Monday, November 29, 2010

A new era for Polonia



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.

29 comments:

Jeremiah Moss said...

"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."

okay. goodbye then.

sadly, this was one of the last places in the neighborhood to get a cheap, decent meal. we don't need any more "sophisticated" restaurants. this is such a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Better quality than Veselka? LOL. There are at least 3 other places nearby that are MUCH better than Polonia: Veselka, Streecha (on 7th between 2nd and 3rd) an even Ukrainian East Village. As a Ukrainian who grew up in Poland, I know the food. And Polonia's is a joke. I sincerely wish the restaurant good luck and hope all goes well, but claiming that they're food is great is, frankly, ludicrous.

Anonymous said...

Surely there's a way to stop serving microwaved, frozen, and/or low-quality food without catering specifically to young wine-guzzling careerists.

Anonymous said...

This dude sucks.
Another bland stupid wine and low candelight spot. Boring.

Stedman said...

I can't find fault with anyone who wants to try something new in order to make a profit. Good luck to the guy.

ShatteredMonocle said...

I'll stick with Neptune until they become a snooty wine bar too.

rob said...

I remember getting good Polish fare at Polonia for many years, and that's what I went for. Friendly, local character. I took friends a couple of weeks ago and was appalled. Not only was there nothing Polish on the menu except keilbasa, and the menu was nondescript, but the food was inedible. An omlette appeared to be rubber and the toast was so hard I couldn't bite it off -- I'm not exaggerating. Worst food I'd ever had. It was comical. I couldn't cut the toast with a knife, no matter how hard I tried. Felt like I was in a Charlie Chaplin short.

This was once a great little local place that people wanted to eat at. Even if it wasn't the hottest money-maker in the EV, at least it was a good place.

Paul, there was a niche for Polonia. It had a clientele. It was distinctive. I know Brooklynites who would always eat there if they were in the EV, because it had "local character," an authentic place. That's a kind of success and a sure thing, and all there set up for you. You're giving up all of that to bet on an uncertain future.

We were there on a Saturday afternoon and it was completely empty. A couple of years ago, I was lucky to get a seat. I'm sure you are a good guy, and maybe you just don't want to be tied to an old-style place. But there were a lot of other people tied to that place, and they liked it.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but it's unbelievable how people (in this case the restaurateur) are willing to bite the hand that feeds them. The Polish/Ukrainian places that proliferated in the EV served to define it's character for decades. Granted, it's been a slippery slope down for the last 5-10 years, but it's a shame to see that character erode even further.

A shame.

nygrump said...

I tried to get breakfast there after the real estate pigs priced out Theresa's - it was one of those scenes where the waitresses looked at me and walked away and after 5 minutes I realized service was not in the cards this day, they were too busy talking to each other and staring at me from the remote side of the restaurant. Maybe I needed to be 80 and with a walker? I'll never try again. I was clean and dressed nicely, so it wasn't that I looked like a bum.

Lisa said...

Oh, come now - don't all of you geezer fogeys nostalgic for an old, comfortable and familiar locale realize how vital it is that your patronage be ruthlessly discarded in favor of a whole new upscale clientele who know nothing of loyalty or neighborhood ties, and everything about drifting like jellyfish from place to place, alighting long enough for a Cosmo, but never sticking around for the years it takes to build up a devoted following? Silly you. Did you really think your continued patronage and fealty would ensure a similar fidelity when a chance at snagging a "chef" is available, when a happy hour and Wi-Fi can be added, when the new owner seems totally comfortable sneering at the people who enabled his parents' restaurant to prosper for decades, "coming since the day it opened", dismissing their grievances by essentially saying he no longer wants them around, since they're not "young" or "career-oriented" enough? I mean, really - regulars. Who needs 'em when there's fabulosity to be had? Cos *that's* what the new East Village is all about, baby!

Goggla said...

I'm so disappointed to see diners disappearing. We are over-saturated with "upscale" restaurants and are in dire need of more homey diners. I used to go to Polonia for the food and atmosphere - the staff was friendly and made it a pleasant place to be, like a family kitchen. Sounds like they're removing the personality of the place, which is what made Polonia so attractive and memorable. I give it a year.

esquared said...

so, is the wi-fi free only on weekdays 'til 4pm

what lisa said

once the 'younger, career-oriented crowd' has gone on to the next sophisticated thang, the new polonia will be begging the old timers to nag and complain again(which hopefully they won't be back, since they have gone on to 'find somewhere more suitable to their liking')

C Merry said...

You don't get to be a foodie rockstar and impress dates running a diner. I am more impressed by good homey food than stuff upscale dorks looking to be seen flock to- why cook for people that will just puke it all up later anyway? It's his life and priorities just sad its so commonplace and predictable.

gecko said...

Really weird - I can understand wanting to run a restaurant in order to make the chef and the owner feel fulfilled or whatever, but to proclaim that your first priority, rather than pleasing your customers, doesn't make any sense. And, seriously, I don't want any chef expressing himself into my food.

In addition to the places mentioned in the other comments, Little Poland is still around. Other than that, it's Greenpoint.

Anonymous said...

As a long time business owner in our neighborhood I would have to say that you my friend came off sounding like a real douche. Your parents created a great place for locals to get a decent reasonable meal. They created a loyal clientele which comes only from hard work, good food and commitment to all of our community. Show some respect at the very least. jeez!
I hope you know what your doing.

HippieChick said...

Used to go to Polonia (remember the signboard out front? "Early Bird...Catch the Worm", which always put me off breakfast there) for the chicken breast sandwich with gravy: nice white meat chicken breast sauteed in a pan, served on good bread with lots of yummy gravy, all for under 5 bucks. Those were the days...

Paul said...

It is probably in their interest to make some changes but yes I think they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I long felt that Lillian's (formerly) across the street did a great job finding the balance between home-style and being several cuts above a diner. Lillians became for me the EV gold standard. I've been eating at Polonia since the beginning and though I liked the food and the owners, I never had much confidence in the wait-staff. I wonder if this will get better.

Tara said...

The quality at Polonia has gone down not up in the past few years. I remember going with my dad for good quality yet inexpensive breakfasts from the time I was pretty little. The last time I was in Polonia, it was more generic with bland tasting food at higher prices. It could have continued to be a cheap yet good quality place in the neighborhood but I guess it's trying to appeal to the bland snooty masses...too bad.

Jill said...

This is very sad. I do understand the son wanting to put his stamp on the restaurant and update it, but why get rid of the Polish menu, it makes no sense. If he feels the food wasn't fresh and well cooked, why not make the same dishes but with a modern twist. That way you keep the regulars and attract a new generation. For many years we were regulars for the breakfast special, forcing ourselves out of the house by 10:45 to make the 11am cutoff at any of the Polish places - KK which changed their name and is something with a boat or water and I can't remember the name, Teresas, Christines, Odessa, Kiev, Little Poland etc. Veselka is utterly annoying but they did the right thing with their upgrade.

There is a place in the back of the ground floor of that Ukranian building on 2nd Ave. I've never eaten there but it might be worth a try, if it's still there that is.

Anonymous said...

Personally I'm a huge fan of the pancakes... best I've had anywhere, especially the apple and pumpkin ones.

Anonymous said...

Im a Chef who have lived in east village for over 18 years, and yes i have to say that the neighborhood is changing quickly, more students and young people are moving in. I have been coming to Polonia for years and regardless to everything all of you have to say Polonia is becoming better. I'm a good friend to the Chef who's born in Poland and grew up in east village. His plan is not to eliminate polish food out the menu as some of you say, he is making it a real polish cuisine or a new Polish cuisine as he calls it, he uses local and polish ingredients and makes new dishes with it. They have Polish dishes like Trout, Bigos, Stufed cabbage, white kielbasa( You probably dont even know what that is), goulash, pork chop, zapiekanka, zurek, tripe soup, borscht,kielbasa and real pierogi and not the ones like from other polish places where they throw all the leftovers and make them. If there are any of you here that rather eat more expansive and lower quality at Veselka or Neptune be my guest. Do not discredit the people who want to show what Poland has really got to offer and not just what you've learned by eating cheap Polish food designed mostly for Polish men living apart from their families in US and having a quick home "alike" meal. I worked in many Polish restaurants and believe me when i say " you do not want to see what happens behind the scenes in most of these places". I will defend Polonia and people who want to make it better because i know how much hard work they have put in to make the place clean, cozy and healthy. To prove this i can say that polonia always had a problem with health inspections and now they recieved an A.

Claribel said...

Anonymous, you ask us not to discredit the people who want to show what Poland has really got to offer. Fair enough. But is it fair to discredit the original owners who've been in business and appreciated by local patrons for 24 years? The new owners claim to want to build a sophisticated new restaurant, but I'd say it's lacking in class to promote your business by putting down just about every aspect of the way the business was run before. Until you have managed run the same restaurant and build a local following for 24 years, I'd find a way to promote your business without criticizing the original owners and patrons.

Paul Jurczyk said...

Hi everyone,

I feel like most of you have misunderstood what I was trying to say. I have no plans, whatsoever, of trying to scare off Polonia's long time patrons. I have become very well acquainted with many of them and would be sad to see them not come back. I have been frequenting Polonia since before I could walk. Many of these patrons have watched me grow up. Everyone seems to be focusing on my "hoping that the old customers which really enjoy to nag and complain will find somewhere more suitable to their liking" comment. I did not mean to say that the older customers are naggers and would rather not have any of the older customers come in anymore. What I meant was that I have some customers (not all or even majority) which have been coming to Polonia for decades and prefer it the way it was before and make a point to tell not only myself but all my servers how much they dislike the changes. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If you do not like what I am doing that is fine- I do like the changes that I am making and most of my customers also like the changes. What doesn't make sense to me is why these patrons keep coming back and keep complaining. I won't be changing Polonia back to a diner. If you enjoy eating at diners (which I don't mind once in a while) then go eat at a diner, but please don't come in and tell me that you rather have Polonia as a diner. Its frustrating to have to listen to these complaints and frankly I find them to be a bit rude. I promise I am not changing things around just to annoy the long time customers. Also, I in no way meant to criticize the original owners, my parents. What they did was great. They came here without a penny and created a business that was able to put my sisters and me through school. I know more than any of you how much time, work and hardships it took my parents to do what they did. My father worked seven days a week for fifteen years- I barely saw him. They did all this for my sisters and me and believe me, I appreciate all of it. I am trying to make sure that Polonia stays afloat and doesn't disappear entirely like the many of the local spots have. Whether you like the changes or not depends on your taste and each person is allowed their own opinion. Hopefully you can all stay a bit open minded- maybe you'll find that you like Polonia better now than before.

Ilya said...

I consider myself to be a loyal patron of Polonia. I've continued to dine there through the change in ownership and have noticed some aesthetic modifications to the restaurant in the past year or so, as well as some changes in the menu. My impression is that the new owner is looking to appeal to new customer demographics, and ultimately offer us (the patrons) more choices and higher quality. If you think about the changes -- challenging polish dishes and the alcohol menu -- they are meant to give us more options while dining. Now Polonia is a great place to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I've found myself dining over drinks and continuing on through the night at my table with friends over great food and drink. We are Polish (or at least European), why not get "happy" at a Polish restaurant? I see this new owner as having a great deal of courage to try to improve on an existing formula that proved itself to be successful. The fact that Polonia has an owner who is willing to go the extra mile to really bring quality to my dining experience gives me faith that the food, service, and dining experience will never be sacrificed. As for the comments made by the owner regarding long-time patrons: I, myself, am a longtime patron. I know that I was resistant to the changes at first too. But when you peel away the visual layer of the new restaurant, it is still the same Polonia -- now with a more exuberant ownership. The comments made by the owner have been misconstrued on this board by those who are absolutely resistant to change. Its possible that your original criticisms caused his frustration in the first place. When you're attempting something novel, and you absolutely believe in what you are doing, you cannot allow people to impede your mission, even if they are customers. I respect that about this new owner, and will continue to enjoy Polonia.

Claribel said...

Paul Jurczyk, thanks very much for your post. I misunderstood you and appreciate your clarification of past comments. Just wanted to apologize and wish you the best of luck.

Anonymous said...

to anonymous who said " better quality than veselka" lol.... you have "ZERO" knowledge of health, cleanness of food, taste or Polish cuisine. I live both in Poland and in east village for past 34 years. Veselka is nothing close to Polish food. they are a dirty and bad imitation of any eastern European cuisine. Their food is overpriced and tasteless. The only reason why uninformed people like yourself enjoy it so much is just because they are one of the few dinners in the neighborhood that are open 24/7. This makes the place packed for drunk/drugged up crowd which do not give a damn about quality nor taste since they will vomit it out or just simply wont remember. I believe you have not eaten in Polonia for a long time since you really believe Veselka is better. Mr. Lemko since you are Ukrainian you obviously believe that Ukrainian places are better than Polish, but that is only your communistic way of thinking. Please do not get me started on that DIRTY place on 7 street between 2nd and 3 rd avenue. I used to go to St. George Academy back in the day and i know how badly the food is prepared for that place. From all Ukrainian restaurants only Kiev was good. Now there are none! Thank you!

Lisa said...

Whoa! Now we're getting into the restaurant version of Cold War politics here? Grieve, you'll be the subject of a Wikileak soon!

Anonymous said...

I've only been to Polonia a few times, but the last time I was there Paul came over to the table to check on everything and we had a nice conversation. I was impressed with how truly earnest he is in his intentions to respect the years of work and dedication his family put into the restaurant, while making it a beautiful, comfortable place his customers can come to enjoy really good Polish food. And let's face it, the quality of the food is noticeable - I love that everything is cooked to order. White Borscht - so good! Pumpkin Pierogies (along with a variety of traditional/other types that I have to go back and try), Grilled Pork Belly, Dill Chicken, Kielbasa... Everything I've had there has been delicious - Polish comfort food with a fun twist. Reasonably priced, and Yes, it is still Polish! It's not a new phenomenon; people resistant to change, however people come around and adapt (or move on, but it seems his customers do keep coming back!). You have to respect the 22 year olds drive - taking his parents American Dream and continuing to nurture it, making it something he and they are proud of.

Random note: It's kind of funny that the jugs of wine were mentioned because I noticed one filled with wine corks used as quirky decoration on a shelf - I guess a playful homage to the restaurants history. Plus he mentioned his mom is still in the kitchen sometimes on weekends for brunch (which I haven't tried yet) so don't chew the kid out until you've been there and heard it from the horse's mouth (hopefully over a bowl of mussels!) and not a blog post where tone can't adequately be construed!!

Jeremiah Moss said...

Paul, thanks for writing and responding.

you ask why the patrons keep coming back and keep complaining. i think your old customers keep coming back because they still love it there, and they know you and your family. they will continue to come back for those reasons. but they will also need to complain at first. change is difficult. old people kvetch. it's okay. in another month or so, they will stop kvetching.

please be patient with the complaints. look at the fact that they keep coming, and nurture those relationships. they will sustain your business for years to come.