Fat Tuesday and Paczki (pronounced poonch-key) Day are synonymous for Polish Americans across the country. And as people increasingly express interest in global flavors and unique dessert formats, paczki can be a prime option for sparking interest among existing customers and new consumers, and introducing them to cultural favorites.
Packzi, deep-fried yeast-dough pastries, are traditionally filled with custard or fruit and dusted with powdered sugar. They’re closely tied to Fat Tuesday—March 5 in 2019—the last day of indulgence before the period of Lent observed by certain Christian denominations.
Polish immigrants first brought the treats to America in the 1800s, and paczki have since spread primarily from the Midwest to both coasts. Whether bakers want to honor Polish culinary traditions or test new interpretations of this late-winter pastry craze, here are a few tips from the paczki pros.
While paczki often look like standard yeast-raised jelly donuts, there are a few key differences between the pastries. “Paczki dough is made with egg, a very rich, sweet yeast and a high-gluten, high-mineral-content flour, so they’re chewier and more moist than jelly donuts,” says Piotr Swiatkowski, manager at Polka Deli in Orange, California.
The differences continue on the inside: Paczki tend to be filled with chunkier jams or preserves than the jelly used in filled donuts. “Every bakery has its own special recipe,” he says. “Some people add a bit of rose hips or different spices, but that really rich dough and ground-up filling is key.”
In addition, when cooking paczki, the deep fry should extend past the golden-brown of most donuts to a deeper hue.
Paczki-making at Polka Deli in Orange, California
If donut shops and other bakeries want to begin making traditional paczki, these distinctions may mean having to start from scratch or using paczki mix rather than the donut mix.
But once they’ve perfected the pastry format, bakeries can create unique interpretations, spins and mashups that still honor paczki and its cultural heritage (and drive sales).
The filling is the place for creativity, Swiatkowski says. And options go far beyond fruity and floral flavors.
At Orland Park Bakery in Orland Park, Illinois, the changing menu has included paczki options like peanut butter cup and salted caramel pretzel. Rudy’s Strudel & Bakery in Parma, Ohio, sells savory paczki, such as kielbasa and sauerkraut, and potato and cheese, alongside dozens of sweet options, including marshmallow, prune and poppy seed. And Firecakes Donuts, a regional chain in Illinois, has spotlighted upscale flavors like Valrhona chocolate, raspberry-blood orange and Meyer lemon curd.
At Aracely’s Bakery in La Grange, Illinois, owners Junior Pinal and Araceli Rincon give customers the option of paczki filled with fresh strawberries, pineapple, apricot, cream cheese, whipped cream, Nutella, chocolate, custard, blueberry, raspberry or strawberry and Nutella blend. The last flavor came directly from a customer request.
“We had a little girl who came into the bakery and asked us to add Nutella to the strawberry one,” Pinal says. “That actually sounded pretty good, so we tried it and other customers saw and were interested. It wasn’t long before it was on the permanent menu, and it has become one of our best-sellers,” Pinal says.
Like National Donut Day, Valentine’s Day and other sweets-focused holidays, Paczki Day sales are concentrated on a single day. That makes getting the word out early imperative for bakeries, says Eva Lokaj, director of marketing and public relations at Old Traditional Polish Cuisine, a food truck and catering business in New York. “We take preorders (beginning a few weeks before Fat Tuesday), and it gets insane,” she says.
The team typically sells about 600 preordered paczki for the holiday, and another 500 to walk-ups. Many of those day-of sales are to new customers who searched social media and websites using the word “paczki” the day before or that morning, so Lokaj prioritizes promoting her business’s paczki with hashtags in the days leading up to the holiday. Bakeries can also consider boosted social ads to expand their reach.
And while Fat Tuesday is primetime for paczki sales, businesses can see success marketing and selling the treats other times of year. For example, Old Traditional Polish Cuisine has offered and promoted paczki for Polish American Heritage Month in October and the centennial celebration of Poland’s independence in November 2018. That keeps paczki on people’s radars year-round.
You’re expecting a swarm of paczki-hungry customers and a limited sales window? Resist the temptation to make the pastries in advance. “We begin making them the day of. The fresher the better,” Pinal says.
In the days beforehand, he has his team focus on prepping all the flavors, slicing strawberries, readying packaging and training new or temporary staff members on how the day runs. “It’s a big process, but if everyone is on the same page and we have as much prepared as possible, the entire day flows as nice as it possibly can,” he says.
Another way to reduce the bakery workload day-of is to identify other items on your bakery’s menu that can be made in advance or with premade bakery ingredients.
For bakeries with lean teams that expect strong paczki sales, it may even be worthwhile to bring in extra hands the week leading up to the big event to assist with tasks that don’t required specialized baking skills. Just be sure to carefully track those labor costs to ensure the push to capitalize on Paczki Day remains profitable.
With a strong understanding of paczki baking, marketing and prep needs, bakeries can introduce these unique treats to customers—and see a boost in their sales.