Paczki hit the big time this year, as supermarket chains played a major role in spreading the fever that has consumers eating the pre-Lenten treats as never before.
Paczki (pronounced poonch-key), which look like enormous Bismarcks, had their origins in Poland. They were the ultimate last sweet treat Lent observers allowed themselves before Lent began. The custom spread to areas of the United States where people of Polish descent settled -- Detroit, for example.
Recently, the super-rich pastries have gained a fast following outside Polish neighborhoods.
Some large supermarket chains, including Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix and Randalls Food Markets, Houston, began selling paczki last year. This year, Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.; and O'Malia Food Markets, Carmel, Ind., are some more chains that jumped on the bandwagon.
"We want to lead the way. Nobody else in our area is doing this," said Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer services for the 94-unit Price Chopper.
Asked why O'Malia got into the act this year, Ron Williams, director of bakery there, said, "They've done so well in Michigan, and we like to be leaders. We're expecting to sell 2,500 dozen in six stores." He gave paczki a send-off with a full page in O'Malia's full-color ad insert.
Officials at Kroger's corporate offices could not be reached for comment, but a source at the Indianapolis Kroger division office confirmed that all 118 Kroger stores in that area were "given the opportunity [by the corporate office] to offer paczki this year."
Chains that already had a taste of paczki sales cranked up their promotional and merchandising efforts. They touted paczki in their in-store bakery ads, building huge displays of them packed in special red and white paczki boxes, and even put paczki fact sheets on the Internet and on facsimile machines.
"We're going to be offering them only in six-packs this year. We don't want to mix them up with doughnuts in the self-service case or other items in the service case. The boxes will attract attention," said Bill Mihu, director of bakery at Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, speaking before the event.
Thanks to the efforts of Carl Richardson, who founded the National Paczki Promotion Committee, the paczki craze has spread geographically. Richardson, a former bakery executive at Farmer Jack, a Detroit division of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P, heads the committee that has been pulled under the umbrella of the Retailer's Bakery Association, Laurel, Md., and renamed the RBA National Paczki Promotional Board.
Richardson told SN that the paczki promotional board is targeting $300 million in paczki sales within the next decade. He estimated sales across the country would be up 5% to 8% this year, as they were last year. Retailers in Michigan alone last year sold more than $10 million worth of the pastries.
"As more retailers get involved themselves in promoting paczki, sales will increase dramatically," Richardson said.
Peter Houstle, RBA executive vice president, pointed out that promotion efforts create a unifying force in the bakery industry.
"As an association, we're looking at this as a series of local events that have to be generated at the grass roots, and that's great," Houstle said.
One retailer, an expert at getting free publicity, raised his sales of paczki by 50 dozen in less than 10 minutes last year.
"Last year, we got paczki and our bakery was mentioned on the TV evening news. After the newscast on Monday evening [the eve of Fat Tuesday], we received an additional order for 50 dozen," said Jeff Prochnow, owner of Bakery Bank, a full-line bakery and gourmet coffee shop in Bloomington, Ill.
"My wife and I were filling paczki till the wee hours of the morning," Prochnow said. He sold 250 dozen last year and expected to sell 1,000 dozen this year.
Here's more of what retailers told SN they had in the works for paczki sales as Fat Tuesday [Feb. 11] approached.
Bill Mihu director, bakery Schnuck Markets St. Louis
We're starting earlier. We're running an ad [for paczki] that breaks a week ahead, Feb. 3 through 11. We learned from our mistake last year, which was our first. We ran the ad too late, the week Lent began. This year we'll be in a better position with this ad cycle to capture the sales that are out there.
I expect to double sales of them this year, because we did have such good acceptance last year. And I have to believe that billboards [supplied by the National Paczki Promotional Board] raised recognition here last year.
We did well enough with paczki last year to warrant buying paczki boxes this year. Last year, we just packaged them in dome-top packs with a sticker on them.
Joanne Gage VP, consumer services
Price Chopper Supermarkets Schenectady, N.Y.
We're offering paczki in all our stores. This will be the first time for us. We like to lead the way and nobody has done it in the markets we're in.
We'll have four varieties: raspberry, apple, blueberry and Bavarian cream. On Fat Tuesday we'll sample them in all stores, as part of our Super Sample in-store program. We'll have them available from Feb. 1 through Fat Tuesday and then not till next year. We'll be pushing four-packs of them.
Ron Williams director, bakery
O'Malia Food Markets Carmel, Ind.
This is our first year. I'm president of the Midwest Bakery-Deli Association, and through the association we've gotten on radio and TV stations to promote paczki. We're not buying advertising on the stations, but we're promoting them beginning Feb. 3.
We expect to sell 2,500 dozen. We've bought 5,000 of the red and white paczki boxes and we'll offer paczki only in boxes of six for $5. It gives us a bigger ring and our hope is that people will want to try a second flavor. Then they'll buy two boxes or maybe three. We're making it clear this is not just another Bismarck or doughnut. In fact, we're not selling Bismarcks at all that week.
We're making our paczki from the true European recipe from scratch at our central plant. They weigh 6 to 8 ounces.
The boxes look great. I want them out there for self-service. We'll have tables of them in two places -- the bakery and up front, probably by the registers.
assistant director, deli/bakery/food service
Marsh Supermarkets Indianapolis
This is our third year. Sales already increased significantly last year over the year before, but this year we expect a bigger increase because they'll be boxed, eight to a box, displayed on a table in addition to being in the self-service doughnut case.
The boxes enable us to build a secondary display, which will create impulse sales. That also allows us to use point-of-purchase materials to help educate the customer about the product.
This is the first year we've used extra promotional products [supplied by the National Pazcki Promotional Board]. We're using our basic Marsh boxes with a pazcki sticker on them.
I think sales will get better and better as recognition of the product increases and the billboards here in the state will raise awareness this year.
Kelly McBride bakery manager
Dave's Supermarket Fairbury, Ill.
We sold 60 dozen last year and people around here don't even observe Lent. The area's religion is predominantly Apostolic, but everybody got excited about paczki. We used in-store advertising, bag-stuffers, and I had little business cards printed up that I handed out all over the place.