ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio - One recent afternoon, Riesbeck's Markets got into the spirit of the season with polka music, singing, dancing and lots of paczki - the super-rich Polish pastry that is traditionally enjoyed just before the start of Lent.
Shoppers sampled all flavors of the doughnut-like pastry that Riesbeck's makes from scratch right in the store, and purchased lots of them, store officials said. The hoopla kept shoppers in the store longer, and sales were higher than normal for a Saturday.
"We had a bigger crowd this year than we've ever had. There were easily 200 people here and what I thought was remarkable is that they didn't move. They just stayed all afternoon," said store director Dennis Kasprowski. "Even though it's a bit of a disruption, it's well worth it in the long run. We had set chairs up in a semicircle and people were arriving here as early as 11:30 [a.m.] for the event we'd advertised would start at 1. Most of them stayed until well after 4 in the afternoon, some until 5."
The annual celebration, always on the Saturday preceding Lent, at this 60,000-square-foot flagship store has become a tradition for the retailer, Kasprowski said. In fact, attendance has grown ever since the retailer launched the promotion.
A local four-piece polka band, called the Polkaholics, provided lively music for dancing and a vocalist sang Polish songs. Carl Richardson, known in the industry as Mr. Paczki (pronounced "poonch-key"), talked about the history and legends surrounding the pastries. Richardson also danced with willing customers, and asked everyone to try Riesbeck's newest flavor - chocolate Bavarian paczki.
Associates walked around with trays of cut-up paczki in different flavors. They also gave customers tastes of some Polish dishes available that day in the deli.
A space roughly 20 by 30 feet was cleared for dancing by repositioning bakery displays closer together and farther away from the bakery, Kasprowski said. Red-and-white banners marked off the area and it all took place against a backdrop of about 1,000 distinctive red-and-white paczki boxes, stacked high on three large tables.
While the event definitely drives sales, more importantly, it helps bring the community together for a good time and builds customer loyalty, Kasprowski said.
"What's important is it's a destination," said John Chickery, bakery director at the 10-store chain. "Customers talk about this for months."
The whole store, where associates fry paczki all day the week leading up to Lent, had a festive air. A banner in the window counted down the days until the celebration and a stanchion sign welcomed Dennis Smith - the man who designed the paczki box - and Richardson. Smith is president of Cincinnati-based Paper Products, which makes the boxes for the retailer.
This was the first time Richardson had attended the store's annual celebration and customers were anxious to meet him, Chickery said. They had seen pictures of him decked out in a top hat and tuxedo, and some had seen him at Fat Tuesday celebrations in past years in Cincinnati.
Richardson, a former bakery executive at Farmer Jack, Detroit, and Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., was profiled in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago. He was given credit for moving paczki beyond the borders of Polish neighborhoods and heating up midwinter sales for lots of in-store bakeries. A few years ago, he launched the Paczki Promotion Committee under the sponsorship of the Retailer's Bakery Association and he now has his own consulting firm, CR & Associates, Rochester, Mich.
Traditionally, paczki are eaten just before Lent. They're a super-rich indulgence now consumed in many parts of the country, right before and on Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. For strict observers, the pastries will be the last sweet treat they enjoy until Easter.
For the last few years, however, Riesbeck's has broken with tradition and has offered freshly made paczki on Fridays and Saturdays during Lent as well as just before Lent begins. Last year, Riesbeck's sold 548,000 individual paczki between the Wednesday before Lent and Easter Sunday, a sales increase of 19% vs. the previous year.
This year, however, sales could be down a little, Chickery said. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Chickery told SN sales up through Fat Tuesday were down by double digits from last year. He attributed that to the fact that Fat Tuesday and the week leading up to it fell at the end of the month when many people are less inclined to spend money. By contrast, last year Fat Tuesday was early in the month and so was Super Bowl Sunday, a big day for eating.
"I'm not discouraged," Chickery said. "We have our new paczki mobile out this week. It's our hot rod, parade truck with a paczki banner. It'll be making its rounds, giving paczki to community officials on March 3. I think we'll make up some of the sales in the next weeks before Easter."