If you spend a few minutes with Dr. Irene Stafford, you’ll quickly discover that behind the beauty and brains of this perinatologist and OB/GYN, is a foodie whose passion for cooking fresh comes from her rich Greek heritage and a lifetime of working for her family’s food business.
Her parents were Greek immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The family started Petrou Foods in San Diego in which they sold family-brined olives, olive oil and other Greek specialty items.
“I’ve been brining olives since age 6,” she said. “My brothers and I would sit in the garage and cut olives and throw them in the barrel. We’d lay them out in the sun, put rock salt on them, rinse them, lay them back out in the sun, put rock salt on them. It’s very mundane, but those hours with my brothers and father were priceless.” She laughs when she mentions that she was paid $1 a day for her efforts. The family makes sundried, cracked green, mixed olives, and regular kalamatas.
Dr. Stafford and her husband, pediatric surgeon Dr. Shawn Stafford, moved to Tucson after completing their residencies and fellowships in other cities. “I fell in love with my group, Obstetrix. I love my partners, I love providing total care, and I especially love taking care of high risk women during their pregnancy,” she said.
But in moving to Tucson, she quickly realized good Greek family-brined olives weren’t just hard to find – they were impossible to find. “The olives in a traditional grocery store have been brined in lye and detergent, and you can taste it in the skin. Most of the olive oil available here is distributor based, and has been sitting on a shelf for months.”
Tucson deserved better.
So Dr. Stafford teamed up with her father George, and brothers John and Andreas, to bring their products to Tucson. They started with one farmer’s market last year. And since then, the family business has exploded. Now, they’re at farmer’s markets in Tucson, Green Valley and Sierra Vista almost every day of the week. They’ve also expanded to Scottsdale, Peoria, Wigwam, Avondale and Ahwatukee. Dr. Stafford has been instrumental in bringing a farmer’s market to TMC as well. It’s held on campus on the first Tuesday of every month and is open to the public. “I handpicked our vendors. We have Mediterranean bread vendors, fresh squeezed juice vendors, and produce that’s as fresh as it gets.”
A feta spread the family whips up packs a flavorful punch, and is becoming wildly popular. “We mix two types of feta with a little bit of Greek yogurt, add a little bit of fresh garlic, and a ton of different herbs. Everything is fresh and organic. There’s nothing artificial and we don’t use any preservatives. And our spreads are low fat – about 100 calories and 6 grams of fat for two whopping tablespoons of spread.”
She describes them as unbelievably delicious.
Their olive oil is organic, unfiltered, first cold pressed, extra virgin. They’ve even got olive oil that’s been infused with blood orange, lemon, jalapeno and garlic. And to compliment the olive oils, they’ve added dipping vinegars to their line. “We have a pomegranate infused vinegar, and a fig infused vinegar,” said Dr. Stafford.
At these farmer’s markets, you just never know who will come to your tent. Recently a producer for a Best Of segment on the Discovery Channel tried some of the Petrou Family’s olive oil. “He called me and said, ‘I keep sipping your garlic infused olive oil. I’m hooked on it, and it’s the best olive oil I’ve ever had. The Greek olives are the best I’ve ever had. And the spreads are incredible. THIS is the Best Of.’”
Dr. Stafford agreed to be featured in an upcoming episode of their Best Of segment.
While the exposure is a dream come true, this down-to-earth doc says her pride lies in the preservation and legacy of the Petrou family. “My father always had the highest quality standards, and has always been wonderful with his customers. He’s kind and generous, and has never compromised his principles. He’s in his mid-70’s now, but he’s out there working and selling, and doing what he loves. And he’s passing these values on to my children, nephews and nieces. It’s wholesome and pure. Our culture and family traditions permeate through generations. That’s what I love about it. That’s my happiness and my joy.”
All the children in the family brine olives, and all of them work with her father every weekend.
The mom of four certainly practices what she preaches when it comes to eating well – she recently won a fitness model competition – and says cooking healthy and fresh doesn’t have to be elaborate or time consuming. “If you always use good olive oil, good products, fresh ingredients, and fresh herbs, it really enhances the food.”
She also prides herself in being a good example for her patients. “I educate women about nutritious eating, especially when they’re pregnant. I try to be a picture of health, and I do my best to be fit. What you put into your body is truly what you get out of it.” So, just curious, Dr. Stafford – what’s for dinner tonight? “We make a big Greek salad almost every night, have a lean meat and a vegetable.” Yes, her children – the youngest is 5 years old – eat what she cooks.
While future plans include improving their website to add a recipe-sharing section, some serious consideration will have to be made before deciding how “big” they want the family business to become. “My father hasn’t changed his prices in 20 years. We love farmer’s markets for many reasons, but also because they help us keep our prices low. Our family hasn’t changed the way we brine our olives in 20 years. We still brine our own. We’d love to expand, but when you get too big, you end up losing a lot of the authenticity that goes into each individual brine.”