January 19, 2021

Lost Village Pierogi

A Petoskey-based purveyor of traditional handmade pierogi, coming to a town near you.
By Craig Manning | Dec. 12, 2020

 

Up until a few years ago, husband-and-wife team Mike and Holly Kotz weren’t working jobs even tangential to the culinary scene. Mike was a screen printer making T-shirts; Holly was a high school English teacher. Now, they’re on a mission to preserve and share some of the most beloved traditions of Polish cuisine — a pursuit they both say feels like their calling. Their store, called Lost Village Pierogi, was established in Grand Rapids about a half-decade ago, but they recently relocated to Downtown Petoskey. It is now open for business — and perhaps traveling to a town near you.

The Spark of Creation
The seeds for Lost Village Pierogi were planted several years ago at Christmastime, as Mike and Holly tried to craft an authentic Polish feast for the holidays. A key part of that equation was pierogi, the Polish dumplings that look a bit like ravioli and can be made with a variety of sweet or savory fillings. Some of Mike’s fondest childhood memories involved his grandmother and his aunts gathered in the kitchen together, making fresh pierogi, especially around the holidays. On this particular Christmas, though, the Kotzes couldn’t find pierogi to add to their holiday dinner — at least not any that lived up to Mike’s lofty expectations.

“First, we tried to find a source [of pierogi] locally, because there are a bunch of Polish halls and whatnot [in Grand Rapids],” Mike recalled. “The harder we tried, the more disappointing experiences we had. So finally, it boiled down to ‘OK, let's make them ourselves.’ We got my grandmother’s dough recipe, and we started there.”

Grandma’s recipe made all the difference. Not only were the pierogis the Kotzes made together that fateful Christmas a taste of childhood for Mike but they were also good enough that they got an idea forming in Mike’s head. Before long, he’d moved from making pierogi for friends and family to selling them out of the home kitchen.

“I was teaching high school at the time,” Holly said, chuckling at the memory. “And he called me one day at lunch and said ‘You know those extra pierogi we have in the freezer? I put an ad on Facebook; we're going to sell them.” By the next day, when I came home from school, he had oversold what we had frozen by three or four times the amount.”

The business snowballed from there. The Facebook sales led to a stall at a farmer’s market in Rockford, a small burg just outside Grand Rapids. That venture led to a shared space in a small cookie shop, which led to a significantly larger store location in Grand Rapids. Fast-forward to the present day, and Lost Village Pierogi is making 500 dozen — yes, 500 dozen — pierogis on its busiest days. If you’d rather not do the math, that’s about 6,000 dumplings hand-pressed dumplings a day,

A Tradition to Preserve
Of course, to get to the 500-dozen production mark, the Kotzes had to commit to making pierogi as a full-time enterprise. Mike sold off his screen-printing equipment. Holly, after 20 years of teaching, took a two-year sabbatical to focus on Lost Village (and then, not long after, submitted her resignation). The two have been filling their days with pierogi-making ever since — a work-intensive process that Mike calls “a labor of love.”

“The way life has progressed, time is so much more valuable,” Mike said. “It’s demanded in so many other places. And so, over the years, things that take as much time as pierogi-making take a backseat and eventually get lost. When my grandmother passed, we had a really hard time finding good pierogi, so in the process of learning how to make pierogis, the importance of tradition was impressed upon us. If people don't carry these traditions on and pass them along to the next generation, then it becomes some corporate boardroom’s idea of what a pierogi is, not the authentic real deal. So the whole tradition aspect really has taken a center place in what we do. One of our missions is to pass that torch along.”

“Traditions get lost, and that’s why we’re called ‘Lost Village,’” Holly added. “Our motto is ‘Honor the dead, feed the living.’”

The Kotzes are bringing authentic-style pierogis back to the dinner table, in part, by making them easier for the end consumer to prepare. Prepping pierogi from scratch typically involves making the dough, planning and preparing the fillings, handcrafting each individual dumpling, boiling the pierogis in water, and then pan-frying them to finish. Mike and Holly make and freeze batches of pierogi and sell them by the bag, which takes a complex hour-plus food-prep process and streamlines it down, for the customer anyway, to just the final steps.

“[The cooking process] can be intense, especially for people who don’t have time or aren’t cooks at all,” Mike said. “What we were able to do is really simplify that process for them. Our pierogi goes right from frozen to sauté. It’s pretty much just five minutes on each side in the pan, in your oil of choice. We say ‘From freezer to dinner plate in under 10 minutes.’”

A Warm Reception
So far, the response for the Lost Village product has been pretty close to rapturous. When the business was based in Grand Rapids, Lost Village had three channels for sales: selling frozen pierogi (and other Polish staples, such as potato pancakes) out of its store location; supplying other retail locations throughout the state with packaged pierogi; and serving hot food — including ready-to-eat pierogi — at festivals and events. While most of those events have come to a screeching halt in 2020, due to COVID-19, it was getting to see people experience pierogi in those settings that assured the Kotzes they were doing something right.

“It's not like popping a pizza roll in your mouth,” Holly explained. “Often, when people eat Polish food and pierogi, it's the memories, it’s the tradition, it's the heart, it's the love. You can see it on their face when they take a bite. They're just in love. It's like remembering Grandma in the kitchen. It doesn’t just fill your belly; it fills your soul.”

Not all of Lost Village’s customers are people raised on Polish food, either. In many other cases, the Kotzes have been able to introduce new folks to the charms of their beloved pierogi.

“I'd say half of the people that we will come across in event or market settings had no idea what pierogi was,” Mike said. “And it's been really cool to connect with those people and to bring something new into their lives. Some of our best customers are exactly those people who never had had a pierogi before. And there's a level of gratitude there, because we were able to introduce that to their lives.”

Part of the appeal of pierogi is how versatile the form can be. Lost Village has a regular rotation of more than 20 different pierogi varieties, ranging from what Mike calls “the traditional stuff,” fillings like potato and cheddar, or kielbasa and sauerkraut, to more experimental approaches, like an “overwhelmingly popular” Lobster Rangoon recipe, or a pierogi called “Hog Slop” that’s filled with pulled pork, mashed potatoes, and corn) The Kotzes are even willing to do custom orders; Holly says one customer in Grand Rapids asked them to make a batch of pierogi stuffed with cream cheese, raisins, and chives — a customer’s family tradition from youth.

A New Chapter
Now, Lost Village Pierogi has officially made its way north. After falling in love with northern Michigan on a summer vacation a few years ago, the Kotzes nourished the dream of potentially one day relocating and setting up shop closer to the tip of the Mitten. When they found a space for rent in downtown Petoskey, it felt like fate. The shop, located at 307 Petoskey St., is now open for curbside sales as Mike and Holly work through remaining renovations. Holly says the vision is, by springtime, to offer hot food carryout — street food that locals or visitors can eat as they wander around the downtown area.

While the Kotzes acknowledge that opening a new business of any kind — let alone one in the food service industry — is a risk in the middle of a pandemic, they say it’s been so far so good for the northern Michigan launch of Lost Village Pierogi. While festivals and fairs have been off the table, Lost Village has been able to coordinate a few pop-up events throughout northern Michigan this fall, including one in Gaylord and one in Traverse City. Those events encouraged customers to place preorders for pierogi and pick them up at the designated locations on specific days and times. Demand for those events has been massive, and response has been positive — leading the Kotzes to believe that they’ve hit upon an unserved (but much desired) niche in the northern Michigan food scene.

“[For the event in Traverse City], we had to shut down sales two days early because the response was just that big,” Mike said. “And beyond that, people have come to us. We’ve done a little bit of advertising on Facebook, but the rest has just been word-of-mouth and people sharing our posts. We really haven’t had time to explore more advertising or anything like that. We only just passed our three-week anniversary of actually being here, and of moving our home and business. So I think a lot of this still isn’t real for us. Every day, we wake up and think, ‘We’re here. It’s happening. It’s awesome.’ This is our passion, and we feel blessed and happy to be here.”

Lost Village Pierogi’s Petoskey location is open for curbside service and local delivery. Can’t get there? They’ll be in Gaylord on Saturday, Dec. 19; Alpena/Posen on Wednesday, Dec. 23; and Traverse City on Saturday, Jan. 9. Check out the current menu and the online order form at www.lostvillagepierogi.com and follow them on Facebook to receive future event alerts in real-time.

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