Local business expands amid the pandemic

Aleksandra Szlapacka opened the doors of the Polish Kitchen in Estevan, inviting the community to indulge in a variety of homemade pierogis and cabbage rolls in May 2019. Less than a year after that the world made a somersault and things in many areas have never been the same since then.

Times weren't easy for the Polish Kitchen as well, but instead of surrendering to the economic realities, Szlapacka expanded her business in January to meet the new goals and needs of the business and Saskatchewan communities.

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Since its opening, the business was steadily growing, bringing a variety of Slavic meals to Estevan and the surrounding area. By the end of 2019, most of 2020's schedule was already booked for venue catering. But the pandemic put an end not only to that, but also to lunches Polish Kitchen was successfully serving on a daily basis to the Energy City.

"Just cancel, cancel, cancel, cancel… What were we going to do? And I cancelled lunches too … We just operated as a store. So automatically what we were from the beginning, it just died," recalled Szlapacka.

"But we still had pierogis, we still had cabbage rolls, and we had to sell these somehow. So if it is not going to go in meals and catering, then I have to sell from the fridge as a product."

Where others could have stood back, Szlapacka saw opportunities. It took dedication, creativity and guts, but being a person who refuses to give up she found another path.

Already last summer Polish Kitchen started selling their product to the grocery store at Kenossee Lake, which proved to be pretty successful. A lot of people from Carlyle and Oxbow, who would spend time there, were excited about Szlapacka's home-style meals. Some time was invested into developing the packaging style and getting through all the obligatory procedures to become a supplier, but soon Polish Kitchen fridges filled with handmade pierogis, cabbage rolls and pielmieni (dumplings with meat) appeared in Southern Plains Co-op stores in the southeast.

Before the holiday season, the delicious products made by the traditional Polish recipes Szlapacka inherited from her mother and grandmother were offered through various stores in Estevan, Oxbow, Carlyle, Weyburn and Regina.

Everything was being produced out of a small Estevan store on Kensington, and once the Christmas season came closer, the need for expansion became obvious.

"We were doing good until the last week before Christmas. And then I was, 'I'm done, I can't produce anymore.' We were sending out everything we were making at the store, nothing was left, no pierogis for sale, no nothing before Christmas.

"And I realized it was impossible to supply more than just my store from that little space. Having three employees there was already crowded," recalled Szlapacka. 

Nevertheless, the crew pulled it together and made enough product to fulfill all their obligations so everyone who was craving a baba-style delicious meal for the holidays could have one without extra efforts. However, a new place was needed to keep going.

The decision to expand and open the factory was made in November 2020, and already in January the second Polish Kitchen sign appeared on Estevan's streets. What may have turned into a dead-end for others, appeared to be just a turning curve for this business. 

The new factory is located on Sixth Street. Szlapacka now has seven employees across the two locations. The shop works to supply products for the needs of existing, as well as future clients, while Kensington's spot is now back to serving lunches on daily basis and also operates as a store.

Szlapacka is still organizing some things at the factory, and she hopes to soon expand into more co-ops in the province.

"I kind of commit with co-ops and I want to stay with them. They support locals," Szlapacka said.

She also has some arrangements with the food suppliers working with restaurants to introduce her product to an even wider population.

Polish Kitchen currently produces bison and traditional cabbage rolls, as well as eight kinds of pierogis, and soon will introduce Polish and other Slavic traditional soups.

Their retail prices remain relatively high, but Szlapacka said there is a reason for that and she isn't planning on sacrificing anything to change it.

"I went to the store one day, and there are these pierogis and those pierogis, and everything was so low-priced, but nothing hand-pinched. And ours are handmade, hand-pinched, homey.

 "It is pricey because you hire people. It's not a machine that's producing 15,000 an hour. It's people that are producing 1,000 or 1,500 a day. And if you want more, you have to hire more."

Not only are Polish Kitchen pierogis folded and pinched nicely and with care, but they are also filled with high-quality ingredients and all according to the time proved traditional recipes that until this time were all in Szlapacka's head. With the expansion, she had to train her employees so they would be able to maintain the quality all while keeping up with orders. And she is confident it will remain as it is now.

"I don't want to change any recipes, I don't want to cheap out and get cheaper products or cheaper ingredients. It's always going to be the same way."

Running a restaurant one day is still Szlapacka's big dream. So far Polish Kitchen offers high-quality homemade traditional meals conveniently offered at local stores. What's next? Only the time will show.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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