SKANEATELES | It was at a Michigan Tasting Emporium that F. Oliver's owner Penelope Pankow experienced specialty balsamic vinegars and extra virgin olive oils.

"The process has been around for about 10 years," she said.

She said the products are genuine and natural, which guarantees the health benefits behind them. If the healthy reassurance isn't convincing enough, it's appropriate to say disbelievers will be convinced at first taste.   

"This is our blushing peach balsamic vinegar with fresh bright basil extra virgin olive oil," said David Stees, manager of the Skaneateles location of F. Oliver's.

This is one of the numerous combinations of EVOO and balsamic vinegar a curious shopper has the ability to try at the village's shop. The thimble-sized cup containing a small amount was passed, and the sample packed an enormous flavor that caused taste buds to roar.

The company name, which was created to sound like an old-fashioned store is as fresh and original as the products. "Oliver stands for the people that tend the olives and make the olive oil," Pankow said," and 'F' stands for Felix, my cat. You will notice her picture on our 18-Year-Old Reserve Balsamic Vinegar."

Stees and his wife, Courtney, have been business partners of the F. Oliver's company since 2010, starting out at the original location in Canandiagua.

Pankow also set up shop in Rochester and Ithaca as well. The couple has managed and witnessed the growth and popularity with each of the other locations before setting up shop in Skaneateles.

The doors to the new business opened in May 2014, adding new life to the space where Riddler's once took part in the community.

The infusion of a specialty store was anticipated to add to the authenticity of the village and Finger Lakes region by offering specialty items that were original. Pankow saw the opportunity to expand in a local, small business-minded area, and she took it.

"F. Oliver's is based on and values small and family-run businesses," Pankow said.

The company's product graphics, photos, branding and furniture in the shops have all been provided by local businesses. 

Now, almost a year later, the popularity of F. Oliver's has customers coming back for more.

"When people try our products, they find it difficult to return to the grocery store," David Stees said.

He offered a sample of the farmstand strawberry balsamic vinegar, which boasts a flavor of an actual fresh strawberry.

The small business fills a culinary niche, Stees said. However, education is a crucial part of the business. Pankow and the business partners want to utilize the shop as a beacon for educating customers as they browse, sample and buy.

Pankow enjoys participating and putting her foot out in the community whether EVOO and balsamic vinegar tastings and educational events occur in-house or at other venues, if the products are offered and sold at local inns or bed-and-breakfasts, or if an opportunity arises to participate at American Heart Association fundraisers.

"We constantly ask and challenge ourselves as to how we can participate and get out in the community," she said.

When a customer visits a dairy farmer or a wine maker or a produce distributor, the product origins are known and the process of the products can be explained. 

Pankow wants customers to feel the same confidence about her oils and vinegars when they enter a store. According to the company's Facebook page, Pankow recently visited the Fancy Food Show and The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Stees had no issue answering questions and incorporating verbal explanations with in-store interactions. Food and tasting parties can be requested and booked. F. Oliver's also offers a cookbook that highlights recipes and techniques that incorporate their products.

Stees stood behind a company promise: "The products themselves are quality and healthy for you. We use only natural ingredients," he said.   

"The oils are stored in fustis, which we brought in from Italy," he said.

The steel containers help maintain the quality of the oils the company offers.

"The shelf lives of oils are not long, and many stores keep the products on the shelves longer than they should," Stees said.

He said turnover for F. Oliver's products are great. The oils that sit on the shelves are no more than five months old when they are bought.

"The balsamic vinegars are imported only from Modena, Italy," Pankow said.

Modena vinegar is the most natural and pure, the have-to of the balsamic vinegars. The types of vinegars also vary in age but offer the guaranteed distinct quality.

"A true balsamic vinegar has to be aged at least 12 years," Stees said.

Many of F. Oliver's vinegars are 12 to 18 years reserved. A sample of zesty grapefruit balsamic vinegar and Tuscan garden EVOO made its way into a cup. The sweetness of the fruit along with the oregano, rosemary, sage and garlic olive oil can participate well with a chicken marinade.

The extra virgin olive oils used by F. Oliver's come from all over the world.

"We use the oils where they are freshest at the time," Pankow said, adding that the time of year determines where the oils are imported from. "During the winter months, we use EVOO from the northern hemisphere: Italy, California, Spain and Portugal. During the summer months, we import from the southern hemisphere: Austrailia, Chile, Argentina, and Peru."

F. Oliver's holds off-site events, which include tasting and "naked food" parties.

"The food for the parties are not prepared for the purpose of using our products," Stees said.

He showcased a sunny pineapple white balsamic vinegar with smokey chipotle EVOO, and the tartness of the pineapple is noticed first. The chipotle confidently strolls in and crescendos for a spicy yet not overwhelming kick.

Another winter-friendly product includes the dark chocolate balsamic vinegar, which contains three different types of cacao and also pairs well with the smoky chipotle.

There are local and national products offered at the store as well. The F. Oliver's spice line is the result of a collaboration with The Spice House of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The natural salt products in store come from Seneca Salt Company. The pottery, which is from in the regional area in Hammondsport, are from product lines of Mark Klammer Pottery

The location in Skaneateles is open daily: from 10 am.. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Skaneateles Journal reporter Christopher Malone can be reached at christopher.malone@lee.net or 282-2230. Follow him on Twitter @Skan_Malone.

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