– Words by Joanne Peters Photography by Lia Crowe
Sisters Nora Iliakis and Jenny Siormanolakis have shared a love of food for as long as they can remember. When they weren’t cooking by their parents’ sides while growing up, they were helping out at their family’s Greek restaurant. Time and again, customers and friends would ask them, “What is it that makes Greek lemon potatoes so good?” If you’ve ever been to Greece or dined at a taverna, you’ve likely had the deeply flavourful dish of citrusy-garlicky golden-roasted spuds.
Greek lemon potatoes are so delicious because they soak up all the juicy flavours of the aromatic broth in which they’re cooked. They’re not especially hard to make, but home cooks often simply don’t have the time or the know-how. But Nora and Jenny are making it easier for people to whip up the dish that’s as much a part of their culinary roots as tzatziki, souvlaki and moussaka. The two form the entrepreneurial duo behind Grandpa J’s Seasonings, a Vancouver-based company that crafts a line of fine seasoning blends.
Greko Lemon Roast Potatoes Seasoning is Grandpa J’s signature item. All it takes for people to make the namesake dish at home is to dissolve some of the seasoning in a mix of olive oil and water, pour the liquid over chopped potatoes in a pan, and bake. It’s foolproof.
And the seasoning salt essentially saved the company from falling prey to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic was our silver lining,” Nora says.
Here’s the back story. The women’s parents hail from Veroia, Imathias in northern Greece and came to Canada with strong connections to their culture, including its cuisine. The family ran their Greek restaurant for some 40 years, selling it in 2014. In 2004, the two women were given the chance to take over Grandpa J’s Seasonings Inc., which was founded by Jim Voulides, their late Uncle Jimmy. A former master chef with more than three decades’ experience at steakhouses across Canada and the US, he was a visionary at the time, having been the first locally to make a versatile, wholesale no-MSG-added seasoning, launching the company in 1995.
At the time, Grandpa J’s consisted of a single product: the original All-Purpose Seasoning Salt. The all-natural product can be used prior to grilling or roasting and to flavour sauces, dressings, marinades, soups, stews and more; it can be sprinkled on French fries or potato wedges. The OG seasoning was and still is a hit: it’s the company’s bestseller.
The pandemic, however, upended everything. Prior to the spring of 2020, Grandpa J’s was primarily a wholesale business. The then-unfathomable era of lockdowns and isolation meant the team had to pivot, quickly, to retail to survive. While stores were keen to carry Grandpa J’s, they needed more than a single item. That’s when the women—both working moms—turned to the dish they know so well and love.
“All of a sudden it hit me,” Jenny says. “I said, ‘We need to do Greek lemon potatoes.’ But because the flavour comes from soaking up the juice, I thought, ‘It can’t just be a seasoning you shake on. It’s got to dissolve in water and olive oil to make the juice, then you pour it over and bake.’ I still have the piece of paper that I wrote my notes down on that say, ‘It has to have tang’ and ‘It has to be the perfect colour.’ That was the aha moment. I told my sister: ‘This is a winner.’
“It’s turned into so much more than a seasoning for potatoes,” she adds. “You can cook your proteins with it; you can add it to prawns. You can add it to one-pan meals. You can use it for chicken breasts or lamb or tofu. I’ve used it to fill samosas. I’ve mashed the potatoes with it; I’ve done savoury pie tarts. My mom adds it to hummus. You can do rice… You name it.”
The product is also a boon to people who follow plant-based diets because—while conventional Greek lemon potatoes are made with chicken stock—Grandpa J’s seasoning is suitable for vegans.
The also team created Vancity Grind, a coarse rub perfect for steak and other grilled foods, as well as an excellent rim for Caesar cocktails.
The launch of the product line exceeded the women’s expectations, initially being stocked in 30 stores.
“The momentum didn’t stop until 90,” Nora says.
Now, the blends are in more than 125 stores in Metro Vancouver and the Okanagan, without any distributor on board—and that’s just through the two women’s efforts. Next up is Vancouver Island, and then: who knows? Grandpa J’s may make its way all across Canada. The 100 per cent female owned- and -operated business is also reinvigorating its wholesale division, with many restaurants adding it to their pantries.
“Our seasonings are always in season,” Jenny says.
Grandpa J’s Greko Lemon Roast Potatoes Seasoning was a top-10 finalist for BC Food and Beverage’s 2022 Product of the Year. Another fan of the blend is Michael Varga, Chopped Canada winner and MasterChef Canada finalist.
The company has received other high praise.
“Ryan Reynolds posted our Vancity Grind to his Instagram,” Jenny says. “He posted a picture of the Vancity Grind with a little caption that said, ‘If this wasn’t so good, I’d be upset about the name.’….I felt like I had won the lottery. It was insane. Stores sold out immediately.”
Adds Nora: “Ryan Reynolds sent people into 125 small businesses, because that’s where we’re mostly stocked. That’s what matters most.”
Then there are so many everyday cooks who have fallen in love with the products.
“We get a lot of potato pictures sent to us,” Jenny says. “It’s such a compliment to us. We love it. We’re honoured when people share what they’ve made with us.”