ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio -- Riesbeck's Food Markets, a family-owned independent here, has pushed its paczki business to record heights, with sales expected to exceed a quarter-million dollars in the next couple of weeks.
Strategic promotion has played a key part in the paczki (pronounced "poonch-key") success story. The 13-store chain has taken out TV and drive-time radio ads, packaged the pastries in eye-catching red-and-white boxes stacked high in store displays and courted the local consumer media.
As a result, Riesbeck's in-store bakeries have become destinations, lifting store traffic in each of the 11 stores that offer the doughnut-like Polish pastries, said John Chickery, the company's bakery director.
Store directors and managers in each store pitch in to help bakery staffers dust the big, rich treats with sugar and tuck them into their boxes. They help build displays, too, each weekend during Lent.
"We fry paczki 16 hours a day on weekends, but we haven't had to hire anyone extra because everybody in the store helps," Chickery said. "I've even seen store directors do some of the frying."
Selling paczki throughout Lent is unusual. Most bakery directors who promote paczki to boost winter sales stop the hoopla on the evening of Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.
Chickery's decision a few years ago to continue selling the pastries on Fridays and Saturdays right up to Easter was risky because, according to tradition, paczki is the last treat loyal observers indulge in before the Lenten fast begins.
When Carl Richardson -- now a bakery executive at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. -- in conjunction with the Retailer's Bakery Association, formed the National Paczki Promotion Board, his idea was to limit paczki's availability to the week before Lent, creating a bakery event at the dreariest time of year.
Indeed, at first, Riesbeck's made a big thing of paczki's limited availability. But Chickery said he figured he could still keep the excitement going if he continued to offer them, but only on weekends leading up to Easter. Turned out he was right.
This year's total paczki sales goal, $259,395.29 for just 11 stores, may sound ambitious. However, on Feb. 21, the company's sales had already achieved 53.6% of that target, with several more Friday-Saturday sales still to come.
"We have opened a new store since last year and raised the price, but even if you took those two things out of the equation, we were already up 16% over last year's sales by the evening of Fat Tuesday, and that was just the start," Chickery said.
"We've found that this [continuing to sell paczki on weekends during Lent] works for us," he said. "Nobody else around here is doing it. They're still considered a special, once-a-year treat. After the Saturday before Easter we won't have them again until next year."
By Feb. 21, one of Riesbeck's stores had already exceeded its goal. In fact, with sales exceeding $3,800, that store -- one of the smaller units -- was at 136% of its target. The newest store had rung up just over $32,000 in paczki sales by Feb. 21, hitting 75% of its goal already, Chickery said.
"We've been selling 900 boxes of eight-count each Friday and Saturday there," he continued. "People just went paczki crazy. We had customers asking us last summer if we were going to have them, and on that first day, there were people lined up to buy them at 6 o'clock in the morning."