First published in The Record, Feb. 8, 2018
Polish bakery, left behind, struggles to catch up
Andrew Kaczmarek looked up from his yellow bucket of sugar and realized everything was falling apart.
It was 6:45 a.m. In 15 minutes the man from the Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union would arrive to purchase 700 paczkis, the little puffy doughnuts at the heart of the Polish Fat Thursday tradition.
Already, Kaczmarek’s delivery of 100 paczkis to the Krakus Foods grocery store in Garfield was half an hour late. Another bodega, Adams Food Market in Wallington, was expecting another 1,700. Meanwhile nine customers stood in the storefront of Kaczmarek’s Polonia Bakery in Passaic, waiting to buy hundreds more.
In his entire establishment, from the freezer in back to the propped-open front door, Kaczmarek had four paczkis left to sell.
The baker smiled.
“We’re out of paczkis,” he said, “because nobody buys just one.”
A company running out of product usually means its business is healthy. At Polonia Bakery, however, Thursday’s sudden dearth of paczkis signaled deeper problems for Kaczmarek, who hasn't been able to keep up with demographic shifts in Passaic and North Jersey. His father opened the bakery in 1956 on Monroe Street in the heart of the city's Polish neighborhood, where people walked in all day long to stock up on pastries and bread.
The Polish American Club still occupies a red brick building a few blocks away. But most Poles left Passaic years ago for Wallington, Clifton and farther-flung suburbs, and new people, mostly from Latin America, moved in.
Instead of other Polish bakeries and travel agencies, the stores closest to Polonia Bakery now include the Magic Mexico Income Tax Service and La Virgen Botanica, a beauty shop. With few Poles left living nearby, Kaczmarek often sells only a few dozen paczkis a day. (To pronounce paczki correctly, try jamming together the words “punch” and “key.”)
“Let’s face it, some people won’t come to Passaic,” said Kaczmarek, 61, who started working in the bakery at age 11. “A lot of them think they’ll get shot if they come over the bridge.”
As daily traffic waned, holiday business boomed. And for Polish bakeries, few holidays are bigger than Fat Thursday — the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the fasts of Lent — when the consumption of paczkis is believed to bring good luck.
During a normal week, Kaczmarek sells 3,500 paczkis, he said. This week, he plans to sell 36,000. Other big holidays bring similar surges in demand.]
“We have no walk-in business anymore. Everybody drives,” he said. “Without Christmas, Fat Thursday and Easter, I’d be out of business.”
If he were a younger man, he’d follow his customers to the suburbs. If he sold more than a handful of paczis on a regular day, he’d invest in bigger equipment.
Instead, Kaczmarek makes do. This holiday week he will cook his 36,000 paczkis in the same deep fryer he uses the rest of the year. It can handle batches of 36 at a time.
“This place is starting to look like a war zone,” he said at 8:20 a.m. Thursday. “We’re jammed all to hell in here, but I can’t do anything about it.”
Unlike the doughnuts they resemble, paczkis are delicate.
For Kaczmarek, this makes holidays even more complicated.
A properly made paczki starts as a yellow ball of heavy cream, pasteurized egg yolks, yeast, salt, flour and a splash of rum. Each one has something sweet inside. Kaczmarek offers four types of filling: raspberry jelly, Bavarian cream, rose hips or thick prune-and-apple lekvar jam.
The balls are flung onto a tray in neat rows and dunked in oil heated to 375 degrees. After 20 seconds, Andy Wychowaniec, a Polonia employee of 21 years, spins them with fat wooden tongs. The result is a sphere with two dark brown halves split down the middle by a light yellow stripe that resembles a hamburger mated to a pretzel.
The stripe is a mark of quality, supposedly to guarantee that each paczki is fried in fresh oil, according to articles on paczkis by the Polish-American Journal.
After each paczki cools, it is sprinkled with powdered sugar or slathered in glaze, leaving a smooth rounded exterior, and inside a tiny pocket of air between the fruit and dough.
This hoped-for shape is easy to screw up.
“They’re very sensitive,” Kaczmarek said. “So I’ve got to dry them, but I have to be very careful.”
Normally his paczkis dry and cool at room temperature. On Fat Thursday, he can’t spare the space or the time for this slow process. Instead, Kaczmarek placed racks of paczkis in front of an orange Maxx Air Pro industrial fan, then loaded the racks into hot proofers and his enormous rotisserie oven to get them out of the way.
Any second, all that excess heat might have burned dozens of precious paczkis. The fan did cause one tray of paczkis to wrinkle and collapse.
These he would sell for 55 cents, half their normal price of $1.10 each.
“They taste the same, but people don’t like buying them if they don’t look right,” said Kaczmarek, who left work at 8 p.m. Wednesday and returned Thursday at 1 a.m. “I’m doing every shortcut I can think of. It’s not a good idea. But we need to speed this up.”
A sleepy business wakes up
Kaczmarek was so focused on the war zone in his kitchen, he delegated all interactions with customers to his employees.
“I have no idea what’s happening up there in the store,” Kaczmarek said .
Here’s what was happening. The bakery was scheduled to open at 5:30 a.m. But at 5:20, Janusz Szlechta grabbed the handle on the metal gate barring the front door. He gave it a hard yank, rolled the gate out of the way, then pushed the door and walked inside.
Polonia Bakery was open for business.
“They have the best paczkis in New Jersey,” said Szlechta, a Wallington resident who planned to buy 25 for his co-workers at a retirement home in the Bronx. “I knew I had to get here early.”
Within minutes, eight people had lined up just inside the store. They bought one or two dozen pastries each.
As they waited, the retail customers dodged wholesale clients buying truckloads at a time. Charles Perez loaded dozens of white boxes into a silver van bound for Pulaski Meats LLC in Trenton.
“How many? I don’t know,” he said. “A lot.”