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Starting a Polish restaurant

Italian Americans are lucky. When they eat out, they can choose everything from elegant gourmet dining spots to neighborhood pizza joints. On the other hand, except for Chicago, most of the America’s so-called ‘Polish restaurants’ are usually little more than blue-collar American eateries that also include pierogi, gołąbki and kiełbasa on the menu.

The menu will most likely lack the many cold and hot appetizers for which Polish cuisine is famous. The waitresses may pour palate-dulling hot coffee and ice water for their customers before they have even ordered. Then they might ask: ‘mashed, French fried, American fried, baked, cottage or hash browned potatoes?’ and ‘French, Italian, raspberry vinaigrette, thousand island or ranch dressing?’ None of which has anything to do with gracious Polish-style dining.

Some so-called Polish restaurants do not even serve Polish beer, mead or vodka and getting a cup of genuine Polish-style coffee usually borders on the impossible. Italo-Americans by comparison have such wines and spirits as Chianti, Chiarello, Barbaresco, Valpolicella, Spumante, Amaretto, Grappa and Stock brandy to name but a few. They also have espresso, cappuccino, café latte and even that weak and watery American-style coffee to choose from.

If you have ever contemplated setting up a Polish restaurant or know someone who has, here are some things to consider. The great variety of eating places in America is staggering, so gaining a foothold on that market is not always easy. For such a venture to succeed guests must come away well fed at a reasonable price and there are plenty of establishments that provide such benefits.

Décor is one of many factors which will contribute to your new establishment’s atmosphere
Décor is one of many factors which will contribute to your new establishment’s atmosphere
Visitors must encounter something new, different, interesting and enticing: a place they can recommend to others, proudly bring friends to and possibly consider booking for an anniversary or graduation party. They should also come away enriched with knowledge they did not have previously.

For that reason, a quality Polish restaurant should provide a total cultural experience. In order to provide such an experience to guests, one should consider the following:

Décor

When customers are seated, the first thing they notice is the table service. To create a good initial impression on visitors, consider the exquisite hand-painted china from such Polish porcelain works as Ćmielów or Wałbrzych, Hefra brand flatware, Polish crystal glassware and possibly hand-embroidered table linens (cloths, runners, napkins).

The atmosphere would be enhanced by fresh cut flowers on the tables, smartly attired, preferably fully bilingual waiters at their customers’ beck and call and elegant Duchy of Warsaw (Księstwo Warszawskie) furnishings. The Duchy of Warsaw style can be created by using French period Empire furniture embellished with Duchy of Warsaw-style chandeliers, sconces and candelabras featuring the crowned Polish eagle.

If contemporary furnishings are chosen, reproductions of well-known Polish paintings, folk-art works and/or other ethnically appropriate decorator items could help set the proper mood.

Either the menu or the printed place-mat should contain interesting bits of information on Poland’s history and cultural heritage, little-known facts about Polish cookery and eating habits. Graphic depictions of Polish historical landmarks, landscapes and famous Poles would be most appropriate. The time customers spend waiting for their orders to arrive could thus be beneficially used to expand their cultural horizons and pique their intellectual interest.

Entertainment

If the establishment specializes in gracious dining (rather than being a night club or disco), soft background music in the Polish spirit could be provided by a pianist or a piano-violin duet. A roving violinist, accordionist or other musician are other options to consider, as is a vocalist unobtrusively performing light classical selections and popular standards. Soft recorded music is also good. (The old ‘Echa Ojczyzny’ LP album contained a very good cross-section of suitable Polish melodies, but many other recordings are surely available by now.)

Dinner music should always be subdued and in the background to enable diners to quietly converse without having to outshout the entertainment.

Dining style

Gracious, multi-course, Polish-style dining should include a good assortment of cold starters, unlike the American restaurants that offer little more in the way of appetizers than a choice of juice, soup, salad or possibly shrimp cocktail. Many American restaurants (especially in blue-collar cities) serve such huge main courses that few diners could possibly precede it with a starter. The solution may be to serve smaller standard main courses and encourage multi-course dinners by offering a discount on complete meals comprising a starter, soup, main course and dessert.

A double main course could be available to those foregoing the other courses in a kind of reversal of the half-price children’s portions. Offering a complimentary serving of kompot (poached fruit dessert or drink) with every dinner might be a good way to popularize that delightful Polish tradition.

Daily special

Many restaurateurs have found that that a different specjalność dnia (specialité du jour) can help attract a different dinner/supper crowd on individual days of the week. The special should be offered at a lower price on that day than at other times. For instance, such specials might include Roast turkey (Sunday), steak roll-ups (Wednesday), fried fish (Friday), and roast duckling (Saturday). Fixed full-course menus could be set by the management or customers might be allowed to select their own accompaniments: starters, soups and desserts.

Top-quality food

Delicious food, carefully prepared from only the freshest ingredients, and friendly service in pleasant surroundings are what can turn a casual visitor into a steady customer. Rather than gradually building up a faithful clientele on the basis of quality food and service at a reasonable price, many a restaurateur with a get-rich-quick attitude has tried to skimp on things and cut corners in the mistaken belief that ‘people won’t know the difference’.

But in such a highly competitive market, people soon realize that they are getting short-changed. Yes, utility-grade salted butter, cheaper cuts of meat, supermarket bread, institutional-quality coffee and frying oil reused much beyond its usefulness can mean immediate savings, but such cost-cutting is usually not conducive to long-term success.

On the other hand, many experienced chefs agree that the most expensive cuts are not necessary in certain multi-ingredient dishes (bigos, meat-filled pierogi, stews, gołąbki), so the important thing is to know when and when not to economize.

Menu

Ideally, at least the names of the foods should be printed bilingually (and be sure to have an educated native speaker of Polish check the spelling!) Since many customers will be encountering certain dishes for the first time, a concise description of the menu items should be provided. A balanced menu should include staple foods such as pierogi as well as more sophisticated dinner entrees such as duck with apples or a baked pork loin.

However advanced your plans may be, it is always wise to do some research and see what has made other Polish restaurants succeed. Polishplate.com is a good place to start your research and see what other restaurants are serving and at what price.

Good luck, or as the Poles would say – powodzenia!

Author/Source: Robert Strybel