Flavors from Afar

Authentic Eastern European foods can be found in Raleigh at the Polonez Polish Market.

By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
photos by Mick Schulte Photography

Of the more than 23,000 new residents who came to Wake County in the last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 18 percent were relocating from other countries. For many, coming to America meant leaving behind the traditional foods of their native lands.

Marta Olszewska remembers how that felt. When she moved to Cary from Bydgoszcz City, Poland, in 2001, one of the things she missed most were favorite ingredients and dishes from her homeland. She eventually found them at Polonez Polish Market in northeast Raleigh. She began working there and—when the owners decided to close the shop and move back to Poland in 2010—she decided to buy it and keep the shop running, although she was only 26 years old at the time.  

“This is comfort food for many people. It gives you that little piece that you are missing from home. It’s kind of a cure for homesickness,” Olszewska explains, adding that many shoppers experience a sense of nostalgia when they walk into Polonez.

Polonez comes from the French word for Polish, Polonaise, and is one of the national dances of Poland. While customers won’t find dancing at Polonez Market, they will find a wide selection of European specialty groceries. In addition to Polish foods, the store sells items from about a dozen other countries, including Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia. Many Eastern European cuisines overlap, and although the names and recipes vary with each country, they are often quite similar. Olszewska wants Polonez to be a place that brings people together. “Food connects us,” she says. “This store is here to unite us, not to divide us into cultures.”

She believes the kitchen is the heart of the home, so it is important to sell products that families can easily make into a homemade meal. Shoppers will find a variety of goods including soup mixes, pickled vegetables, and various pastas and grains. Visitors are always pleasantly surprised to see a huge variety of Polish pickles and entire shelves devoted to krauts. The store’s two bestsellers are the fresh sausages and the frozen pierogies that come with an assortment of fillings, among them cabbage, cheese, potato, and fruits. The popular deli selections change frequently, providing customers with cheeses, sausages, and other specialty meats that are hard to find anywhere else. Freezers packed with babkas, cakes, crepes, nut rolls, and strudels line the back wall near the checkout counter, assuring that customers don’t leave without buying dessert. Thursdays are bakery delivery day, and the aroma of fresh-baked items wafts throughout the store.

Looking ahead, Olszewska would like to add a beer and wine section, but that would require a larger space and moving is not in Polonez’s near future. For now, she plans to experiment with a delivery service in a limited area, and her greatest satisfaction is in the positive experiences she creates for her customers.

A woman with her hands full of grocery bags walks towards the door— Olszewska automatically moves to open it for her and thanks her for coming in. The most satisfying part of owning her business is watching a customer walk out with a smile. “I feel like I did something to make others happy, even if it seems like only a very small thing,” she says, adding that there is never a boring day at the store as there is so much work to do, and interesting people are always coming in. She enjoys talking to them and learning more about their traditions and cultures.

Demonstrating generosity and the importance of unity, Olszewska mentions the other family-owned ethnic businesses in the Spring Forest Square Shopping Center, including African, Caribbean, Jamaican, and Latino restaurants and shops. She says all of the shop owners and store employees share a special relationship, one that she describes as being almost like family. “We chat outside, help each other, and look after one another,” she says.

 

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