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Newsmaker of 2011

Rowena Fullinwider, Newsmaker 2011: She Took Lemons and Made Lemon Curd a Signature Item

From Early Cancer Researcher to Businessperson Extraordinaire:  Life Comes Full Circle as She Battles Cancer Personally

                                                                                                            --Martha Steger

We all know how difficult the past three years have been for small businesses -- but for women-owned businesses over the past three decades it was even harder to gain a high level of success.  Rowena Fullinwider – who in January 2011 sold her highly successful “Rowena’s” wholesale, retail, tea-room and catalog business based in Norfolk for 28 years – was ahead of the national and international curve in the specialty gourmet-foods market.

Press Women will appreciate that Rowena Fullinwider has written two children’s story-adventure cookbooks; and in 2003 she added Celebrate Virginia! -- 400 years of Virginia history and 300 recipes -- to her list of books authored. As a backdrop to all of her success, she continues to beat the odds – through a variety of chemo cocktails -- against her stage-three-plus uterine cancer diagnosis of eight years ago.  She has helped raise funds nationally to fight the disease for which she herself is on the frontline.

“I’ve never been afraid of the disease,” she says in referring to the cancer that began spreading to different parts of her body several years ago. “Fortunately, my doctor and I have kept it down to a dull roar through diet and experimental drugs.”

In the Media…

In tribute to her great business success and contributions to life in Virginia and specifically in Hampton Roads, two organizations have already honored her in 2011: FLAVA (Food and Libation Association of Virginia), with an evening banquet in her honor; and Small Business Insight (SBI) of Hampton Roads, which presented her with its 2011 Minerva Lifetime Achievement Award.   

“She’s gained a reputation as a formidable force,” says Joan Place, the “Rowena’s” shop general manager, who continues with the business under its new ownership following her 16 years’ work with Fullinwider. “She has testified before Congress and lobbied tirelessly on behalf of small businesses.”

The list of awards and recognitions given to her as a business owner, a small-business activist and an industry leader has grown longer with each passing year.  A few from the impressive list include the following: In 2009, “Rowena’s” was included in Retail Superstars:  Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America, by George Whalin.   Also in 2009, Fullinwider received the Dorothy Barber Award, the highest adult award given by the Girl Scout Council of Colonial Coast to women who have achieved success in their professional lives, supported Girl Scouting and worked to improve the lives of girls and women in the community.     

In 2008, she was selected as Retailer of the Year for Hampton Roads “on the strength of her operations, the growth of her business and the impact she has had on retailing,” the award stated. In 2006 she received the YWCA Women of Distinction Award in Norfolk; and “Rowena’s” was featured in Delta Sky Magazine as one of the Norfolk places travelers need to experience. In the Winter 2005 issue of Quality Assurance & Food Safety Magazine, Rowena was recognized as an advocate for her industry. In September 2005, World Food Moscow recognized “Rowena’s” as the first U.S. small, gourmet business to present at the Moscow World Food Fair.  

The previous year she had received the U. S. Small Business Administration’s Women’s Business Advocate and Special Achievement Award. The magazine Inside Business awarded her the Women in Business Achievement Award in 2003 -- and going back as far as 1997, Gov. George Allen declared February 20th “Rowena Fullinwider Day” in Virginia.

From Backyard Fruit Trees, Her Business Flourished

 “Rowena’s” has also been featured over the years in national publications such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Taste of Home and Southern Living.  She has appeared on Food Finds on the Food Network, QVC, The 700 Club and the Today Show.

Fullinwider opened her manufacturing facility for “Rowena’s” in May 1983 in Norfolk and grew her specialty gourmet foods business to include 18 employees, a retail store, mail-order catalog and Web site, business call-center, tearoom, two spacious kitchens and two warehouses. But her career in gourmet-food specialties was launched several years before as a Navy-wife fundraiser, who quickly became the “go-to” person for several Hampton Roads organizations that wanted to raise funds.

When she hit upon her recipe for what is now her signature almond cake, she knew she was onto something. Ever frugal, she also wanted to make creative and economical use of fruit from the three fruit trees in her backyard, so she started making jams.  “Those fruits were the hardest to convert to jam,” Rowena says, “fig, crabapple and tiny plums.”  But presently another unlikely jam – her carrot jam – is a bestseller in the business and catalog that still carry her name, just as the almond cake with her lemon curd sauce is also a top seller.

As models of customer service, two of Rowena’s employees in 2010 were honored as outstanding frontline tourism ambassadors by the Norfolk Convention & Visitors Bureau. When the recent recession hit, her employees – whom she describes as primary earners in their households, volunteered to take Monday as a weekly furlough day rather than see any of them laid off.  

Fighting for Her Life

If this vignette seems like a portrait of a conquering hero, add the fact that Rowena Fullinwider has managed her cancer fight at the same time as very rough economic times for business.  In conversation, she apologizes for not being able to help raise funds for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance over the past four years because of the need to conserve her energy – but five years ago when she joined with 35 of Washington, D.C.’s top female chefs in the Ovarian Cancer Gala at the Ritz-Carlton, they raised more than $350,000 in one evening.  Guests loved Rowena’s meatballs with – what else? – her signature carrot jam as hors d’oeuvres.

For insight into the sources for such personal fortitude, consider that Rowena Fullinwider was born in Hawaii in 1939 to a U. S. Navy family; she received her Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from the University of Delaware. She began research on pediatric leukemia in 1960 at the National Institutes of Health and worked in the laboratory at King’s Daughters Hospital in Norfolk for 13 years. This woman who worked in leukemia research after college has turned out to be managing her disease the way she would a laboratory project.

She and her husband, Peter – who spent 30 years with submarines -- have had what she calls “a blended family of six children between us” for the past 25 years.  They have 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. In addition, she proudly proclaims family naval service going back 120 years on both sides of the family.

“We fly the flag wherever we can, “ she says.  “We’re very proud of our country and our troops.  We worked to ship a pallet of cakes to Afghanistan and to Iraq -- very difficult, almost impossible.”   “Rowena’s,” which mails and ships its products all over the world, gave a 15 percent discount under Fullinwider’s ownership to all military families with an APO or FPO shipping address. 

Rowena’s business contributions weren’t limited to military causes.  She and Peter have supported many local, statewide and national academic, medical and religious organizations through the years. “We’ve always felt strongly about giving back to the community,” she says.

Take Two:  Teas and Tours

Like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory, “Rowena’s” factory – which looked like a small cottage under her ownership – featured an exterior decorated with drawings from her children’s-story cookbooks. To the right of the factory is the receiving warehouse she set up years ago, and to the left is the shipping warehouse.  Besides all of the culinary items inside the shop, the whimsically decorated venue was usually filled with groups of all ages enjoying tea and customers ordering cakes, collecting baked goods or just stopping by to say hello. Tour buses with 35-55 people aboard from Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey took tours or tea – or both – on Fridays and Saturdays of each week and other times by special arrangement.

Renowned chef, cookbook author and Food Network host Paula Deen and her husband, Michael, once visited “Rowena’s” to sample the delicacies in the shop and then enjoyed a full afternoon tea in the tearoom.  Rowena developed a professional relationship with Paula Deen and said on her Web site how delighted she was to receive so many accolades and be in the presence of someone who “certainly knows and appreciates good food!”
This fall Virginia Press Women will be honored by the presence of Rowena Fullinwider  as it presents her its 2011 Newsmaker of the Year Award.