I reach across the counter to introduce myself to Alena, the daughter of Anna and Stefan Samko, telling her that I’d be writing a story about the family’s pierogi-making enterprise. Other customers mill about, waiting to pay for their bags of filled dumplings and kielbasa. A couple at a table nearby stop eating and turn to me to say, “We drove all the way from Liberty to taste these pierogis.” The word gets around.
Anna comes out of the kitchen just then and invites me to sit and talk. A bright new dining area has expanded the operation, giving both longtime and brand-new pierogi-lovers a pleasant spot to chow down while gazing across the busy highway. Kelder’s Farm is opposite. Beyond that is an unimpeded view of the Shawangunks. The Samkos have been producing the Polish staple in this location for 22 years.
“I came from Lower Manhattan in 1966,” says Anna, of Polish and Ukrainian blood. “It was my husband’s dream to do this. We named the business after his mother, Helena. We started out planning to provide pierogis for the IBM commissary, but that fell through. But we stayed.”
She points to the menu offering a variety of fillings. All the pierogis contain cooked potatoes, plus combinations of onion, cheddar cheese, bacon, jalapeño peppers, horseradish, sautéed garlic, spinach, broccoli, farmer cheese, sauerkraut, meats or seasonal fruits. All are made by hand. “I do it all: rolling out the dough, peeling and ricing the potatoes. We might make ten dozen a day, or up to 100 dozen for special orders.”
Anna didn’t always run the shop. She and Stefan worked side-by-side until he had a health crisis a few years back. We talk about the dedication it takes to operate a successful food business and have it last this long. With little time off during the good years, and doing double-time when inevitable family emergencies occur, she epitomizes a work ethic honed to a fine edge. “We’ve supplied pierogis to Peter’s Market and Schatzi’s and White Wolf. We can use special-order ingredients for customers, such as venison. Once a customer wanted kasha pierogis and handed me a bag of buckwheat. It fell apart! You have to bind it with something, you know.”
Helena’s also sells kielbasa, krakowska and kobanosy by the pound: meats processed and shipped up from a longtime supplier in New Jersey. All pierogis are sold by the dozen, and availability varies by day. Large orders require a week’s notice; holiday orders need to be placed two to three weeks in advance.
The Samkos’ mission has always been to bring traditional Eastern European comfort foods to customers in the Rondout Valley and beyond. Anna points to Alena, who is busy behind the pristine white counter. “My daughter is my right hand. My sister and cousin help out. That’s why I’m here: to feed people.” She hands me a bag of fresh pierogis as I walk out, and tells me to warm them up in a little butter and serve with sour cream. I can hardly wait to get home.
Helena’s Specialty Foods, Thursday-Monday, 12 noon-5 p.m., 5754-A Route 209, Kerhonkson; (845) 626-2958, www.helenaspecialtyfoods.com/contact.