Kasia Bober’s Pierogi Empire | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Kasia Bober's Pierogi Empire

NARRATOR: [[POLISH MUSIC]] Pierogi. A half-moon shaped noodle dumpling, often filled with sauerkraut, pork, potatoes, plums or other seasonings.

YAKOBOVICH: You have to prepare the filling first. Then you prepare the dough. Then you combine the two together, and cook it so it's ready to go.

BOBER: I like Pierogi and business. I like it.

YAKOBOVICH: [[STREET SOUNDS]] “Okay we are in the Ukranian Village at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Hoyne. And we have a three story red brick store in front of us with a red canopy saying “KASIA'S” UP…I'm Elizabeth Yakobovich, and I'm Kasia's Granddaughter.

CUT…WE SAY THIS BELOW [Who also works at Kasia's Deli.] Let's go in here through this glass door.

FADE DOWN [Watch your steps…] (She continues, we talk over her – that's her way for being in the deli)

NARRATOR: Ela has worked at Kasia's deli since she was a teenager. She can remember her grandmother teaching her how to use the cash register, and showing her the proper way to package a pierogi.

KASIA: My name is Kasia Bober. I was 47 when I start my business. I did something for my kids.

NARRATOR: Now, Kasia and Ela are something of a pierogi dream team. Ela deals with the paperwork these days, but Kasia still runs the show. Drop by on any day, and you'll see Kasia behind the counter. Some of her loyal customers remember going to the deli when they were children. Now Kasia gives their children candy when they visit.

MCCAROWITZ: Kasia's a very traditional lady. She wears a white blouse always, and she'll wear a black skirt, and that. [1:01] Well, my name is Thaddius McCarowitz. Her hair done up, very, very traditional, like I said. You would say, and no disrespect about a Pani or a Busha

NARRATOR: That means grandmother in Polish

MCCAROWITZ: but she is in that traditional sense of a Polish, elegant lady.
 
NARRATOR: Back in Poland where Ela and Kasia grew up, pierogi is not a ticket to the upper-middle class. It was originally a food for poor people.

NARRATOR: In the old country, the fillings changed with the season—berries that can be found in the woods for the summer, potatoes and sauerkraut for the winter. Kasia didn't know it yet, but the humble pierogi would be the key to her fortune and fame and a foundation for her empire.

NARRATOR: Kasia came here in 1975 with nothing, as she says, only with ten fingers and a small suitcase.

BOBER: It was hard for me because I was working day and night.

NARRATOR: She had never been on a plane before. When she got to Chicago, she remembers being startled by the colors. Back in communist Poland, she says, everything was somber --- bleak. Ela was just two when her grandmother left. But as she grew up, she learned about her grandmother in America.

YAKOBOVITCH: She was divorced from her husband, you know, she wasn't too happy with him. Actually, it's funny, because he was the reason why she came to the states because they were not getting along too much. But then she was kind of thankful to him that he helped her make this decision and start this new life.

NARRATOR: But leaving her children behind was the hardest part of her new life in America.

BOBER: I can't talk about that. It was very hard for me to have the kids. I'm not gonna forget. I don't talk about nobody. If I do, I have to cry. I love them and I have to leave them for eight years.

NARRATOR: Kasia's distress over being separated from her children is what drove her. She wanted to have enough money to bring her kids to America and provide for them. But the four jobs she was working weren't getting her ahead fast enough. But one day she saw a “for rent” sign on an old sausage shop in her neighborhood. And she got an idea.

BOBER: So I call him up. He said yes, you can have it. We talked about that next day. He give me deal, $500 and I pay rent $500. He don't ask me for deposit.

NARRATOR: For Kasia, this is what the Polish Community in Chicago was like at the time—people helped each other.

HERSEK: You know, she'd take soup bones and make soup and eat soup because she had no money.

NARRATOR: That's Joe Hersek. He and his mother met Kasia in his neighborhood two weeks after she came to the country. One day Joe's mother caught Kasia walking several miles to work because she didn't have money for bus fare.

HERSEK: And my mother would say “why didn't you ask me for money, you so and so?” She said “Well I, I'm too ashamed.” I think that's why I think my mother and Kasia got along real well. They both kinda came from hard knocks.

MCCAROWITZ: And I remember the time she had to go and find a machine to do Pierogi,

NARRATOR: That's pierogi customer Thaddius McCarowitz.

THADDIUS CONTINUES: And so what she finally found was a ravioli machine that did something kinda of like something similar to pierogi and then she would have it hand finished off, so that she could say it's “hand made” pierogi.

NARRATOR: For 20 years, Kasia made pierogi by hand. But in 1995, the business went wholesale. The family started selling to Jewel. Then Costco. Business was booming.

MCCAROWITZ: Right now, it's a very high-scale, high-tech deli. I mean she's really changed with the times as she's progressed in her business.

YAKOBOVICH: Okay guys, come on in. Right now we are in our processing room, and this is where we prepare the pierogis.

NARRATOR: When walking through Kasia's factory, the first thing you notice is the pungent smell of sauerkraut, starchy potatoes and dough.

BOBER: And put together, it's pierogi.

Narrator: And much of the cooking that was once done by Kasia alone in her deli, now happens on a much larger scale in the factory.

BOBER: No plum anymore. Hey, no! Not anymore.

NARRATOR: This past fall Martha Stewart came to Kasia's Deli because she had heard Kasia had the best pierogi in town.

AGNES: Oh my God, Martha Stewart is here! It was a nice surprise. She send us a letter…

NARRATOR: But Kasia stood her up.

BOBER: She liked to talk to me because she asked Mayor where she can get good Perigoi. Mayor tell her to Kasia. She was waiting for me two hours I was so mad. Why I decide to go to beauty shop that day.

MCCAROWITZ: She's met presidents. She's met queens. She's a wonderful lady. Narrator: While Kasia has stopped doing all the heavy lifting, but she's still is at the deli everyday from opening to close.

NARRATOR: Have you ever thought about retiring?

BOBER: Never. I am going to die in the business. I like my business very much. I like it.

NARRATOR: On a Wednesday evening you can find her behind the counter, picking two pierogis out of the deli with a plastic fork. She pops them in the microwave, leans demurely on the counter, and enjoys, what's still, after all these years, her favorite snack.

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