Snow, cold, pandemic can't keep Metro Detroiters from paczki

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

Freezing temperatures? No problem. More than eight inches of snow? Michigan is used to it. 

A viral pandemic? People wore masks and social distanced from each other.

Shelby Township resident Lehi McClenn, 26, waits to pick up her order of paczki from New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

Michiganians have proved that nothing can keep them from the filled pastry treats as many traveled far and wide across the state for paczki on Fat Tuesday. 

“I have friend here from Utah and we drove through the snow because he just had to try a paczek,” said Shelby Township resident Lehi McClenn, 26, at New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck.

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Bakeries known for their paczki saw a steady flow of customers that wasn't quite like their usual wrap-around-the-building lines on Fat Tuesdays of the past.

“Paczki Day is one of those days where it could be really really warm and then sometimes it's freezing cold drizzle, but our customers are troupers,” said New Palace family member Suzy Ognanovich.

Last year, patrons stood in freezing cold rain and packed the small bakery from wall to wall to sink their teeth into a paczek. This year, the bakery allowed only four customers inside at a time. 

New Palace also changed to offering 10 flavors in a variation of five, premade boxes instead of the usual 30 flavors that people could choose from to put in custom boxes. 

A local rehabilitation center staff member, Atabong Nkematabong, 56, bought paczki from New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck for his nursing staff to thank them for coming in to work during a snow storm on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

One essential worker drove through snow-covered roads to buy paczki for his nursing staff at a local rehabilitation center. 

“I’m buying for all the staff that worked so hard to make it in the morning to care for the sick," said Detroit resident Atabong Nkematabong, 56. "I’m buying out of my own pocket... just to say thank you to those that are coming in to care for the sick and needy."

Just down the road, New Martha Washingston Bakery, another infamous paczki spot, took a different approach to tackle Fat Tuesday during the pandemic.

To make sure the small shop was not overcrowded, New Martha Bakery sold paczki the past three Saturdays and declared this “paczki week."

With only six people allowed inside at a time, the bakery stayed full. Crowd control barriers were up and the owners sanitized everything, including people’s debit and credit cards. The bakery opened at 3 a.m. Tuesday as it has for years but will close at 7 p.m., saddening some workers who were excited to continue the tradition of baking overnight.

“We didn’t know what to expect, some of the bakers weren’t expecting the turnout that we did have,” said Sandy Bakic, daughter of New Martha’s owners. “Keeping up the tradition is the most important thing … it’s just keeping something alive.”

Sandy Bakic, daughter of the owners, talks about keeping the paczki tradition going at New Martha Washington Bakery in Hamtramck on Paczki Day, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

As the pandemic has hurt small businesses everywhere, New Palace was not an exception. To help keep the community staple alive, the Wayne County Economic Development Corp. awarded a $15,000 Michigan Small Business Survival Grant to the bakery.  

“This past year has been tough on everybody with everything and it just kind of brings a little light to everything to just have a little tradition going on,” Ognanovich said.

Anetta Norwood’s car was stuck in snow Tuesday morning but the Detroit resident's motivation to continue her tradition of grabbing paczki persisted. Norwood had a friend drive her to New Martha’s so she could get a few lemon and cherry paczki, her favorite flavors. 

“Every year I come and get them. Me and my kids we love them… It’s about the only day I can sit up and eat sweets all day and not care,” said Norwood, 46. 

While the Hamtramck bakeries have been around for decades, a new shop, SugarBuzz Bakery in Ferndale, has stepped into the Paczki Day arena. SugarBuzz is an all-vegan bakery going into its third week of operation and its first Fat Tuesday.

Ally Hammond, server, prepares packzi at SugarBuzz Bakery in Ferndale on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

The Polish owner and head baker spent time creating a vegan paczek that could stand the test of a decades-long tradition. Offering only custard and raspberry flavors, the new bakery reached its capacity of pre-orders by Saturday with 40 dozen orders was still accepting walk-in orders later Tuesday.

Their version is 100% vegan, which means no lard, no eggs and no butter.

“(The paczki) are excellent. Someone called who picked theirs up a little while ago and had to ask ‘are you sure these are vegan?’” said Head Baker and Manager LaDawn Stuben.

The Paczki Day tradition originated in Poland but drifted to Detroit with immigrants early in the last century. It's celebrated the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season, a 40-day period leading up to Easter when many Christians give up indulgences.

Preparing for Ash Wednesday, Polish families traditionally emptied their pantries of temptations such as sugar and butter, baking the ingredients into a doughnut-type dessert they named paczki.

A traditional treat on Fat Tuesday, they pack more than 400 calories and 25 grams of fat.

One change this year noted from most Fat Tuesdays was fewer bulk buyers for coworkers and staff members. With more people working from home, Bakic at New Martha's said they've seen smaller personal orders. 

But Detroit firefighter Jim Suyak made sure he dropped by New Martha’s to pick up a dozen paczki for the others at his station.

Employee Vesna Krstevski, in red, waits on customers at New Martha Washington Bakery in Hamtramck on Paczki Day, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

“We have to get fuel and do our daily running around so I figured we might as well make a stop and treat the guys," said Suyak, 54. "They’ve been good so I take care of them."