When Viktor Witkowski's family fled from Poland to West Germany in the early 1980s he craved his family's traditional, locally sourced culinary treasures - particularly his grandmother's pierogi, which he describes as "my first culinary memory."
Many years would pass before circumstances would allow him to return to Poland to reunite with family members, but when he was finally able to return his grandmother made sure he reconnected with his Polish roots by introducing him to her time-tested family recipes. "She would only use fresh ingredients, most of which were sourced from my grandparents' farm and the surrounding area," Witkowski said.
Pierogi are similar to the more popular dumplings, Witkowski said, describing pierogi as cousins to the eastern European delight. "It is comfort food at its best," he said.
When Witkowski moved to Vermont in 2012 he was once again reminded of his Polish roots. "I realized that (Vermont's) topography is similar to my family's land and that Vermont's farms and markets have an abundance of produce, dairy, meat and other regional products - most of which are either organic or grown responsibly," he said.
Vermont's natural beauty and commitment to locally sourced food were an obvious match for the Witkowski family's traditional pierogi. He immediately hatched a plan to begin making and selling his traditional Polish pierogi in the Green Mountains.
While he knew his family recipes like a familiar friend, he wasn't sure how to turn these belly pleasing treasures into a viable business. "I had a rough idea about what I wanted my business to become. But other than an idea, I have no prior experience setting up a food business," Witkowski said.
That is when he approached Vermont Small Business Development Center Regional Advisor Deborah Eibner, who suggested he attend VtSBDC's Starting Your Own Business workshop. The pair also worked together on individual business issues at confidential one-on-one advising sessions.
"Throughout the workshop and in the many follow-up meetings with Deborah Eibner I was supported and equipped with an invaluable set of tools and strategies that changed my rough idea into a clear vision," Witkowski said.
The Norwich business known as Pierogi Me! has already shown signs of success through retail sales at Dan and Whit's general store on Main Street in Norwich and was recently contacted by a Boston restaurant who wants to serve Witkowski's pierogi.
What started as a home-based kitchen business quickly needed space to grow. Witkowski worked with his regional advisor to find suitable commercial kitchen space, as well as a small restaurant space to help the growing company expand. "My VtSBDC advisor connected me with a local landlord in Quechee and I'm making plans to move ahead in this space," Witkowski said.
Those plans continue to become reality as Witkowski puts the finishing touches on Pierogi Café in Quechee, where he plans to be serving fresh Polish pierogi soon. He also moved into a commercial kitchen and is ramping up his retail sales while streamlining product packaging. "I can package them easier, faster and the packages will look better too," Witkowski said.
With the help of VtSBDC advising Witkowski has melded his traditional Polish culinary roots with a solid business base, giving his company a stable platform for continued growth.