SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Paczki hoopla reached a high pitch this year with supermarkets running innovative contests that helped push sales of the pre-Lenten treats over the top.
A relay race held in-store at two units of Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., spurred television and radio coverage, intrigued customers and helped Big Y sell a quarter-million of the huge, super-rich pastries.
Another chain, Family Fare Supermarkets, Hudsonville, Mich., staged a paczki-eating contest during half-time at a Grand Rapids Hoops basketball game. That helped the retailer score sales this year that are at least 50% over last year's record sales, said Larry Coleman, bakery director for the 12-unit independent.
"We're right on target so far to reach our goal of selling 140,000 this year," said Coleman the week before Lent began.
Steve Bordonaro, bakery sales manager for 44-unit Big Y, described the chain's six-step paczki relay race and how it whipped up excitement.
"We found that the relay contest worked well because it had six steps that created different levels of excitement and got a lot of people cheering the contestants on," Bordonaro said.
Contestants, following the six steps, were required to don a paczki T-shirt and hat, then pack two dozen paczki in six-pack boxes, eat an entire paczki, shoot a paczki through a basketball hoop from 10 feet away, find a golf ball in a bucket of jam and then ring a bell. One winner finished the repertoire in one minute and 19 seconds; the other, in one minute and 32 seconds.
"We had had an eating contest one year, but we thought the relay would be fairer because in the eating contest men had an advantage. This year, one of the relay winners was a woman," Bordonaro said.
The event itself was held the night of Feb. 15 -- the night before Lent began -- but Big Y had been announcing the contest for five weeks in-store and in its advertising. Each Big Y store's bakery provided entry cards. Then, a week before Fat Tuesday [the day before Lent begins] each store sent its cards to the chain's headquarters where 12 cards -- six contestants for each of two relay races -- were drawn. More than 20,000 customers chainwide had filled out cards, Bordonaro said.
A local network television station and a radio disc jockey covered the events live, on-site.
Such events as contests are strongly 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.
Richardson points out that interesting events attract the attention of the consumer media. Their coverage then sparks paczki awareness among consumers, which in turn pays off in bakery sales.
At Family Fare, Coleman said the choice of the site for Family Fare's paczki-eating contest -- center court at a semi-pro basketball game -- served to give the event good exposure.
"There was already a crowd there, and we knew the press would be there covering the game," Coleman said.
Most of the contestants in the eating contest were drawn from the audience of a popular morning radio talk show, Coleman said. For example, one morning prior to the game, every tenth caller was given a dozen paczki and a chance to compete in the contest, Coleman said.
Some of the entrants, too, were chosen from the audience at the game. Eighteen people competed to eat a plateful of paczki in four minutes. The one who ate the most within the time limit won a grand prize of a getaway weekend for two at a first-rate Grand Rapids hotel. Runners-up got cash prizes of $50 and $25.
Substantial prizes to contest winners -- $3,000 total given to customers at Big Y and a Getaway Weekend for Two given to the paczki-eating champ at Family Fare -- marked this year's events.
Grabbing customers' attention with such prizes and cultivating coverage have helped grow paczki sales, the retailers said. But they also credit their long-term commitment to paczki. This is the fifth year Family Fare has carried paczki; the fourth for Big Y.
"Our sales have grown each year. From the first year to the second, we had about a 15% increase," said Family Fare's Coleman.
But last year, sales zoomed 50% over the year before and they again climbed at least that much this year, Coleman said.
He attributes some of that growth to exposure in the media but he gives some credit to other efforts, such as pricing by the half-dozen instead of by the dozen.
The retail price at Family Fare is $2.49 for six or 44 cents each.
At Big Y, sales have grown each year as well "because we've made it that way. It [the five-week-long paczki promotion] has become our biggest special event of the year," Bordonaro said.