When Penelope Pankow ’07 graduated from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration with a master’s degree, she knew her entrepreneurial passion. She also knew how she wanted to realize that passion — the ideas that reflected her love of good food.
Pankow is proprietor of F. Oliver’s in Upstate New York. With several stores in the Fingers Lakes region, F. Oliver’s provides premium extra virgin olive oils, aged balsamic vinegars, freshly ground spices, other local artisanal foods, and unique gifts. The first F. Oliver’s store opened in 2009, and by 2014 the company had grown to four brick and mortar stores plus an online store.
“F. Oliver’s is not in the gourmet retail business. We are in the business of exploring possibilities. We believe exploring what’s possible inspires greater creativity in everyday pursuits, makes life more fun, and enhances well-being.”
F. Oliver’s bases their success on the company’s strong hospitality and experiential retail model. Customers are invited (expected!) to taste and experience F. Oliver’s exceptional ingredients and artisanal foods. The company’s well-trained employees are passionate about food and cooking, and they enthusiastically share ideas with customers.
“F. Oliver’s is not in the gourmet retail business. We are in the business of exploring possibilities. We believe exploring what’s possible inspires greater creativity in everyday pursuits, makes life more fun, and enhances well-being. Few things make me happier than a customer returning to tell us of the pride they experienced when trying a new recipe with our ingredients — to the delight of their friends and family.”
Pankow’s desire to run her own company came to fruition after a long career in corporate America and a return to graduate school. “I had a well-rounded set of skills from my corporate experience and my return to school, a love of food and hospitality, and a desire to build a positive, fun, and nurturing work culture. No one was hiring in 2009, so it seemed like the perfect time to launch, she says.”
Between graduating from the School of Hotel Administration in 2007 and writing the F. Oliver’s business plan in late 2009, Pankow worked in hotel asset management and hotel consulting. She says, “As I look back, every project that I worked on in those two positions served as a building block for F. Oliver’s. My classes at the School of Hotel Administration and the network that I built through Cornell qualified me for those jobs.”
Pankow continues, “You can’t let up. Successful businesses require constant attention in order to keep employees challenged and growing and to keep the business interesting and relevant. Decisions are made on a daily basis and need to be made based on the best information available. There are no rulebooks; you need to roll up your sleeves, gather information, then trust that you have enough, make the decision, and move on. Mistakes are not to be regretted, but to be seen as opportunities for learning.”
Pankow passionately points out that for emerging entrepreneurs, there are no substitutes for some things: a detailed business plan before taking any major steps, thorough research, a group of mentors and advisors, and hard work. She says, “Utilize all the expertise available. And work hard. There is no substitute for that.”