her with the family business.
“It’s good for the kids to see [the store], to build something and go, ‘Hey, if I work hard, I can do this,’ ” she says.
A few changes are in Con’ Olio’s future. The Bee Cave location will be moving to a different building in the same area. Tabatha Conarko also recently announced a $2,500 grant has been finalized in her husband’s name through the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, which gives grants to local food vendors and culinary artisans every year.
“Shortly after my husband passed away, I wanted to really do something to honor him,” Tabatha Conarko says, “because we created this business completely together and I wanted to make sure that I could honor him in a way that would not only give back to the local Austin community, but would really show kind of some key tenets around who he was as a person.”
Giving back is a core component of the business. Con’ Olio works with Keep Austin Fed to ensure its food does not go to waste, and last year, the company raised more than $4,000 for relief efforts in Puerto Rico and Houston. The group works with different local charities every month, and Tabatha Conarko says she hopes to do more in the future.
“I think it’s so important to give back to our community, the community who has done so much for us,” Tabatha Conarko says. “I think it comes full circle and it’s so important to take care of Austin.”