One thing consistent, if often misrepresented, is the word: it’s one paczek (PON-chick or PUN-chick), multiple paczki (POONCH-key). But that’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed this year in Hamtramck for the annual Polish celebration of Fat Tuesday — better known in metro Detroit as Paczki Day.
With bars and restaurants still working out the logistics of 25 percent capacity allowances, social distancing mandates, and public safety considerations, the usual wild bacchanalia that marks the day before the beginning of Lent will look a bit different this February 16. Still, the small business owners of the town encompassed by Detroit are getting creative to make the most out of the event that usually attracts thousands to the city for doughnuts and drinking.
Prioritizing the safety of staff and customers is crucial for Hamtramck’s bar, restaurant, and shop owners, amidst concerns over new COVID-19 variants and strong evidence the virus spreads more easily indoors. Most are doing their best to keep customers outside, with fresh air circulating, as much as possible. All are enforcing the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) updated epidemic order limiting indoor seating capacity to 25 percent of normal levels and requiring mask use when not eating or drinking. Still, proprietors are hoping that with proper precautions, some of the beloved Mardi Gras traditions can be maintained in a time of uncertainty.
New Palace Bakery has been providing cheese and jam-filled kolaczki cookies and paczki to Hamtramck for well over a century, so the shop isn’t letting another pandemic get in the way. “We’re going to try and do the best we can with everything going on right now,” says Suzy Ognanovich, whose family has owned New Palace Bakery since 1974. “We’d like everyone to still participate in our traditions. So long as we’re safe, we should be able to carry on with these important celebrations.”
Ognanovich says they’re not sure yet whether it’ll be a banner year with more folks eating at home or a more modest year, with fewer picking up treats for the office. No matter what, the bakery’s team is determined to continue meeting the community’s demand for lard-laden pastries.
New Palace has instituted streamlined phone ordering, pick-up time slots, and have even added a pick-up window for easier access from the street for the 2021 holiday. Walk-ins will still be welcome, but the bakery does encourage pre-orders as much as possible to limit lines. New Palace will open at its usual red-eyed 3 a.m. for those determined to break their fast with the pastries. This year, the bakery is offering five options for pick-up, in quantities of three, six, or a dozen and with both traditional and more adventurous flavors. The menu is available online and customers can order up to five days in advance by calling 313-875-1334.
Another food vendor, Srodek’s, is gearing up for a safe, but different Paczki Day. Srodek’s Hamtramck location will have paczki available on a pre-order basis only, by phone or online through Friday, February 5. And, while the store will be open on Tuesday, February 16, the market isn’t guaranteeing any paczki will be available for walk-ins, and is asking that customers respect a strict three-customers-at-a-time policy. “We are really trying to do everything to make our customers and employees safe,” says Rachel Srodek, noting that she expects a fair amount of online orders in advance of Paczki Day without the usual streams of street traffic.
Hamtramck bar operators are preparing for a different sort of celebration as well. “Paczki Day is like a month and a half in one day for us” in terms of comparative revenue, says Mike Mouyianis, who co-owns Small’s Bar. Longtime Paczki Day celebrants are familiar with the daylong festivities at Small’s. In years past, the sizable music venue hosted a new band every hour and served up paczki bombs: full-sized paczki with a generous pour of vodka injected into the filling.
In 2021 the music and the bombs will be back at Small’s — though in slightly altered form. The bar is scheduled to open from 10 a.m. on Fat Tuesday and will closing earlier than usual this year at 7 p.m. for safety and capacity reasons. Mouyianis also wants to allow folks time to get home and watch Paczki Day favorite performers Captains of the Head. The raucous band’s sea shanty performance will livestream at 7 p.m. from an undisclosed location. Revelers already home can sing along with the band’s dirty songs on their phones or computers.
Even the paczki bombs are getting a pandemic makeover: Small’s is taking pre-orders for carryout boozy treats via the venue’s Facebook page through Thursday, February 11. And, rather than “the usual five of us sitting there with syringes,” the night before Paczki Day injecting paczki by hand, Mouyianis and the team are handing over production to their baker, who will incorporate vodka directly into the filling during the baking process. Each alcoholic pastry carryout order will come complete with Michigan’s required “Contains Alcohol” sticker. Small’s will also offer Renegade Kitchen’s kielbasa, pierogi and kielbasa-fried rice for pre-orders.
As for the venue itself, Small’s plans to have several tents outdoors with the bar set up inside for patrons to grab drinks before heading out to the patio. Small’s will be strictly enforcing capacity rules.
“Paczki Day people are so drunk, I don’t want a bunch of people in the bar,” says Mouyianis. “I would feel really bad if someone that came to our bar got sick, or my staff got sick. It’s not like the people that work for me are getting rich working at the bar. Why risk your lives for it?”
Just a few blocks away at local watering hole Whiskey in the Jar, the usual packed-to-the-rafters drinkfest will be a much more dignified affair this year. Shots of house speciality Jezynowka (cloyingly sweet blackberry-flavored brandy) will be at regular price and the shot ski — a ski with multiple shot glasses designed for cheek-to-cheek consumption — will have to wait in the wings. The bar will open at 8 a.m. and allow 25 percent of normal capacity indoors, with a patio, but no live music.
Although the celebration will be slightly more subdued, Whiskey in the Jar is keeping one of its beloved (and profitable) traditions going: the annual bar’s Paczki Day t-shirts and hoodies will be available at the venue and online, as well as a new accessory — face masks. This year’s illustration developed by bartender and graphic designer Michael Smith wryly captures the present moment; it features Whiskey’s mascot “ratalope” with one antler stabbing a paczek and a mask dangling from the other antler. A COVID-19 virus replaces the zero in 2021.
Paczki Day may not look much like previous years’ debauchery, but most Hamtramck bars are just glad to have some small celebration to lighten the winter. “We’ve been steady throughout thanks to our loyal regulars as well as newcomers from around the area. It’s more of a chill atmosphere these days,” says Whiskey bartender Kevin “Blayd” Matta.
Then again, with bars and restaurants having been shut down for much of the last few months, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The crew at Small’s may be a little rusty these days, having lost a little muscle memory since its last 500-person rock show. “A hundred people is probably going to kick our asses,” Moyianis says. “But whatever, I’ll take the beating and I’ll go home sticky and cold and covered in booze and cold. Gotta keep the traditions alive.”