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That’s what life’s about, being able to bring joy to other people.



Erica Pietrzyk

Pietrzyk Pierogi | Detroit, Michigan


I used to bartend and I was working in Hamtramck, which used to be a heavily Polish populated city, now it’s much more diverse. I was working there and my friends wanted food while I was working and so I was like, “I guess I can make pierogi.” Initially it was going to be, I do this once. I know I make good pierogi, but I didn’t want to do it every day! I did it one night and everyone liked it, so I did it another night, and then another night, and then pretty soon every Tuesday I had pierogi with me.


I had started dating a guy and we went to New Orleans and he assaulted me. My jaw was broken in half, my head was split open, I had multiple lacerations on my face, the ligaments in my neck were torn, and my shoulder was dislocated. He kept telling me I fell from the bed. And I couldn’t remember anything. I was also in intense physical pain. I just didn’t know any better to say anything because I couldn’t remember anything at the time. I was stuck down there with him for a couple of weeks and I was feeling a little bit better in those two weeks since surgery and I was up and walking around and eating smoothies because my mouth was wired shut and I had a neck brace on. Looking back, he was just so manipulative. Even at the hospital, I tried to get my mom to come down there and he told my mom he would take care of me and he told me my mom couldn’t come down there. At the time I was my grandfather’s caregiver, so I thought something was wrong with grandpa.


So this one specific night he got really aggressive and he started yelling at me and left me on the street and I didn’t know where I was, my phone’s dead at this point, and then he shows back up out of nowhere and starts yelling at me again and grabs my face. So I try a self defense move to get him to disengage where you hit their teeth and it worked, but his hand hit the front of my face and broke my stitches open. And then I hid in a ditch. You know, you’re going through, like, “Why is my life here? Why is this happening, how do I make sure I stay alive through this?” I bartered with the universe that if I got through this, I would not be afraid of going after the things that I wanted in life. And then this guy tried to help me and the guy I was dating came running up and scared this person who was going to let me in his house so I could charge my phone and call 911. He forced me to walk back with him to a neighborhood where his friends lived. So he gets me to this neighborhood… and then runs away. There’s blood dripping down my face and at this point it’s almost 6 a.m., I’m physically exhausted, I wanted to go to bed like 7 hours ago. I started falling asleep and this woman… I feel this kick and it’s this trans woman and she’s like, “You’re alive?” and I was like, “Yeah.” And she’s like, “Baby girl, it’s always darkest just before the light,” and she starts walking away and I can see the glitter falling off of her… it was very happenstance, almost.


When I got home from that, I had to go through the process of slowly separating my life from this person. Going through all that, the only thing that made me feel happy trying to heal was making pierogi. Making the pierogi helped me have purpose and it made me be like, “Ok, no, I’m not as much of a piece of garbage as he tells me I am and treats me as, because I can do this one thing, and this one thing brings joy to other people.” To me, that’s what life’s about, being able to bring joy to other people, and that’s kind of always been my M.O. with the food that we make. We use good ingredients and we use high quality products and we create this food that is as it presents itself and it’s inherently good.


I finally got the neck brace off and had an event planned and my friends helped me because I couldn’t do it all by myself. I start doing more events and I’m like, “I’m going to really do this thing.” I finally had one employee, who was a former coworker of mine from one of the bars that I worked at, and so she and I would make pierogi and we had a few really large events that turned out, and I found a church kitchen and got our LLC started. I was bartending at one bar one night a week or maybe two nights a week and then the rest of the time I was making pierogi and doing events. We had set up regular events at different distilleries and breweries and it kept growing.


It was really interesting because it gave me the confidence to move into where we are now. The rent we’re spending here was about the same as what we were spending at the church kitchen, but here we don’t have limited hours. We have the space and we have the freezers we need to be able to do the packaging and all the things that I want to do to with the company to make it sustainable.

 

We opened September 2019, in time for Christmas, went though Fat Tuesday, and then COVID hit. We couldn’t close because we were essential, so all the events that we had planned were closed and at that point I think I had gotten us into four or five grocery stores. Holiday Market was the first one, Vince and Joe’s, Village Market in Grosse Pointe, and Cantoro’s. Those were the four we had at the time. Very humble beginnings. Four grocery stores is not big bucks, but I was very excited. And I was doing this Tommy Boy-style, too, like getting in the car with the product, driving to the store, “Hey, do you want to buy…?” It really felt like Tommy Boy because I was like, “I gotta save the company!” We didn’t hear from any of our grocery stores the first month of COVID because they all thought we shut down and then they reached out, “Are you still open?” Yes! We got those four stores and I reached out to a few more places because there were so many large manufacturers that were short on product; we were able to help fill the empty shelves for the stores because we were smaller, we could pivot faster.


We didn’t have our store open to the public, everything was going through our website so it was like “Make packages.” And then I got the idea, because I realized there was no food at the stores, I started making meal boxes for two people, four people, or six people. Pierogi, soup, onion, sour cream, butter, everything that you need to be able to cook. Most of the time, it would last people for multiple meals, so you could spend $50 on a box of food that would last you almost a week. It was very lucrative and since all of my bartender friends didn’t have jobs, I was reaching out to them, “Can you be a delivery person?” and we started a delivery service. It was great for a month and then some of the restrictions started lifting and things started changing and we saw everything go down, and then it skyrocketed, and then it went back down…


We had a pay-it-forward program going, which I really enjoyed. We worked with a lot of liquor reps and companies that no longer had places to promote their products. They would send us merch, buy some of our pay-it-forward pierogi, which you could purchase online and then bartenders and people in the service industry whether it was barbacks, bartenders, door guys, sound people, anybody that was working in the service industry or entertainment could come in and just pick up product for free. It helped us stay alive because it gave us the funds to keep operating but it also allowed us to be able to give back to all the different places and people that helped build our company. That’s always been something that we focus on. We do fundraisers for the local dance groups that I danced in when I was younger and other friends of mine who are involved in the different Polish dance groups. We do a lot of fundraisers for the school. Although Pride month ended at the end of June, we still have packages of our rainbow pierogi so we’re trying to scrape together the last of the donation for that because instead of making 12 donations, I’m like, let me just send this all to you at once. But that’s one of our big fundraisers, for the Ruth Ellis Center, we make rainbow pierogi and they’re gorgeous. My staff gets so pumped, too, like, “They’re so pretty!”

 

After COVID, we got into Kroger through a distributor and that was going really well up until this year. Our distributor decided to drop Kroger as a client. And I get it, it’s hard for a small distributor but they also work with a lot of companies and they had us jump through a lot of hoops to be able to take on that volume and with no warning, to take away that amount of sales. In my mind, if you’re going to do that, at least warn people or help them get into another distributor so they aren’t left stranded. It was very disheartening and it came at a really rough time because this year on Fat Tuesday we had a really good year of sales, the paczki* looked the best it ever looked. I make everything by hand, even the paczki. We don’t have deep fryers here, we have vats of lard on the stove so we can fry the paczki. When you go to a bakery, they have machines that do all of this stuff. We come in at 2 a.m. on Fat Tuesday and set everything up… totally handmade. We hand-fill everything, it’s pretty much the same as sitting in your babcia’s kitchen and her making them for you on Fat Tuesday.


We got done with a really successful day and we planned to go out to Hamtramck to celebrate that we had such a smooth Fat Tuesday. I’m not one to say that things go smooth, because every time I say the world is rosy and pretty somehow life has a way of reminding me that if you don’t have that struggle, you don’t have that other side where it looks pretty. We were bar hopping and not staying anywhere longer than a drink and I was driving everybody so I wasn’t really drinking at all. We left a friend of mine’s bar who had just had his grand opening and this girl was standing outside who we had never seen before and when one of my girlfriends walked out of the bar, she started blindside cold clocking her. Our friends stepped in to grab her out of it, and I climbed on top of the girl and put her in a strength hold, she bit through my finger. Finally, I get her turned over un a position where I can keep her in the ground until she decides she’s going to stop being a sociopath, and some guy that’s friends with her saw me on top of her and grabbed me by both my arms and ripped me back. I felt this crunch in my back but I didn’t really think about it.


Less than a month later, I was starting to have some back problems and I had to have an emergency spinal fusion because I was paralyzed in both of my legs. So that happened and then my distributor drops Kroger. But we’re still here! We just keep scraping along. We’re working on getting with some new distributors, but I’m just trying to heal. As a single female business owner, when you’re down, everybody will step up and try to do things, but they’re not captain of the ship. They’re not making the connections, it’s still all on me. Which is fine, at some point I’ll have more people. But it was rough.


I feel like perseverance and the humbling-ness of never giving up is really what makes this company what it is, not just for me but for all my staff members. We’ve all dealt with difficulties and it’s really easy to get down when you’re going through that and just give up. Everyone here works really well at being open and honest about what they’re dealing with but also being responsible enough to say, “Hey, I need help with this so we can keep growing together.” And that’s probably been the most inspiring experience I’ve had being in the business. As a small business, we can’t do everything for everybody, but any resources we have available, I’m open and there for them.

 

Pierogi are Polish dumplings that are made with flour and then you can add a variety of ingredients to it to make it pliable dough. Some people use eggs, some people use water, some people use oils, some people use different dairy creams. You have this very soft dough, it’s much softer than a ravioli dough, and it’s shaped more like an Asian dumpling. It’s like a cross between an Asian dumpling and a ravioli in shape but it’s flat and circular. And then you put a variety of different fillings in it, traditionally potato, cheeses, meats. We have everything from meat fillings and feta fillings, we have jalapeño popper and spinach artichoke, we have a pizza filling… we’ve gone way out of our solar system of Polish fillings. But it keeps it unique and it keeps it fun. If you’re getting them fresh-pinched you can eat them boiled – I suggest with a little bit of sea salt on them. Or you can pan fry them in butter and onions. You can deep fry them. You can also put them in an air fryer. I know some people who bake them. We tested grilling them before, which actually works out really good. This past summer I actually took them camping and was cooking them on my smores stick over a campfire. So there’s a million ways to cook them. But they’re a great little dumpling, they’re easy and portable.


Our menu is pierogi-heavy. If you were talking about our menu as a cocktail, it’s pierogi-forward. We have breakfast items, we have pierogi tacos, kielbasa dogs, we have a placki** burger here, which is a quarter pound beef patty on potato pancakes with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, ketchup, and mayo and pickles. We don’t have a deep fryer, so when we’re doing an event that has a deep fryer in the kitchen that we’re going to, we take Polish corn dogs with us. They are our fresh Polish kielbasa in a sweet dill and cornmeal mixture and we deep fry them. We’ll have mizeria, which is a cold cucumber salad. Other items we’ll have on those types of menus are zapiekanka, which is a Polish street food pizza, it’s an open face pizza with mushrooms, onions, cheese, green onions, and ketchup on it. We’ve done Polish corn, Polish barbeque, pulled pork Polish sandwiches that use sauerkraut instead of coleslaw. I went to school for fine arts, so this is my way of living life by design – I get to play with textures and color and scents and how people perceive what it is that we’re used to. Which doesn’t sit well with some of the older people in the Polish community, but that’s ok. We have all the traditional stuff, too.

 

My regular day, before I had surgery, on Monday mornings I would go to one of our suppliers, pick up all of our stuff, come here, unload it, go to another supplier, come back, unload it. Work on my laptop, get deliveries in order, get social media stuff going for the week. We had admin help that helped me design graphics and stuff but they’re not here anymore, so I’ve re-taken over parts of my job. And now, life is a lot different because I can’t lift anything over five pounds. I just got my back brace off last week, so feeling a little bit more free but still very disabled. Now I have an employee who has to meet me at the supplier and lift stuff. I can’t put it on the cart, I can’t push the weight of the cart, I can’t put the stuff from the cart into the truck. It’s really changed the dynamic of how my day functions.


Typically I’m here in the morning, it used to be between 7:00 and 8:00, now it’s between 8:30 and 9:30 depending on how quickly I can physically get my body moving in the morning. We’ll move stuff to the supply freezer, sort pierogi for orders, I respond to e-mails, and some days I leave here by 2:00 some days I leave by 6:00. Tomorrow, I’ll be here all day and then someone will load everything into my truck for me and I’ll go to an event and my staff at the event will set everything up and I have to just hang out. Most of the time, I work at our nighttime events with our staff, but I just can’t right now. When you feel like you lose everything, it makes it really hard, but as before this company is encouraging me to heal again.


We do catering for people, not as often as I’d like for us to do. The events are offsite at different breweries and restaurants. We’ve gone as far as Ann Arbor. We go to the Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival every year, which is crazy huge. This year it’s not happening, which I’m sad about. A few weekends ago, we did the Pig and Whiskey Festival in Ferndale. We’re not a barbecue company, but we had items to go with barbecue, we had barbecue themed items, and we brought a lot of our vegan items so that people who were at the festival and don’t want to get the meat sweats can enjoy the festival and the music with their friends who are getting the meat sweats! Everything is much more complex for me to set up because it takes a whole team now.


I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to lift cases like I used to – for larger clients that are getting pallets of things, that’s 54 cases and each case weighs 22 pounds. Our potatoes, we go through 800 pounds of potatoes a week, at least. Pick it up from the supplier, 50 pounds going on the truck, 50 pounds coming off the truck, 50 pounds after being inventoried into the fridge. Flour, we go through 1,000 pounds of flour a week. We’re lifting those things repetitively. I’m re-learning how to own my business again. My last appointment with my surgeon, he said, “You’re probably never going to lift 50 pounds again.”

 

Before I started selling pierogi at the bar, because it was in Hamtramck, when I started working there none of the other bartenders wanted to work Fat Tuesday. They’re like, “It brings in all these suburbanites. This is a punk rock dive bar. We don’t want those jabronis coming into this bar.” I was like, “We’re going to be here anyway, they leave by like 8:00 p.m. because they’ve been out drinking since 8:00 a.m. so they’re out of town by the time the night people get here. I want to open up the bar earlier in the day so I can make money and I’ll bring paczki.” I made paczki, which I’ve been doing forever; a friend’s mother taught us how to make them. I made some and sold them. That was one year, and then the next year my friend’s like, “I want to buy some from you,” so I ended up making six or eight dozen, which is a little stressful, but doable. The next year, I made like 30 dozen. That was crazy. And the year after that, I made like 60 dozen. I just remember calling my friend and having a mental breakdown. I’m living at my grandpa’s, he goes to Florida every winter so he’s in Florida and he doesn’t know that I’m doing this in his house because he would have lost his shit. My friend comes over and I’ve got tables set up in the kitchen and living room and I’m like, “I need help!” He’s like, “What happened?” I’m like “I don’t know, somehow I set a grease fire.” I had started a grease fire on an electric stove that doesn’t even have an open flame and I put it out so there was flour everywhere. He’s a professional chef and went to pastry school so he immediately grabbed some of the bags and started hand-filling all of the paczki for me. I told him, “Every box has initials for what flavor and how many go in there, so just grab and start going.” Somehow, I made it through. I started selling pierogi somewhere in the middle of that; we had some for Fat Tuesday, I think one year we had nine or ten full pans, which is a lot. I had freezers so I could freeze them and didn’t have to make them every day. Initially, I was waking up at 6 a.m. to have them made by 6 p.m. when my shift started and then working until 2 a.m. Very long day.


I like using natural preserves, and we make all of our fillings. I had traditional flavors, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, vanilla custard, I had extra custard and extra raspberry preserves, so I was like “This sounds like a perfect marriage.” Then I started making insane flavors; I did an apricot pistachio flavored custard one year which we don’t make any more because we’re a nut-free facility and we don’t allow nuts in the building at all. We have horseradish orange marmalade, we have a strawberry jalapeño filling. What else did we do this year… blueberry strawberry, raspberry, I think we just did custard… we tried to scale back a little bit so we could execute it a little better and that part went really well this year.

 

I was trying to think of ways to expand my empire and I decided I wanted to start teaching pierogi-making classes. My first class had three students in it. Not enough students to make it successful. But they told me it was really good, I asked them what their experience was. We’re still friends, they purchase products and are long-time supporters of the company. I started teaching classes more and more often during the winter months when I couldn’t do as many outside events. I was taking samples to a grocery store and my car broke down an hour and twenty minutes away, which wasn’t too bad because our friends have a mechanic shop. When they looked at my car, they were like, “You need like $2,200 worth of suspension work.” I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, so I was like, “How do I make money?” I started booking classes left and right and the classes were selling out within minutes. It was wild. As I’m sitting there, I’m like, “Ok, I need like four more classes booked up and then I can pay for this car!”


The experience is fun, the class is in-depth. I teach everything from dough-making to filling-making and then how to oil and freeze them. When you leave, you really have the full thing. It’s not like you come in and it’s half set-up, like, we’re going to toss this pre-chopped ingredient into the pan and tell you to sauté it. It’s not a beginner’s class. We do a beginner’s class for children where they come in and we have the filling made and they’re just putting the filling in the dough and then pinching it closed. We go through different pinching techniques, different ways that you can cut the dough to make them. We go through what happens if your dough is too wet, what happens if your dough is too dry, what do you do if it’s sticking to everything. We go through all of those little things so that way when you leave you can do it at home. Around Christmastime, we’ll have families that will buy tickets for the whole class so instead of doing their at-home pierogi-making, they just come to my class and everybody leaves with two dozen. They come here, they make a mess of my kitchen, we have fun, they get to go home, they don’t have to worry about the mess. I designed this place to be really easy to clean. I think I’ve taught over 350 people so far. I love it.


I’ll do kielbasa-making sometimes, too, which is fun because my dad comes in for that because kielbasa-making is a two-person situation. Hopefully one day, maybe in January, we’ll do a paczki-making class, but it’ll have to be a two-day class because the dough takes time to rise, so students will have to come one night, like a Friday night, make the paczki dough and we’ll put it in all the fridges, and they’ll come back Saturday morning to do the rest of it.

 

We’re working on getting in with a new distributor so that we can get back into Kroger. But this new distributor is going to help us get outside of the state of Michigan. Their area is 28 states, which I’m very pumped about because I’ve been trying to do that for a while.


In the next two years, we will have a larger manufacturing facility that’s going to be 3,000 square feet that’s going to be built to suit. We handmake everything now and we’ll still be handmaking everything but we’ll have larger equipment to help move some of the areas of production through more smoothly. I planned this for certain machines that I want to have set up. It will be cool because this will be the classroom, we’ll open up the store with seating again so it’ll be more like a restaurant slash miniature Polish grocery store. We’ll be able to maybe turn the space in the back where we currently have production into a catering kitchen and start pushing catering more, or we’ll just turn this into vegan production, because we have a vegan line of products, too.


It’s my goal to have a third facility so we can do gluten-free because I get e-mails about that all the time, but you have to have a separate everything, because flour gets everywhere. When I was still small beans, just making them once a week, I had friends who knew I was making pierogi and they’d be like, “Hey, can you make a gluten-free one?” I used to be vegan and I used to make a lot of vegan stuff so I know a lot about how to replace dairy things, and gluten was just another one of those obstacles. But not everybody who’s gluten-free is also vegan, so there’s gluten-free community that wants gluten-free but they still want dairy, meat, and all the other things. So we have two styles of gluten-free pierogis. But that will definitely be more machine-made because hand rolling gluten-free dough is very difficult. You have to put the dough between layers of wax paper… but the machine will just form it perfectly, put the filling in it.


I don’t know how much more praise I can give to my employees; I run the show, but they’re the heart and soul. One of my other highlight moments is we’re a LGTBQ-inclusive and diverse company, which is something that we heavily focus on here, including with our fundraisers, and one of my employees was like, “I’ve never worked anywhere where I feel like I actually feel like I get to be myself.” That’s what I want, because I’ve worked so many places where being yourself… if you don’t fit into the form, it’s not acceptable. They told me that and I started crying.


As a small business owner, I worked a lot of jobs before I opened up this company. Not because I would job hop; I graduated during the recession. I learned so much while I was in those positions because I could see how different people lived, how different people function, how different fields function. Sometimes I felt like I was on a Take Your Child to Work Day adventure. I think all those experiences shaped me to get me to this point. When you’re in your 20s, even when you think you know what’s going on, you don’t. And then you get to be in your 30s and 40s and at least now you know you don’t know what’s going on and you have to enjoy the insanity. I can’t do everything and I don’t want to do everything. But I at least know what I don’t know, and the things I need help on, I’m not afraid to ask.


* Paczki = traditional Polish doughnut, filled with jam or another sweet filling ** Placki = potato pancake


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