SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Big Y Foods here is going for the gold with hoopla designed to score bigger-than-ever paczki sales this year.
The chain, which held a paczki marathon last year, has taken the competitive event to Olympic heights now. On Monday before Lent, customers at two of the 45-unit chain's stores vied for a medal and a grand prize of $1,500 to the tune of Olympic music as they demonstrated their skill at handling the huge, pre-Lenten pastries. It's Big Y's Paczki Olympics 2000.
Paczki (pronounced poonch-key) look like over-sized, over-stuffed Bismarcks. They had their origins in Poland where they were the last sweet treat people allowed themselves before Lent began. People still do eat them in big numbers, but at Big Y's Olympic event, paczki doubled as basketballs and hockey pucks. Contestants raced the clock to score points with them.
"Since it's an Olympic year, we decided to tie into that with the paczki competition this year," said Steve Bordonaro, bakery sales manager for the chain.
He added that the increasing media attention that's whipped up by events like the paczki competition will help put sales over the top.
"Last year, we sold a quarter million paczki and we expect to do better than that this year. Maybe 275,000."
The chain offers the super-rich doughnut-like indulgences for five weeks preceding Lent.
Events like the Paczki Olympics are heartily encouraged by Carl Richardson, who founded the original National Paczki Promotion Committee. The committee has since been brought under the umbrella of the Retailer's Bakery Association, Laurel, Md., and renamed the RBA National Paczki Promotional Board. Richardson heads it.
Such events as Big Y's Paczki Olympics 2000 attract the local consumer media as well as the chain's customers and that whets interest among the general public, Richardson points out. The payoff: more store traffic, more sales.
Big Y started getting its customers revved up for its big event at the end of January. The first ad announcing "They're Here! The original Big Y Paczki" ran Jan. 31 and included a teaser about the Paczki Olympics. It said, "Enter for a chance to participate and you could win $1500. Deadline to enter Feb. 20, 2000. See store for details."
Here's how it works: Customers fill out entry forms in any Big Y store and drop them in a box in the bakery department. Then, there is a drawing for a chance to compete in the Paczki Olympics which were scheduled to be held the evening of March 6, the night before Fat Tuesday or Paczki Day.
Two stores, in two different geographic areas, are the Olympic sites. Remote radio broadcasts help stir up excitement as six contestants at each store compete against each other. In addition to paczki basketball and paczki hockey, there is "Olympic boxing."
"In that event, contestants race against each other to pack paczki into boxes. It's timed," Bordonaro explained.
Then there is Olympic golf, in which contestants must retrieve a golf ball from a 5-gallon bucket of paczki filling. The prize to the winner at each store is $1500. Colorful T-shirts sporting the Paczki Olympics 2000 logo, a box of assorted paczki, and stuffed paczki figures are the consolation prizes for the other participants.
The winners mount a podium, just like at the Olympics, to receive their Paczki Olympics 2000 medal.
The ad launching this year's paczki season at Big Y occupied a full two-thirds of a page in the chain's circular. An illustration at the top of the pages shows animated paczki standing on top of a globe, holding a banner that says, "They're Here!"
Underneath the headline, a blurb describes paczki and their origin. At Big Y, the paczki retail for 79 cents each or $3.99 for a half dozen. The ad also says the paczki are made from scratch and it lists some of the flavors available. They include raspberry, lemon, Bavarian cream, and apple.
"Raspberry is the best seller. That's our best-selling doughnut flavor, too," Bordonaro said.
Since it began promoting paczki five years ago, sales of the treats have grown steadily, Bordonaro said.
"Each year, we've done more to promote them. We have Polish flags hanging in our bakeries. Last year, some of our bakery people even got dressed up like paczkis. And we have two billboards up this year," Bordonaro said.