Checking out Red Poppies Polish Pantry on Lark Street

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Red Poppies, Lark Street's new Polish pantry and deli, has been open for about seven weeks, and in that time, owner Joanna Keblinski has changed her mind a bit about what drives her business.

"When I started it was just about good, healthy food," says Keblinski.

Seven weeks later the Polish immigrant, mom, and former film critic says it has now become, for her, as much about people's stories and memories.

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Joanna Keblinski has been doing a lot of cooking in the small kitchen at Red Poppies: stews, soups, stuffed buns, cakes, and kabobs. She's also done a lot of listening, surprised by how much people want to talk with her about food -- and meals from their childhood.

"People come in and I learn so much," says Keblinski. "I learn about what their mothers cooked and what their grandmother did to survive. People from afar who bring their mothers here. A 94-year-old lady who wants to reconnect to having 'something like mama used to cook before I die.'"

She listens, not just to what foods her customers request, but to the stories her pierogi and borscht coax from their memories.

Keblinski says food is a way of connecting to people. But that connection, she says, isn't easy to achieve. "You have to reach that level first," she smiles. " It has to be a very good stuffed cabbage to reach that level."

Keblinski has an interesting story herself. A film critic for a Polish newspaper, she moved to Chicago from Poland with her family two decades ago, so her husband, now a professor at RPI, could pursue a PhD. When they came to the Capital Region, she focused on raising her family. Now she's reinvented herself again.

"My kids grew up, so I wanted to think about myself. I am a movie reviewer and it's not that stage of life for me. I would not want to return to that business. I respect the movies for what they are, but I wanted to be more productive -- more of a helping hand to the neighborhood."

Around the time the Keblinskis moved from Clifton Park to Center Square, Babushka Deli on North Lake, where they used to shop, was closing. Keblinski says traditional Polish foods and hospitality have always been an important part of her life, but she's never owned a food business before.

"It isn't like I was never exposed for it before. We always had an open house and when you do a party for 40 people you can imagine."

The original plan for Red Poppies was to make it mainly a pantry and deli, and to that end they stock a variety of Polish delicacies like sausage and deli meats, cheeses, and herring.

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There are also sweets, noodles, teas, and medicinal herbs.

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They're also bringing in fresh bread from Prinzo's Bakery.

Besides being mostly Polish foods, what the products have in common is that they're made with natural ingredients, something Keblinski says was a very important part of their mission. "Good food," she says. "Healthy food."

What Keblinski didn't expect was that she'd be doing so much cooking -- stuffed buns and cakes, borscht and pierogi.

"I never had it in mind to cook every day," says Keblinski, "but customers were coming by asking, 'When will you have this and that.' And I said 'Ooohhh it's not going to be an easy job' -- but this is what you wanted Joanna."

She laughs. After making so many pierogi, she says she no longer looks at them as the national treasure she used to, but when she tastes them, they're still delicious.

"If you love doing it, if you enjoy people smiling at food, talking to themselves while eating stuffed cabbage -- this is a nice picture. So I said to myself, this is a nice job. It doesn't matter if it's tiring. I'm always thinking of the outcome."

Find It

Red Poppies A Polish Pantry
227 Lark Street
Albany , NY 12210

Mon-Fri 11:00am-6:30pm
Sat 12:00pm-5:00pm

Comments

I really want this business to succeed. Polish food is comfort food to me since I come from a central European family with similar cuisine. The prices at Red Poppies are very affordable (jams way cheaper than at the Honest Weight for the same brand).

However, when I stopped by a month or so ago to get some pierogi it took forever to get my order and then pay my bill -- with only a couple of customers in the store. The cooking was done on one small hot plate, but also the pace was awfully leisurely for lunch time on a work day. Slow Food is great, but not when you have to get back to the office. Hopefully Red Poppies will work out those kinks.

Nice! I live in center square and have been going to this place about once a week now, it's so convienent!

I'm thrilled that it is in my neighborhood, but I agree with the first commentator that it is unbearably slow when placing an order. Trying to get soup once took over 20 minutes, and there was only 1 other customer in the shop, ordering a sandwich. The owner is very nice, but too chatty for those of us who want to get in and out. Figuring out which ones want to chat and which ones want just to shop is an important skill to have!

I've been very happy with everything I have purchased there. The meats are mighty tasty... the double smoked sausage was fantastic. Sadly, I had the same thing happen on a day I was in a hurry and was picking up chocolates for a work. I think it is a matter of pausing conversations to get the line out the door.

@Bonster -- that is exactly the issue. When I tried to nudge the owner away from what seemed to be a social conversation with a couple of customers who had already been served so she would finally take my order, she sweetly told me that she'd be with me in a minute when she was done talking with the people who already had the food in front of them!

I've worked in food service and it's tricky to be hospitable to the guests and still keep the business side moving along. But I'm sure Red Poppies will get in the groove.

I loved--and love--the place. Sure it wasn't the fastest, but I wasn't in a hurry that day, either. And perhaps that is part of why I liked it: the lack of rush allowed me to take the place in and be taken in by it. It made it more real than it otherwise would have been.

The food was out of this world and real. I never liked sauerkraut...until I had Red Poppies' sauerkraut in the "Hunter's Stew." When I asked how they pulled it off, they took the time to explain it. People from other shops on that row came in to order and pick up lunch. It was fun to be there and to be exposed to new things by the owners. Finally, the aesthetic of the place was very pleasing, very tasteful.

In a word, Red Poppies--its owners, its food, its ambiance--was cozy.

Dear Albany, Joanna from Red Poppies here. Thanks so much for all the kind words! I am sorry for the slow pace some of you have pointed out. Please bear with us while we work out the kinks. I will make an effort to move everything along more quickly. Hope to see you all again!

Bill & I have been back twice since they opened. I think I found the key to fast service. Order your food early in the morning by phone. Everything is ready when you get there! No other food like it in the Capital District!

My mom is 100% Polish and is picky about her Polish food. I bought her and my dad a selection of food from Red Poppies, AND SHE ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT! She said the pierogis with sauerkraut were the closest she has ever had to the ones her aunt used to make. For what it's worth, that is a massive compliment.

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