Lessons from the “Pickle People”

Reviving an 1870 general store and so much more

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Olenik of Venango, PA (population 242) and talk about his family’s approach to business and community. Mark, his wife Tracey, and their children are affectionately known as the “Pickle People” because they got their start in business by selling artisanal pickles. They’ve since worked to open a general store, a bakery, and even start a Saturday market.

Their location in Venango, Crawford County along French Creek puts them in a “Creek Town.” We thought that some of what they’ve done in business may be of interest to those of you located in the Mon River Towns. We’ll consider it a Creek Town / River Town idea exchange (and do hope that some of you may offer some ideas back their way).

Before we get to the “lessons,” first some background:

The Oleniks decided to convert a family tradition of curing pickles into a home-based business, the Lititz Pickle Company. By their fifth year of business, their products were carried by more than 20 stores and specialty markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic. The family made the decision to seek a commercial property in 2012, and that’s when they found Venango, 300 miles from Lititz. Mark said that the vacant Oddfellows building kept showing up in real estate searches and they decided to take a look. Of the building and community, he said, “We came up and we fell in love with it.” (More on this later.) The family has been busy ever since renovating the property and taking on other community improvement projects. The store is not yet open for business. The building, he said, was in “utter disrepair” and they’ve been working on renovations since 2012. By the looks of the “before” and “after” images here, they are nearly there.

Lesson #1: See a Community for its Strengths

Make no mistake. Venango is a small town without any defined business district. There’s a public library and now the Sweet Treats Candy House, operated by the Oleniks’ daughter Brittany. There’s a family-run farm stand and also a couple of golf courses and Sprague Farm & Brew Works on the outskirts of town. That’s it. And yet the Oleniks saw all that was wonderful about Venango. They saw the golf courses, the brew works, and canoers and kayakers floating French Creek, and to them, that added up to opportunity. They’re not only seizing opportunity; they are creating it, which leads us to Lesson #2.

Lesson #2: Embrace and Create Community

A quick perusal of the Venango General Store Facebook page reveals that the Olenik family is committed to the community. They occasionally offer a “shout out to locals,” like this one: “Doug Sanner will be in town doing some rototilling. If you’d like your garden tilled let him know – $25.” Or the one about a spaghetti dinner raising funds for a youth program. It’s these kind of things that back up the Venango General Store’s stated mission. Of this, Mark said, “We view this as much more than a general store. We put our business case together to revive the town. By restoring an anchor building, our hope is that others will want to invest.” And it seems that they have. Mark shared stories about property improvements being made around town.
While it’s clear that the family has embraced (and been embraced by) the local community, they have also taken steps to create a sense of community. In May, they started the Venango Saturday Market. Located next to the general store, the market gives artisans, crafters, and growers who may not otherwise have an outlet the opportunity to set up in a high-traffic area. (Although the community is small in size and population, the busy two-lane state route 6/19 passes through town.)

Lesson #3: Seize Business Opportunity Where it Exists

You may have noticed that the Oleniks have gone from running an artisan pickle company to also opening a bakery and (soon) a general store. The bakery is a no-brainer. Brittany Olenik’s banana doughnut with a chocolate ganache was about the best doughnut we’ve ever had. One must go with their strengths. About the general store, Mark and Tracey saw the need for more than barrel-aged pickles when visiting Venango. There was (and remains) a need for groceries, and their business plan morphed as a result. Sweet Treats will eventually be moved into the general store, reducing the family’s overhead costs and also making another property available for business. This is a family with a business plan.

About the Area

We were curious about how Mark viewed the area in general, so we asked him where he would take any visiting friends and relatives. Without hesitation, he said that he’d take them on a canoe or kayak trip on French Creek. “The scenery is absolutely beautiful, it’s an easy float, and you don’t have to be an expert to do it. And there are a lot of migratory birds in the area that can be spotted from the creek.” He went on to talk about the area’s rich history and other nearby towns (Cambridge Springs among them).
We all travel differently. The hook that brought us to visit Venango last month was the nearby Erie National Wildlife Refuge and the prospect of a beer on the porch of Sprague Farm & Brew Works. Too cold for a paddle, that day’s trip consisted of the wildlife refuge (hook), a beer (reward), and a doughnut (reward). Mon River Town friends – what are your area’s “hooks” and rewards?