Last week, Eater reported that First Avenue Polish diner mainstay Polonia was under new ownership.... 22 year-old Paul Jurczyk bought the restaurant from his parents, who started and operated Polonia the past 24 years... Jurczyk has hired a chef, the 26-year-old Olaf Wozny, who previously worked at Il Bucco.
As Jurczyk said, Polonia was serving food that "was frozen and microwaved, there was a wine list that consisted of 'Red' or 'White' which was poured from a gallon or a box, the lights were super bright all day and all evening, and the radio was playing z100 or 103.5 fm."
So some changes were in order... he and Wozny are planning to revamp the restaurant... which they've slowly been doing (you may have noticed the addition of a happy hour and WiFi in previous months...)
I asked Jurczyk a few questions via Facebook...
Are you concerned with what some old-timers might think about the changes? Do you think they'll return?
There are customers that have been coming to Polonia since the day that it opened. When I first started making changes about a year and a half ago, I had to start small: slightly changing the decor, the music selection and re-organizing the menu so that it was more comprehensible and visually appealing. Up to that point the 'old-timers' didn't have much to protest about. However, when I hired Olaf Wozny as my head chef, I began to hear complaints.
Olaf understood that changing a diner to a restaurant isn't an easy task and has to be done slowly as to not warrant too much attention in the beginning. Olaf slowly started changing the recipes, using better, higher-quality ingredients which are more expensive than the ingredients previously used — we had no choice but to slightly raise the prices. That is when the older customers started to complain. They appreciated the quality but weren't willing to pay for it. Even now I have some of the older customers complaining about our coffee which is a high-quality coffee, that we have priced at $1.50; the deli on the corner near us charges the same price for coffee of a much lesser quality.
Another issue is that most of the main entrees take about 15 minutes on average to prepare. Most of the older clientele can't seem to understand this, even though in the menu it says that our dishes may take about that long to make because they are made per order and asks the customer to please be patient. Even tonight I had a table of three walk out half way through their meal. They were served water, bread, wine and soups all within 10 to 15 minutes. After waiting just over 20 minutes (since they sat down) they decided that their three combination platters were taking too long so they paid for what they already had and walked out.
Many of the older customers left for a few months but returned. The prices in the East Village aren't cheap — no matter the quality of the food or the ambiance. I'm sure that after realizing that we are still better priced than most spots in our area, and have better prices and better quality food than any other Polish/Ukranian restaurant or diner in the area, including Veselka, they will be sure to come back — even though I have to say that my staff and myself are hoping that the old customers which really enjoy to nag and complain will find somewhere more suitable to their liking. Besides, we are starting to attract a younger, career-oriented crowd.
Why do you think changes were necessary?
These changes are necessary for two reasons. The East Village is quickly becoming a more sophisticated area filled with people who are willing to spend a little extra money to eat good food, have a nice glass of wine and truly enjoy themselves. Personally I don't believe that diners have the right ambiance for the new clientele that is surfacing in our area.
Secondly, it is very important to my chef and myself that we produce and sell a product which we are happy with and are proud of. Olaf will not be happy preparing food which was cooked 12 hours ago and is now being heated up in the microwave and I likewise will not be happy serving people that type of food or serving them any food at a location which I do not feel gives off the vibe that I would like it to. My restaurant represents me — it allows both Olaf and myself to express ourselves. I am looking forward to having everything exactly the way I want it and to see people really enjoying themselves at Polonia Eatery. We have already made a great deal of progress and I believe things will continue moving in the direction I hoped they would.