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Betty Crocksi: Pierogi on Wheels

Buffalo newsest food truck officially debuts its Polish cuisine on Dyngus Day

Dana Szczepaniak was laying on the couch in her New York City apartment, closing the nearly 300-mile gap between herself and her Queen City-stationed cousin. The call wasn’t unexpected. But the conversation was. Kind of.

Neither Szczepaniak nor her cousin Kate Hey were happy with the current monotonous, unfulfilling, nine-to-five grind, the sterile office jobs they found themselves in, and they were looking for ways out. In her spare time, Szczepaniak was scouring the web for accounting jobs and Hey was contemplating going back to grad school.

“Have you ever sat in a cube?” Szczepaniak asked. “To me the problem was not connecting with what you’re doing.”

But for the month leading up to this particular conversation, they had been seriously talking about that far-off dream they always wanted to pursue: starting a Polish food truck.

“We had a little Google Doc going and we were adding to it,” Szczepaniak said. “So I was like, ‘Well, I’m applying for a new job; should I keep doing that?’ And she was going to apply to go back to grad school, and we both, right then and there, were like: ‘No, I guess not.’”

But no business decision is official without a handshake.

“We’re like, can we shake over the phone?” Hey said.

We shook on it,” Szczepaniak confirmed.

“I’m glad you actually did it,” Hey said, laughing.

“Oh I did it with you,” Szczepaniak said. “I did the shake.”

Szczepaniak grew up in a Polish family, eating traditional Polish food. In the kitchen, she could often be found beside her grandmother, watching and helping cook pierogi and other staples. Hey comes from the other side of the family, the non-Polish one. Regardless of what her ancestry may suggest, though, her love for Polish cuisine is unmatched.

“I love pierogi, damn it,” Hey said. “I eat them every day of my life.”

But initial elation was soon followed by the crashing wave of reality. Neither woman had ever undertaken a project like this before. The most experience either had with food service was doing front-of-house work in restaurants. It would be a stretch to say that experience had any real food truck applications.

The truth was, they had no idea what the road ahead looked like.

“We got in deep,” Hey said.

Fast-forward eight months to February 2014, and the “starting a food truck checklist” was complete. They had their proof of ownership. Check. Proof of insurance. Check. Paid their annual license fee. Check. Erie County Health permit. Check. Proof of district-issued food manager identification card. Check. Buffalo licensing. Check. Limited liability corporation paperwork. Check. Up-to-standard truck. Check. Commissary kitchen. Check.

It was all coming together. The bureaucratic pile of papers had been conquered and the wheels were starting to move. They were in the final stages, doing what Hey referred to as “practical and unsexy” work, perfecting the final touches like streamlining the food supply, so they could finally bring aptly named Betty Crockski to the streets.

Oh, about that name? It’s a funny story.

“It was one night we were hanging out with our cousins in their basement, and we found a bunch of children’s toys, including a tiny apron,” Hey said. “And Dana put it on and was dancing around. She was doing pushups and stuff, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, what are you, Betty Crockski or something?’ It just became a joke name that stuck for both of us, really.”

On Betty’s seventh service, in the Amherst Local Edge parking lot, the cousins were experiencing a sporadic lunch shift. They hadn’t officially rolled out yet and were testing the waters. Although the official Betty Crockski launch is set for April 21 on Dyngus Day, they will be serving between two and three lunch services per week until May. Come May, they’re going all in, serving a minimum of five lunches per week.

“Every day we’re learning things and making mistakes,” Szczepaniak said.

Based on the reaction of customers, though, those mistakes must be few and far between. During a short lull in this service, an airport taxi whipped into the parking lot, quickly stopped, and parked parallel to the bright red truck. The driver ran around the car and approached with a smile. “I’m so glad I caught you!” he yelled over the whirr of the engine. He explained that he arrived too late to a previous service and was clearly excited to try some pierogi. He animatedly expressed his infatuation with their business, returned to his car, only to immediately return and place two more orders.

Based on the Polish population of Buffalo and the surrounding areas, which, according to the US Census is 128,878 in Erie County, it makes sense that a concept like this would thrive in this area.

“I’m Polish so I’ve grown up always cooking Polish food, and the past couple years [Hey] spent with my Polish side of the family doing that as well,” Szczepaniak said. “I’m not really good in the kitchen but that’s one thing I have known my whole life, and she’s a really good cook in general, so with the two kind of overlapping skills, it makes sense.”

The women examined what real Polish food looks like, what it consists of, and the culture of food in Poland itself. They wanted to incorporate all of these elements and more.However, Betty’s menu isn’t traditional. They’re bringing a modern flair to the classic recipes.

“Our vision is not to make the food that they made in the 1920s. Not that I have a problem with that food, but our vision is a progressive Polish,” Szczepaniak said. “If you want a traditional cheese, sauerkraut, or potato pierogi, go to the Broadway Market; you can get it.”

As part of their prep and research, Szczepaniak and Hey decided to take a trip to the mother country. The two said that the 10-day trip was a busy one, and one that left them with a sense of accomplishment.

“We were trying to seek out food to make sure our food vision was somehow being enacted somewhere in Poland and to gain inspiration for the future,” Hey said.

The trip’s main focus was on gastronomical education, but a cultural education took place as they walked the streets, interacted with locals, and took in the country’s history. The two documented their whole trip on a blog. Both she and Szczepaniak were nostalgic, and still are. While another trip hasn’t been planned, it is inferred.

“I can’t wait to go back,” Hey said. “I miss it every day. I haven’t opened a novel at night since we’ve got back—I just keep reading the blog.”

Cultural immersion was a key component in starting their business, but perhaps the most important element in starting a food truck was the truck itself. How does one obtain a large, boxy, one-car-garage-sized kitchen on wheels? Instead of trying to find one, Hey and Szczepaniak decided that they were going to buy a shell of a truck and build it from the inside out. That is, until they started researching the elements involved in that process. On to plan B: Buy one.

After a little research, they found one in New Jersey. Living in New York City at the time, Szczepaniak called the person who built it, and asked him to meet her at the train station, pick her up, and bring her to see it.

“So, I mean, I could have been chopped into pieces, I guess,” she said. “This could have been a fake advertisement.”

But everything went according to plan.

“I’m like, ‘It’s great! I love it,’” she said.

They went ahead and made the deal.

“I said ‘Okay, we’ll send you a check,’” Szczepaniak said.

Then somehow, something got lost in translation. There was some confusion around when that check was going to arrive, and before it did, the truck was sold to somebody else. In seeing the work this man had done, the cousins didn’t want to give up on him so easily. They got him to agree to build another truck from scratch, if they could find a shell. They found a shell in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, from an electrician who was selling his truck. (Come to find out, he was also the mayor of the town.) On the day of their return from Poland, they finally got to see Betty Crockski herself. After driving “Ole Betts” to Long Island to visit some friends, they took her on the nine-hour drive back to Buffalo. Neither woman was used to driving a vehicle so large, and Hey remembersa lot of air-braking. “Like your mom when you’re learning to drive,” she said.

Now that they had Betty, she needed a makeover. Drawing inspiration from roosters, falcons, and the floral trim that is so often found on Polish dancers’ clothing, Szczepaniak and Hey had a good idea of how they wanted her to look.

“It’s a recurrent theme among modern restaurants we went to,” Hey said. “These roosters and flowers and the falcon. It’s a very distinct look. They scream out Polonia.”

Hey and Szczepaniak do their own share of screaming, and not just at each other. Their in-truck attire screams Polonia on its own: firetruck red aprons adorned with rooster silhouettes and white lettering, red bandanas, and the occasional floral boot.

The menu consists of four different varieties of pierogi: an open pierogi, sausage, rotating specials, and desserts named Betty Bites. They prep the food in their commissary kitchen in South Buffalo, at the Southside Social and Athletic Club. Right now, they’re making enough food for between two and three services at a time. If they have leftovers, they wrap up them up and gift them to local businesses, calling them “Betty Bombs.”

There will likely be no chance of gifting “Betty Bombs” on April 21, when Betty officially introduces herself to Buffalo—and to the the tens of thousands of people who attend Dyngus Day—to the tune of polka and Top 40 mashups. Beyond all of the polka and the red and white, though, you might be able to hear the sound of new careers made.

“We really just want people to taste delicious food that makes them close their eyes and say ‘Mmmm,’” Hey said.

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