In late February, the Windy City more than lived up to its nickname. As I made my way around Chicago, with thousands of other commuters on their own cold, snowy journeys, I thought about how we all desire warm shelter and warmer treats. This was especially the case heading into Fat Tuesday, which took place on March 1st.

Few American cities embrace the concept of Fat Tuesday quite like Chicago. One of the city’s biggest traditions around this time is to indulge in paczki. In fact, for many, Fat Tuesday is more commonly referred to as Paczki Day.

Paczki Day is one of the biggest days of the year for many Midwestern bakeries. They prepare for the rush of customers who will grab these special treats during the final days and hours before Ash Wednesday. Fat Tuesday represents the last day of indulgence before the Catholic season of Lent begins. From Wednesday, March 2 through Saturday, April 16, millions of Americans will look to fast or give up certain luxuries in their daily lives. Therefore, the Tuesday before Lent has become a special holiday for many, including those in the baking industry.

For more devout followers, certain cooking fats are forbidden during Lent. In Poland, that practice led to the rise of certain delicacies on Fat Tuesday, such as paczki. Pronounced POONCH-key, these donut-like pastries typically filled with custard or jelly came to America with Polish immigrants who passed on the tradition to their kin.

Paczki became a common fried treat to find in urban Midwestern centers with large Polish communities, like Chicago. Over time, these pastries have earned a reputation as an important part of the Lenten season. As its success caught on elsewhere, more and more retailers across the country focused on making their special brand of this baked good.

Some of the more traditional bakeries offered paczki with fillings like prune, raspberry, lemon and custard, while many paczki professionals also look to provide more trendy offerings. There are many different sizes of bakeries throughout Chicago, and I had the opportunity to visit three very different paczki specialists in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday.

Leaning on tradition

Dinkel's Bakery prepared about 25,000 paczki for customers in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday.

Much like Sosland Publishing Company (the publisher of bake), Dinkel’s Bakery was founded in 1922. When Joseph Dinkel, came to Chicago in the early 1900s, he brought with him remarkable baking skills and recipes from a long line of master bakers in southern Bavaria, Germany. He was able to open a small bakeshop in 1922 with the help of his wife, Antonie. For the first 10 years, it was Joseph baking in the back of the shop and Antonie selling. Joseph's delicious baked foods quickly became very popular throughout the city.

In 1932 as the popularity of Dinkel's baked foods grew, Joseph and Antonie expanded the current location. It was about this time that their son, Norman Dinkel, Sr., came into the business and continued to build the quality reputation of the business. In the early 1970s, Norman Jr. took over the helm of the bakery thus embarking on the third generation of the business. As word spread of the bakery's quality products, demand for Dinkel's baked goods began to come in from loyal customers across the country (and even overseas).

Tradition is important to the identity of Dinkel’s. According to Luke Karl, general manager and Norm Jr.’s son-in-law, while some bakeries may choose to offer paczki a month ahead of Fat Tuesday, Dinkel’s keeps it limited to a few days before.

“We stick to our guns, and we only offer it Thursday from Tuesday, to try to keep it to the holiday,” he says.

The dough Dinkel’s uses for its paczki is different from a typical yeast-raised dough. It’s richer and fuller, while also keeping better. It’s also more expensive to produce, and with supply issues and high ingredient prices to consider, it makes even more sense to stick to tradition.

“It’s nice to have a season where things are offered and then they’re not offered, because then it creates that special feeling,” Karl says. “For a bakery, it’s throwing back to a more traditional time with the seasonality, whether it be religious or not.”

While paczki gives Dinkel’s headlines in the early part of the year, other traditional items bring in customers throughout the year. For instance, the bakery’s signature item is its stollen, a German fruit bread with pineapple and golden raisins. This hearkens back to bakery’s roots in Bavaria, although Dinkel’s version doesn’t contain marzipan.

Stollen, king cake, donuts and cakes are among the big sellers, but there’s a reason Fat Tuesday is referred to as Paczki Day. Karl expected the bakery to produce about 25,000 over the course of that extended weekend. It has always been chaotic during that time period, but especially this year with the state of Illinois’ mask mandate being lifted and more customers entering the store. Production of paczki has ramped up in recent years – in 2020, right before the start of the pandemic, Dinkel’s output was 30,000 for that extended weekend. While there was an understandable dip last year, the numbers rose considerably in 2022.

This year, Dinkel’s made some changes to the menu in response to ingredient shortages. The bakery couldn’t find enough strawberries to make a strawberry paczki. Instead, with an abundance of apples on hand, Dinkel’s offered an apple paczki that was quite popular. It created a unique challenge that needed to be addressed, but Dinkel’s was able to find a way to balance tradition with ingenuity.

Polish background

Delightful Pastries takes pride in its glazes and fillings, which make the pastries stand out.

My next stop, via a ride on city’s famed ‘L’ train, took me north to Delightful Pastries in Jefferson Park. This Chicago favorite first opened in 1998, providing European pastries to a loyal Polish community (that has since dwindled). The family bakery truly feels that way when you visit, from the greeting you receive as you walk in the door to the way owner Dobra Bielinski interacts with her staff.

While the demographics are changing with many of the Polish community moving away due to the pandemic, Delightful Pastries stays dedicated to providing paczki and other sweet treats to its community.

Unlike other bakeries, Delightful Pastries keeps the bakery case stocked with its tasty paczki year-round. But the annual Paczki Day is something special. While walk-in orders are available, Bielinski always recommends ordering in advance.

“We encourage everyone to call and order in advance to minimize long waits,” she says. “We will have social distancing precautions, and for those who have pre-ordered, curbside pickup is available by calling when you arrive.”

Delightful Pastries has a wide variety of tasty flavors to choose from, ranging from traditional options such as custard topped with chocolate fudge, apricot jelly, plum butter, raspberry jelly and pose petal jelly, to gourmet flavors such as fresh strawberry and whipped cream, passion fruit jelly, salted caramel with scratch-made caramel using sea salt, and German chocolate with pecans and coconut custard topping.

Following in the grand tradition of alcohol being utilized in Polish pastries, the pride of Delightful Pastries’ paczki offerings is its signature Drunken Paczki. There are three booze-filled options: vodka & vanilla bean custard, Jameson Whiskey with chocolate custard, and moonshine & lemon.

“We’re famous for our paczki, so people do expect them all year-round, and in Poland, we eat paczki all year-round,” Bielinski says. “Just like in America, we don’t just eat pie on Thanksgiving Day.”

According to Bielinski, it takes the bakery a month to prepare for Fat Tuesday, when it will sell close to 25,000 paczki among its other delectable goodies during the surrounding days. The dough is assembled far ahead of time and frozen, to be used at any time. It’s then placed on screens, proofed and fried, followed by the application of glazes and fillings. Delightful Pastries takes pride in its glazes and fillings, which make the pastries stand out.

“It’s all about preparation. We’re cutting up strawberries already [when I stopped by the bakery on Friday, February 25] for tomorrow, for Sunday,” Bielinski says. “It’s almost like a battle. You have to have your troops in, you have to have your supplies in, you have to have everything organized. Otherwise, if you have nothing to fry, it all falls apart.”

Making an impact all over the city

Paczki have been a great product for Stan's, which now has 15 locations throughout Chicago.

Few bakeries are as ubiquitous in their city as Stan’s Donuts & Coffee is in Chicago. Ever since Rich Labriola of Labriola Baking Company opened the first Stan’s in the city in 2014 (the result of a friendship and partnership formed years earlier with Stan Berman, founder of the iconic Los Angeles shop that bears his name), the brand has grown to fifteen locations in the area.

“We want to be the Portillo’s,” Labriola says about making Stan’s as big of a name as another local food icon, fast casual restaurant chain Portillo’s. “We want to take a little more time to get a little more quality.”

Stan’s influence can be felt in the limited-time offer (LTO) category, in which the shop is consistently introducing new products that excite customers over short periods of times and motivating them to take advantage of the offers.

Each holiday brings something new to the bakery case. For Valentine’s Day, it was mini enrobed donuts in a heart shaped box. Different times throughout the year will see different flavors of Le Stan, which is its version of the cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid. Around Mother’s Day, Stan’s is looking into doing edible flowers.

These are just a few examples of how Stan’s is prepared for big holidays, which made it more than ready for Fat Tuesday this year.

“Other than National Donut Day, Fat Tuesday is right up there with Valentine’s Day,” Labriola says about the business Stan’s locations do for Paczki Day.

While Stan’s donut dough is already pretty rich, the dough for its paczki uses a little more eggs and the fillings are all made in-house through its commissary, which produces the doughnuts for all of its locations, although some stores have fryers and can produce some in a pinch. In a typical week, Stan’s output can be close to 90,000, with that number jumping to 125,000 in the summer. Paczki Day comes at a time when there’s much lower foot traffic due to the chilly weather, so each shop gets a boost.

“When we first opened, we went a year or two without paczki, because I thought it was just something you went to traditional bakeries for,” Labriola says. “But then we tried it one year and it’s just been growing and growing, because it’s really a great product.”

Guests can choose from different paczki flavors including cherry, cannoli cream, chocolate cream and vanilla pastry cream.

In addition to its stores, Stan’s has been highly successful using alternative streams of revenue. Among them are partnerships with local grocery stores for its chocolate enrobed donuts and branded coffee, which it pivoted to at the beginning of the pandemic and has become a big part of its business.

Another exciting partnership was with Costco, which offered a slightly different version of Stan’s paczki with longer-lasting fillings in many of its Midwestern stores this year.

“During COVID, you saw grocery stores packed and restaurants empty,” Labriola says. “Hopefully this never happens again, but if it does, we want to be on both sides of that. It’s just good business to be balanced.”

In addition to major holidays, the other big times of the year at Stan’s are summer, when foot traffic will increase dramatically, and fall, also known as apple cider season. During a 90-day period in the fall, it produces between 2-4 million donuts just for grocery stores. The apple cider donut features apple cider, apple sauce and apple chips, all to pack them with flavor. They’ve been a big seller at Costco, which has strengthened that partnership.

Breakfast has also been a boon for Stan’s. During the pandemic, it introduced its first-ever egg sandwich, the Stanwich. It’s nestled on Stan’s Parker House rolls, baked fresh from a famous yeast-raised donut dough for a vanilla-infused, brioche-like flavor. The Stanwich features cage-free eggs, cheese and a choice of cherry-smoked bacon or plant-based sausage.

Last year, Stan’s added a breakfast burrito (scrambled eggs, green and red peppers, pepper jack cheese, all wrapped inside of a flour tortilla), egg bites and oatmeal to round out the morning lineup.

“We’ve never had anything savory before,” Labriola says. “We have to have an answer to someone who wants a coffee but doesn’t want a donut. That was the answer.”