Paczki awareness reached new heights this year, thanks to creative efforts such as in-store contests, billboards, cross merchandising and at least one paczki-eating competition.
Paczki (pronounced poonch-key) had their origins in Poland, where Catholic observers of the Lenten period of sacrifice preceding Easter would traditionally fill up on the pastries before the period began. In this country, paczki first made their mark in parts of the Midwest, where people of Polish descent had settled, and their popularity has been spreading for years.
This year, paczki fever began rising during the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, Feb. 24. In certain markets, paczki publicity multiplied as in-store bakeries at supermarkets generated more and bigger ads, as did other retail segments of the baking industry. Retailers also created new tie-ins to community events that centered around Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, ran a paczki-merchandising contest for the first time this year, giving its bakery managers a chance to win a two-day, all-expenses-paid trip to New Orleans, said Kevin McFadden, bakery category manager for the 87-unit chain.
To find a winner, Schnuck evaluated each of 85 in-store bakeries on its creative merchandising efforts and on the percentage of bakery volume made up of paczki sales for a nine-day period preceding Lent.
The chain also linked up for the first time with a local Mardi Gras celebration and sampled paczki and king cakes at weekend events prior to Lent.
"We have the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in the country," said McFadden. "It's in an historic part of the city. I contacted the chairperson of the celebration and got permission to sample paczki and king cake. We have our own in-house sampling coordinator, and we had her there."
To support the promotion, the chain's advertising department developed a colorful 12-foot by 3-foot banner for unfurling at the Mardi Gras gala. The banner proclaimed, "Schnuck Markets celebrates Mardi Gras," and the words "paczki" and "king cake" were printed at a slant on the banner.
The ad read: "Enjoy a last-minute treat before Lent. Our paczki, filled Polish pastries, are the perfect choice for your Fat Tuesday Feast."
In the Northeast, Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., the cooperative wholesale, merchandising and distribution company serving 190 member ShopRite supermarkets, ran its first paczki ad ever, in circulars for two consecutive weeks before Lent. The ad was headlined, "Paczki are yumski."
The wholesaler made paczki available to its network of stores for the first time this year. Laura McCafferty, Wakefern spokeswoman, said she realized the popularity of paczki was growing last year, when newspapers in the communities where many ShopRite stores operate ran feature articles on the Polish pastries -- and the tradition behind them.
Paczki popularity began to spread to the Northeast and elsewhere thanks to the efforts of the Paczki Promotion Committee, founded by Carl Richardson, a former bakery executive at Farmer Jack, a Detroit division of Montvale, N.J.-based A&P.
Richardson still heads the promotional organization, which is now called the National Paczki Promotional Board and falls under the umbrella of the Retailer's Bakery Association, Laurel, Md.
The board has been sponsoring colorful paczki billboards in various parts of the United States. This year, the campaign took a new turn, with 20 billboards clustered around Indianapolis that showed an illustration of a paczki with a bottle of Coca-Cola.
It's a bid to broaden paczki's appeal demographically. "Not everyone has tea or coffee with their paczki. This could catch the attention of the young people, the new generation," Richardson explained.
Also for the first time this year, three billboards promoting paczki went up in Toronto, where a paczki parade has been hosted by a local bakery and allied organizations for the past few years.
And there was a new twist for paczki in Cincinnati, where the fourth annual paczki parade was held this year by the Greater Cincinnati Retail Baker's Association, in conjunction with the Polish-American Society of Greater Cincinnati.
The two organizations convened what they billed as "the world's largest paczki eating contest." Six teams of four varsity football players each were chosen from parochial high schools in the area, competing against one other and the clock as they downed platters of 30 paczki apiece.
As part of the Cincinnati celebration each year, a paczki king and queen are chosen. This year, the royalty were former Cincinnati Bengals football player Bruce Kozerski and his wife, Elizabeth.
Such hoopla attracts the attention of the consumer press, and helps spread curiosity about paczki, said Smith. And the more that paczki fever spreads, the more supermarkets can look to the product to boost midwinter in-store bakery sales, said national paczki promoter Richardson.
Richardson said he believes that paczki, and other bakery products with ethnic origins, present a good opportunity for supermarkets to offer something different and create excitement, especially during periods when sales could use a boost.