Paczki have made the big time and supermarkets this year are making the most of the super-rich pastry's popularity.
In-store bakery directors are pushing their promotional efforts to new heights -- with such things as full-page ads, infomercials and contests -- and have ordered record numbers of the pre-Lenten treats.
Paczki (pronounced poonch-key) look like oversized, overstuffed Bismarcks, but they are "not just another doughnut," retailers said. Quite the contrary, they are huge, super-rich, sometimes double-fried, filled pastries that have their origins in Poland where they were the traditional last sweet treat Lent observers would allow themselves before Lent began.
Seaway Foodtown, Maumee, Ohio, with 41 stores, has two-and-a-half truckloads of them arriving this week and the chain expects to sell them all by the afternoon of Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.
"We already had people calling us about paczki in January," said Pat Nowak, director of public relations and consumer affairs for Seaway Foodtown.
Meanwhile, B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb., has built towering displays of colorful red and white paczki boxes in its bakeries and expects to at least double last year's paczki sales.
"We ordered extra boxes this year for each store just to use as props. We're stacking them 12 and 15 feet high to attract attention," said Dennis Incontro, director of bakery and deli for B&R, which operates 11 stores, seven of them under the Russ's Markets banner.
This year, six billboards sponsored by the Retailer's Bakery Association went up in Lincoln. They read, "Paczki, Not Just Another Doughnut. Russ's Market." Incontro expects the billboards to put sales over the top.
"We've doubled sales every year since we began offering them four years ago, and we'll probably do even better this year."
Incontro declined to reveal sales figures, but he was enthusiastic about the continued growth of paczki sales. He noted, too, that B&R added king cakes this year to its pre-Lenten mix.
Additional supermarket units have jumped on the paczki bandwagon and many have added king cakes to maximize pre-Lenten sales opportunities.
"We've seen at least a 15% increase in the number of individual supermarket units getting involved," said Carl Richardson, founder of the National Paczki Promotion Committee, which has been brought under the umbrella of the Laurel, Md.-based RBA and renamed the RBA National Paczki Promotional Board.
"Since we've merged our program with RBA, it has allowed us to expand geographically and bring needed services to a lot more retailers," said Richardson, who heads the promotional board.
Paczki made their mark in areas of the Midwest like Detroit where people of Polish descent are concentrated. In recent years, Richardson has been instrumental in spreading paczki fever across the country.
"We were one of the first to step up to the plate, and our sales have grown each year, from just a couple of cases per store four years ago to truckloads now," said Nowak at Seaway Foodtown.
Last year, the chain linked up with a local Polish organization to create a two-minute, video "infomercial" that describes the tradition of making and eating paczki. It will be aired on local TV. The chain also runs a paczki ad in local newspapers as well as in its in-store circular.
"It's the product itself. These aren't doughnuts. They're authentic paczki. Each year in October, we have a tasting," to make sure suppliers' products are up to Seaway Foodtown's standards, she explained.
In the past two years, some the country's largest supermarket chains -- including Kroger Co., Cincinnati; A&P, Montvale, N.J.; Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.; and Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass. -- have begun selling paczki with zeal.
"They did very well for us last year, our first year. That's why we're offering them again this year," said Laura McCafferty, spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., a retailer-owned cooperative that is the wholesale/merchandising/distribution arm for 190 ShopRite Supermarkets in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Delaware.
Fleming Cos., in its Philadelphia division, began promoting paczki for the first time this year, though, ironically, that division of the Oklahoma City-based distributor had been offering its retail customers the product under a different name.
"We'd been selling the product for several years, but called it by another name: faschnachts. That's what they're called in Pennsylvania Dutch country, west of here. But in Philadelphia and east, there is a large population of Polish people, so we decided to tie into the paczki promotion this year," said Mark Drucker, bakery operations manager for Fleming Cos. in Philadelphia.
"Carl [Richardson] was a big help in directing me to the right people. And I use his information booklet to sell the program to our retailers," Drucker added.
Most of the retailers SN talked to said they're offering paczki beginning only two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday, which falls this year on Feb. 16. Limiting availability to those two weeks makes it more of a special event, they said.
Dennis Incontro at B&R Foods said customers have asked him to make paczki available all year round, but he said he won't because it would take away from the "event" quality.
In Carmel, Ind., Judy Carroll, bakery director for O'Malia Food Markets, which supplies O'Malia's nine supermarkets, echoed that sentiment.
"We start with paczki the weekend before [Fat Tuesday]. I don't believe it works to stretch it out," Carroll said.
But king cakes are another matter. They are colorful cakes associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and traditionally are eaten from the first week in January through Fat Tuesday.
Promoting that item creates an opportunity to boost bakery sales right after Christmas, some retailers said. Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo., is one of those.
"Dierbergs sees these items [paczki and king cakes] as growing categories and they're very excited about it. They want to get behind both king cakes and paczki to create a bakery event with them," said Gena Bast, spokeswoman for Dierbergs.
"We're starting earlier now and focusing on them. King cakes generate repeat business [right up to Lent]," said Tom Merritt, Dierbergs' in-store bakery supervisor.
Demos were part of Dierbergs' king cake push this year, with the demo person telling customers about the king cake tradition, Merritt said. Since the cakes are so colorful themselves -- with green and yellow and purple sugar on top -- Dierbergs packages them in dome-top containers, he added.
Another Midwest supermarket bakery director, however, said his company is using new colorful king cake boxes that he ordered through the RBA's information booklet.
"They're colorful and the story of the king cake tradition is printed on the side. You can stack them to give a display height," he said.
Richardson at the RBA suggested that for information about packaging and point-of-sale materials, or about the RBA's system for promoting and selling paczki, king cakes, kringles and hot cross buns, retailers should call RBA's toll-free, hot line: 1-800-884-1500.