Lau's Czech Bakery
Lia Bendix, Kelsey Cox, Kelsea Dombrovski, and Hillary Weiner interviewed Doug and Patty Lau of Lau's Czech Bakery in New Prague, Minnesota.
Personal History and Running the Bakery
Patty: Ron and Dode Bielick started the Golden Crust Bakery in 1942 two doors down from here. And then in 1961 they built this building, and then in 1972 their son and his wife, Dave and Carol Bielick took over the business. And then we purchased it from them in 1989. They let us keep the name for a while, but then we just took it over as our own. [Doug] was a baker for a supermarket - and I was a licensed practical nurse. But I just kinda learned as we went. We’re lucky we found a well-established bakery, basically. The town was very welcoming to us. I mean, we’ve made many good friends here [and we’ve become] part of everybody else’s family.
Doug: We get invited to Christmas. It’s a real good community as far as sticking together goes. It started out as a lot of kids do cleaning up. It was a job you could walk up to, ride your bike to at that time, and then the guy that owned the bakery that I was at was the vocational school instructor, and so when I was ready to graduate from high school I was going to go to vocational school for it, and decided that I could probably teach the class rather than go to it, so I went to work for Super Value after that, and then Hy-Vee and then it just kinda evolved into this. I really wanted to do my own thing, ‘cause I knew you could do different things like this but you had to have the input. In management there’s only so much you can do without owning it.
We’ve kind of got [the running of the bakery] down to a science. [On a typical day] I start at two, she starts at three-thirty, and usually we try to be done about one or two in the afternoon, you know so we can get out and do something. We know how many we have to make...so much of this stuff goes out to accounts, this is a small part of it. We cut everything ahead of time, so we prep it and get it ready to go, and finish it during the day that we need it. But it’s always been labor intensive, so we try to keep a real good eye on it.
One of the daughters worked here for a little bit. I don’t know if I’d want them to [take over the business] because it’s so labor intensive. And it’d be so expensive to try to run or start a place like this. It’s inhibitive. So when we’re done it’ll be done. It’ll be a museum or an office. People brought things in like the, like the little poppyseed grinders and stuff that their grandmothers have had, and they like to show ‘cause those are rare items.
D: We still use all the older formulas that were here when we got here for, like, zelnicky, which I’d never heard of before. It’s like a sauerkraut cracker. (Most of the recipes are very heavy with shortenings and lard.) It is 90% sauerkraut, 7% flour, 2% shortening, and it’s labor intensive. It’s got to be rolled by hand, it’s too sticky we can’t run it through sheeters, and we cut it into little squares. It’d make a really good pizza crust.
There’s two kinds of kolackys--there’s an open face, which we really don’t do here, because it dries out too fast. What we do is a closed face. It’s all hand folded so the fruit is inside of it. It looks like a bun. There’s a lot of labor involved in that. These stay a lot moister for, if you’re packing them in a lunchbox or something, because a lot of the folks were working out in the fields, so this tended to be the way we’ve always done it here...
I like the koblihy. It’s a fried item. It looks like a banana flip. It’s like a half moon, and it either has poppy, prune or apricot in it. Those are the three main flavors. Even on the kolackys it was always poppy, prune and apricot. But over the years we’ve went into raspberry, apple, cream cheese…If we’re gonna make a sale [to an out-of-towner], on a kolacky, it’s not gonna be poppy or prune, it’ll be cream cheese or apple, because, y’know, they’re gonna go with what they like. Even though the size and the shape’s the same, the flavors are all different now. If you just make it so it tastes good, goodness sells or flavor sells.
We had all the basic knowledge of a lot of the products. Over the years for the different companies I’ve made different products like this but not their sizes and their styles. Over the years people have come in from Czechoslovakia, and actually said here’s the way we do it back in [Czechoslovakia]. This is the proper way, the other way is the lazy way. A lot of the folks who come in, their grandma would never have made an open face one. If you were in the city then you would do it that way but you know this is the old style so that’s what we run with.
We try to stay true to all of the formulas and the recipes here because we may not be able to tell the difference because we weren’t brought up with it, but people aren’t afraid to tell us that there’s a difference. We were brought up with some of the same types of food--sauerkraut is a big thing--but not a lot of poppyseed in Germany, you know…but definitely a lot of poppyseed here. And we just asked the people what they’re looking for, and try to provide that. We appreciate that being right on Main Street and being very visible to the public we’ve never taken anything personally, like we’re going to do it this way and forget you, because they’re the ones that buy it, they’re the ones that make the payments here we just kind of funnel everything in the right direction. We have a gentleman here who was in his hundreds when he passed away. He moved from Czechoslovakia when he was five...It’s people like that that will tell us how to put the poppy seeds on and how to cut it and that kind of stuff and so on those items we try to stay current. One thing that the old guys always said was when their grandparents first got here there wasn’t a lot of poppy seed available, so they started growing, you know, so the hillsides would be all full of poppies and they had to harvest the stuff, but I could never figure out how they could grind it, and cook it, and it’s got to stink. We did it the way grandma used to make.
Anything that doesn’t look like it belongs here, we’re making it because somebody’s buying it. And it changes constantly, if we did the same thing we did 20 years ago, we would have been broke 10 years ago, And that’s probably what happened to some of the places here…
A guy that we know runs the bakery in Roswell, New Mexico. They have kolackys down there, but they have sausage in them. We tried some here and they’re just horrible. Down there he says it’s customary, they’ve made them for years in Czechoslovakia, and we asked the people here and they go, they’ve never heard of that, so who knows.
Over the years [our Czech clientele has] changed. [Now] you see a lot of metro people and it’s usually older folks who are driving in. When we first got here they didn’t speak a lot of English in here in the mornings - it was all Czech. And that’s twenty years ago already, but as they pass away and move out, you know there’s maybe, you know, 5% [of Czech-speaking clientele]. So over at that table over there I know two of them do, but you know it’s rare anymore...There’s not a lot of these places left. I used to be on the board of directors for the state association [of bakeries] so we had an idea of how many there was, and they were dwindling then, and that was...seven years ago.
[We haven’t been to Czechoslovakia, and] you know what, I don’t know if I’d really want to go because I have a vision of it. I’ve been here 20 years and I don’t know any [Czech]. But we do have a Czech dictionary so if you want to label something, get it out. We cleaned one time and put the signs back up and they were up there for a couple of years before somebody pointed out that we had them wrong.
P: Our [New Prague] Czech festival is in September. And it’s called Dozinky Days, which means Czech Harvest Festival. The street is closed and there’s Polka Bands just about everywhere and a beer garden and then there’s other people selling different Czech foods and glass and jewelry. We sell kolacky out front and koblihy and rye bread. They’ll order ahead of time so we don’t run out of it before they get here because there are so many people.
Bakery as Community Space
D: This is exactly the way it’s been since 62.
P: In the morning, there’s a group of ladies that are over here, and these guys (gestures) are usually sitting over there and another group over there. But they’re uncomfortable until they’re in their own seat. Of course after how many years…
D: You can’t sit in their seats. People ask you to move. If you’re not familiar with it, they’ll stare at you until you get up and move. It’s embarrassing, but that’s the way it’s been. We had one person who was here for years and he passed away, they put a little memorial over the seat so no one could sit on it for a while.
P: It’s pretty sad when we lose our customers.
D: There’s too much work to take time off, and if you go you die. But at least the bills are all paid. And we won't close like (Schumachers,) the guy down the street; that’s scary. Now we’re going to do Saurkraut and pork chops I guess. It’s been a staple for years, and it just locked up last night, so that’s bad.
P: I feel bad about that.