Restaurant gives big lift to small-town Venango
VENANGO, Pa. (AP) — In September 2016, Mark and Tracey Olenick were raising a family of four children near Lancaster. Mark Olenick, an electrical engineer and project manager, made pickled vegetables on the side.
Now the whole family lives above Venango General Store, a restaurant they own in Crawford County’s Venango Borough where everyone pitches in running the business, serving hand-cut New York strip steaks and craft beer by night, omelets and Belgian waffles by day.
Between the family’s savings and local incentives, Mark Olenick, 53, said they’ve put about $500,000 into the business. And he has plenty of plans for the future.
“I guess you could say this is my midlife crisis,” he said. He really had a passion for cooking and pickling. He wanted a place to do more of both, as well as a place that his investment could help a struggling community.
“The first search I did for commercial property available in Pennsylvania, this one popped up,” he said.
It wasn’t much to look at. The 150-year-old building, close to French Creek, had started as a mercantile exchange. Since then, the 7,000-square-foot building has served as the International Order of Odd Fellows’ Lodge 486, a library, a post office and, most recently, Don’s Furniture, which closed in the 1980s.
Salvaged signs for the previous businesses now hang on the walls of the eclectically furnished dining room. Hutches filled with cheery knickknacks line one wall. Mismatched tables and chairs to seat 60 recall several eras in dining decor from 1950s chrome to ’80s Formica. Seven chrome stools with red cushions line a bar that doubles as a counter depending on the time of day. Built-in shelves in the back of the dining room display some pickled items as well as random groceries, such as Campbell’s condensed soups and Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. Penny candies fill baskets on the bottom shelves.
“We found this place and we knew that this wasn’t going to be just a business for us but this was going to be about a community,” Mark Olenick said. “How can we help this town?”
He said he and his wife looked at property all over the state, but kept coming back to this ramshackle building, closed for decades, on a quiet street, 5½ hours from their home. While the town seemed a bit rough around the edges, he got a positive vibe from the area.
“There is very much a feeling of entrepreneurial spirit here,” he said. “It’s not in a downward spiral. This area is moving up. They just need a solid anchor store in town.”
He said since they’ve opened, in October 2016, he’s seen more investment in nearby businesses, such as Double D’s across the street, as well as elsewhere in Crawford County and Erie. He said they buy as many of their supplies locally as possible, such as meats from Niethamer & Owens on Parade Street.
And they like to mix it up with special dinners and events, such as periodic seafood specials and holiday dinners. They had a reading of Charles Dickens’ own stripped-down version of “A Christmas Carol” once. They hold fundraisers for the fire department. A July 4 cookout has grown into a full-blown three-day music festival with 20 to 25 bands committed for this summer.
Mark Olenick said he and his family and friends did a lot of the remodeling themselves, and he and his wife admitted there were days when they wondered what the heck they were thinking.
“There will always be days when everything isn’t sunshine and roses and I get to decide how I’m going to take that,” Mark Olenick said. “But right now we’re in a place I never imagined. We can pay the bills and we can keep moving forward. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Tracey Olenick described a room upstairs they hope to turn into another dining room or party center, and added that her husband is simply a force of nature in the kitchen. “He has a passion for feeding people,” she said.
Still, she said, she and Mark didn’t know how the kids were going to take the news.
“We asked the kids what they thought,” she said. “We weren’t too sure how they were going to respond, but we didn’t run into ‘I don’t want to go.’ They all said ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”
Two of those kids were taking their dinner break in a small room off the main dining room one recent night. Brittany Olenick, now 22, and Mark Olenick Jr., 20, said they were all-in.
“Not many people get the opportunity to do this,” Mark Olenick Jr. said. “Everybody helps.”
He’s developing his father’s love for cooking, while Brittany Olenick takes care of customers in the front of the house. She was all smiles, agreeing everyone was happy with the challenge the family took on.
They aren’t the only ones. Customers were plenty on this Friday night, as Mike O’Connor crooned at the microphone in one corner.
“This is the best thing to happen to Crawford County since I don’t know what,” said Andy Schreckengost, 44, a regular from Venango, who called himself an unemployed federal worker, while he was bidding Mark Olenick Sr. farewell for the evening. Schreckengost said he loves the meatball subs and the special dinner events, adding that he eats at the restaurant two or three times per week.
Craig Pieper, 60, dining with Autumn Pieper, 55, of Edinboro said the food is well worth the 20-minute drive. Craig Pieper said he loves the steak there, as well as a crab po’boy sandwich.
“The food is excellent and the decor is homey and rustic,” Craig Pieper said.
The decor is definitely worth a look. You could visit several times and see something different each time, such as baseball caps hung from hooks above the bar, a small game-table area, a row of antique bottles, hot sauces for sale. What sticks out are two sleek, bright-white modern coolers full of craft beer and other bottled beverages. But no one was complaining about those.
Tom Klapthor, 54, and Karen Klapthor, 53, were there for the first time. “So far, so good,” Tom Klapthor said. “We like to go to different places, so we thought we’d try it out.” They had each ordered the open-faced turkey sandwich that was on special. Neither of them thought they could finish it because the accompanying salad had filled them up.
“It tastes very good,” Karen Klapthor said.
That’s the bottom line for the Olenick family.
That and Mark Olenick’s new-ish motto, which he said he took from a friend who died right as the family was opening the business. “What he said to me, right before he passed, he said ‘Trust your crazy ideas.’”
Venango General Store
What: Family-owned restaurant and shop featuring owners’ pickled items.
Where: 21747 Cussewago St., Venango Borough, Crawford County.
When: Open Wednesday, 4 to 8 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com