“More and more of us have turned to olive oil for its positive health benefits, yet many people have never tasted ‘the real stuff,’” notes Pankow, a consummate foodie who discovered that tasting is believing.
An olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop, where customers can sample the goods before they buy them, was a good idea just waiting to happen. “The whole concept of oil and vinegar tasting has been growing in the United States over the past few years,” says Pankow, who opened her first store in 2010. But until she experienced it herself, in a shop in northern Michigan, she was skeptical. “When I tasted the great flavors and saw how the concept worked – in a shop that was more experiential than retail – I knew it was the way I wanted to go.”
The timing was right: her corporate employer was downsizing. “A silver lining type of person,” Pankow went back to school. In 2006 she graduated with a master’s degree in hospitality management from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and then followed her entrepreneurial spirit.
A PERFECT FIT FOR THE FINGER LAKES
After she selected her inventory – “the finest and freshest selection of high- quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars” – Pankow spent some time defining the message of her new venture. “I wanted it to feel like a general store, and be clean and orderly,” she says. “I wanted customer service to be at the level of other successful businesses like Starbucks.”
Offering unique, high-end products at an affordable price, and keeping the focus on fun, were additional priorities.
With her plans nailed down, Pankow asked the owners of the Michigan shop she admired if she could work there for a week to see firsthand what they did to make their business successful. Then she talked to merchants in her location, downtown Canandaigua.
Knowing from the start that she wanted to be part of the growing wine and culinary movement in the Finger Lakes, Pankow opened her first store there on Main Street, not far from The Finger Lakes Wine & Culinary Center. Then, when she discovered her store had become a retail destination for Rochesterians, she opened an F. Oliver’s on the city’s Park Avenue. The most recent F. Olivers is at Ithaca Commons. “Ithaca was a natural third selection because it’s a great food town where everyone cares about what they eat,” Pankow observes.
WHAT YOU’LL FIND WHEN YOU GO
The three boutiques are evocative of a general store, just as she planned, thanks to open wooden shelves displaying bottles of oils and vinegar, and rows of shiny “fustis” – stainless steel containers specifically designed to store and pour oils and vinegars. “Most of ours are 15 liter, but some are 5 liter; all came from Italy,” Pankow writes on her blog. “The taps come separately and if they didn’t say ‘made in Italy’ on them I would have thought that they were engineered and fabricated in Germany … what a pleasure to have a store full of such beautiful, well-engineered and well-made containers and taps.”
When you enter F. Oliver’s, you are immediately greeted by an employee who tells you a little bit about the products and how a tasting works. Customers can sample oils, vinegars or a combination of the two using small plastic tasting cups. “We don’t offer bread or crackers,” Pankow points out. “They would cause you to miss the nuances of the flavors – you would not get the full benefit of the tasting. We’ll tell you to just put a small amount on your tongue and savor it.”
Good employees at F. Oliver’s are as essential as the oil and vinegar. While there’s no particular formula for choosing staff (Pankow values diversity) there are a few qualities she deems necessary – “Liking people and caring about working in a positive, respectful environment.” A strong work ethic is also important, she says, as is a willingness to do any task, no matter how laborious or menial.
Last, but perhaps most important, is a personal interest in food. The tips her employees share (“I just drizzle a little Heady Garlic on chunks of cooked potatoes and add some herbs for a delicious and simple potato salad”) help clinch sales. Customers love it.
They also love the extras. The website (www.folivers.com) offers “From our Kitchen to Yours” recipe suggestions, and the F. Oliver’s blog, penned by Pankow, covers all sorts of food-related topics.
And remember the “fun” part of her plans? That’s there, too. How about a private tasting party – at your house or in the store? “Bring your friends, beverages, and ‘naked’ foods to dip. We set everything up and do the rest,” Pankow explains. “Our parties are always a big hit!”
F. Oliver’s oils and vinegars come in attractively labeled 200-375 ml bottles. If you want to purchase smaller quantities, there’s a constantly changing sampler pack.
So go ahead. Indulge your inner epicurean with a sip of oil and a vinegar chaser.
A FLAVORFUL ASSORTMENT
F. Oliver’s single varietal EVOO and flavored oils are handcrafted in small batches. They’re imported from around the world by Veronica Foods, owned by Mike and Veronica Bradley, world renowned experts and advocates for ultra-premium oils. “Every six months they change their source of supply from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere to provide us with the freshest oils available,” Pankow notes, adding that it’s literally hours from the time the olives are picked to the time they are pressed.
The single varietals are made from one type of olive. The flavored oils, including Sage and Wild-Harvest Mushroom, Fresh Bright Basil, Fresh Pressed Persian Lime and many more, are infused with natural ingredients.
For dedicated locavores, F. Oliver’s offers two oils created at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Roasted Butternut Squash Seed Oil is made from the seeds of squash Wegmans processes and packages, and Finger Lakes Grapeseed Oil is naturally produced from the seeds of grapes from local wineries.
F. Oliver’s aged and flavor-infused balsamic vinegars are imported by Veronica Foods as well, from the Modena region of Italy. The special reserve balsamic is aged for 18 years, and there are 12-year-old darks and lights barrel-aged in wood. F. Oliver’s flavor-infused balsamics include Farmstand Strawberry, Honeyed Ginger, Royal Pomegranate, Ripe Fig, Sweet Rich Cherry and more.
F. Oliver’s in Canandaigua
129 South Main Street
F. Oliver’s in Rochester
747 Park Avenue
F. Oliver’s in Ithaca
154 The Commons
by Sue Henninger