ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio -- Paczki season at Riesbeck's is short but sweet -- and lucrative -- officials said, as they geared up for their annual, in-store Paczki Ball this coming Saturday, four days before Lent begins.
A local polka band is set to play for three hours at the independent's flagship store here and customers are invited to dance. There will be sampling, too, of five different varieties of paczki [pronounced poonch-key], the pre-Lenten treats that look like giant Bismarcks and create a flurry of wintertime excitement.
While some retailers spread out their paczki-time celebrations by beginning to offer the pastries as much as a month and a half ahead of Lent, and some have begun to carry them all year long, Riesbeck's believes that compressing the celebration into a few days delivers the biggest impact.
"We want people to be hungry for paczki when it gets to be this time of year," said John Chickery, bakery deli director, for 10-unit Riesbeck Food Markets.
He explained that if paczki were offered year round the immense pastries would become commonplace -- and lose their appeal. But by introducing them in the dark of mid-winter with fanfare, Riesbeck's creates excitement -- and additional sales -- in its in-store bakeries, he said.
And the strategy works. Riesbeck's paczki sales have zoomed up each year since it introduced them in 1998 and Chickery estimates that total bakery sales go up 25% on average in the week prior to Lent.
"There's pizazz around it. People are ready for it. Think of a street fair and the air of excitement that has. That excitement would go away if the fair stayed all year."
To get the paczki season underway and whet consumers' appetites, Riesbeck's began a blitz of radio ads, print ads and in-store signs and banners that was unleashed on Feb. 15. Played during prime drive time, the radio ads begin with Riesbeck's familiar jingle and fade into lively Polish music. Then this announcement: "Riesbeck's will begin frying paczki on Feb. 21."
The ads make it clear that the pastries will be available in five flavors from Feb. 21 through Fat Tuesday, Feb. 27, the day before Lent begins.
New this year are big, 10-foot by 3-foot, white and red, vinyl banners outside the stores, that say, "Coming Soon Paczki." Once Feb. 21 is here, the "Coming Soon" portion of the banner will be peeled off.
A mobile, full-sized billboard parked in the parking lot of the store here also heralds the imminent arrival of paczki.
Then on Fat Tuesday, coordinated with the grand re-opening of a remodeled store in Elm Grove, W.Va., an accordion player will serenade customers there with Polish music all afternoon as associates offer customers tastes of paczki and point them in the direction of a towering display of paczki in white boxes with the word "paczki" in red.
"Those boxes have such a simple, clean line. The word 'paczki' jumps right out at you," Chickery said.
Paczki week at Riesbeck's will also include a live, remote radio broadcast and a visit by the local professional hockey team, the Wheeling [W.Va.] Nailers. With all the additional to-do this year, Chickery said he expects paczki sales to hit about $45,000.
Even though he doesn't believe in extending the promotion beyond that one week, he did, two years ago, begin offering the popular treats also on Fridays during Lent. Sales went soaring. With just seven Fridays in Lent that made seven additional days the stores were frying paczki, double the number of days the year before. Sales, however, more than quadrupled, Chickery said.
"We went from selling $4,000 worth of them [in 1998] to $30,000 the second. Even though we sold them for seven more days, it still made it special that we only offered them on those Fridays."
Chickery said he expected to get some flak from Lenten observers who would chide him for tempting them during Lent, but that didn't happen.
"Customers were just happy we had them. They wanted to know when we'd do it again. We chose Fridays because that's one of our best sales days and it worked. It worked so well we did it again last year and sales came up to almost $40,000. We'll certainly do it this year."
Riesbeck's focuses on selling 8-count boxes, at $2.99. They also sell individual paczki for 50 cents. The most popular varieties at Riesbeck's are Bavarian cream and lemon, Chickery said.
And, come strawberry season in May, he'll have a week-long strawberry paczki festival. It was a success last year because the timing is just right, he said.
"You don't want to do it too soon after Easter because people feel they've overindulged at that holiday [and aren't apt to buy sweets for a while]."
The super-rich paczki had their origins in Poland where they've typically been eaten as the last ultimate sweet treat before the strictures of Lent are imposed.
Here in the U.S., not surprisingly, the pastries made their appearance in areas where a goodly proportion of the population traces its heritage to Poland. But Carl Richardson, former bakery executive at Farmer Jack, a division of A&P, changed all that when he launched the National Paczki Promotion Committee in 1995 and began to introduce retailers all over the country to paczki's potential as a mid-winter sales booster.
Richardson's original paczki promotion committee has since been brought under the umbrella of the Retailer's Bakery Association, Laurel, Md., and renamed the RBA National Paczki Promotional Board.
It was RBA's and Richardson's 32-page paczki magazine that attracted Chickery's attention three years ago, he said.
"There are a lot of ideas in it, and it sounded like a good idea to promote paczki," Chickery said, adding that he figured Riesbeck's customers could get into the excitement of them.
"And it made me remember my mother making paczki. At home, we'd eat them hot, either plain or split them open and put pancake syrup on them. Or ham. They make a terrific hot ham sandwich," said Chickery who traces his family heritage back to Poland.