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.
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.
There are also sweets, noodles, teas, and medicinal herbs.
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."
Red Poppies A Polish Pantry
227 Lark Street
Albany , NY 12210
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