The Women Behind Polka Deli
Joanna and Maria
I want to introduce you to the co-owners of Polk Deli. Joanna Coleman and Maria Stanislawek immigrated to the United States back in 2004 and 2006, both due to family coming here at the time. The two did not know each other at the time. Maria comes from Radom, Poland, which is in the central part of the country. Joanna comes from a small village in the northwestern part of the country, Miszalaki.
When they came here they both had different roles. Joanna found work in corporate dining, while Maria started to work in a dental office. They met in 2007 when Joanna’s daughter and Maria’s niece met during school and became friends. This friendship allowed the two now restaurant owners to establish their own bond.
Maria shares that they started to hangout more and grow a close friendship. “We were partying together, camping together for years.” The two smile as they share this, an obvious sign of good memories made in the years that they have known each other.
As time passed and the friendship grew Joanna shared she wanted to leave the food industry. Around this time Maria was pregnant and decided she wanted to take time away from work as a manager at the dental office she had been working at. So when it came time for Maria to go on maternity leave Joanna took her place in the dental office.
“And then the idea showed up in the form of a Polish store and deli.”
So We Should Open A Deli
So after a few months of being away from work, Maria decided to pull Joanna away from the dental office so they could pursue this idea. The goal was to create a space similar to Polish delis found in New York City, New Jersey and Chicago. “Just seeing these really cool places and seeing places that served hot food.”, shares Maria. This was the goal, to bring this atmosphere to Silver Spring.
There are not as many Polish people in the Silver Spring area compared to a major city such as New York. USA.com shares that only about 2% have Polish first ancestry, but there are many more with this heritage in the surrounding DMV. Also, Maria and Joanna point out that many Americans have Polish roots. (Including myself.)
The main reason the two wanted to open the deli is due to the fact that there are many businesses that sell Polish goods in the DMV area, but actual hot food is hard to come by. A quick Google Search in my location of Laurel, MD points me to their deli as the first location nearby. The next is around 17 miles away in Baltimore. As you can see, authentic Polish food was hard to come by and they filled that need.
Joanna shares that Polish food is very accessible and why she thinks people enjoy what they serve. “It is all comfort food, you know, people just like it!” But it was not easy to build the deli from scratch.
Transforming An Old Pizza Parlor
It took about 9 months to convert the building they acquired, an old pizza parlor, into the now deli/cafe. “It didn’t look like this at all, we changed everything.”, shares Joanna. Maria’s husband is actually a contractor and did the design of the deli. It was very hard work due to the strict rules in Montgomery County. Throughout the whole process of opening the deli they went through 21 inspections before they could officially open.
The next challenge came in the form of getting suppliers of products from Poland. Maria and Joanna had to travel to major cities outside of the DMV to find suppliers. “There are warehouses in Jersey, New York, and Chicago. We just started with finding them and then calling them and asking if they are interested in a new client.”
“They send us offers,” shares Joanna. “It was nice to go and see them and meet these people. They just bring items from Poland,” adds Maria.
Some popular items bought in the store are pickles and sauerkraut, items you would expect from a Polish grocery store. Smoked fish, different Polish drinks, dried mushrooms, canned fish, cookies, candy and so much more line the shelves in front of the deli. The selection is truly remarkable and a must visit for anyone who has an interest in Polish food. It also accounts for 40% of their revenue.
Creating The Menu
The two wanted an emphasis on serving food that they grew up eating when in Poland. They found that in the area, Polish people are spread around but would drive from all over the DMV region to come eat and enjoy the homemade Polish food. Holidays especially are a busy time. When I asked what it is like the response was simply, “Crazy…like crazy, crazy.”
Besides the kielbasa selection that they source from Chicago, they make all of the other Polish food in house. 500 pierogi a day are made, along with stuffed cabbage, soups and crepes.
“It’s the food we know how to make,” shares Joanna. The two recall these dishes being staples of their childhood, the food that represented them as they grew up in Poland. They share that nothing really fancy is made in the deli and that their goal is to be very approachable. Walking into the deli, it is very welcoming and both Joanna and Maria are willing to answer any question from a customer.
As I sat and enjoyed my potato and cheese pierogi with kielbasa, I listened as Maria explained to two older gentlemen the specifics of a juniper berry kielbasa that sat behind the deli window, waiting to be bought. The conversation then winded into the pastries they served and when you might serve the sausage and pastry together. Their knowledge and understanding of Polish food leaves you feeling engaged while also teaching you about a culture you might not be too familiar with.
What Makes A Good Pierogi?
So I had to ask. What makes a good pierogi exactly?
Both answered in unison that it all comes down to the dough. It took Maria and Joanna months to formulate their dough recipe for their pierogi. Practice was the key, not only for the dough but also to go from making 30 pierogi for your family to being able to keep up with the demands of the customer.
“The dough has to be stretchy enough, but also soft, but not too soft,” shares Joanna. The three fillings they serve in the deli are potato and cheese, meat, and kraut and mushrooms. I have tasted them all, and while potato and cheese might be the fan favorite, my heart lies with the kraut and mushroom filling. The earthiness of the mushroom and the tanginess of the sauerkraut pairs wonderfully with the beautiful dough that they crisp up on the flat top. Truly a work of art.
The two were more than happy to show me behind the scenes of the deli. I followed Joann to the kitchen while Maria took care of some customers at the deli. We passed through a double door and to my amazement we were in the kitchen. The way it is set up is that you enter the deli and the counter is up front. That counter connects to a wall, and on the other side of the wall is their kitchen. I could cover the space with three large strides.
I was shocked that they were able to produce so much high quality product in such a small space. Every aspect was organized to maximize the small area and it was also very clean. On a counter to my left sat a pasta maker. I asked Joanna about it.
“Well, we used to have it work as an electric machine. But over time we used it so much that the motor blew out. So now we just crank by hand. The noise was too loud anyway.”
The sheer will the staff at Polka Deli has shows in the kitchen. The organization, efficiency and structure screams care and effort into your workspace. I thoroughly enjoyed Joanna showing me how she got a nice, golden brown sear on the kielbasa by leaving little slices into the top of the protein. How she achieved the same golden brown crisp on the pierogi to add depth of flavor and texture. It was a cool kitchen to step foot in.
How many pierogi do you think you could in a day make using this pasta machine?
The machine sits on the counter inside the kitchen of Polka Deli in Silver Spring, Maryland. This machine is used to make around 400-500 pierogi a day. It used to be electric, but overuse caused the motor to burnout. Now a hand crank is the way to ensure dough passes through. A new one could be bought but this has worked for them, so they make do. It is this “can do” attitude that drives the co-owners of this deli.
What You Should Know About Polish Food
“They ask for Polish kielbasa and we are like which one?! We have eight!” Maria shares that there is so much more complexity in kielbasa alone and that the cuisine in its entirety offers a lot of depth. Stuffed cabbage is another popular dish they make. They share it is a ton of work but also it is a fan favorite.
They also have sweet crepes on the menu, which are a mainstay in Polish food as well. Most would know the crepe to be associated with French food but actually Polish people utilize them in cooking just as much.
More Than A Deli
The two co-owners wanted to add just how grateful they have been to the community around them. During Covid they saw tremendous support from customers and it absolutely blew them away. The random gifts people bring in to reward Joanna and Maria for their hard work is only a small representation of the gratitude customers share towards the two.
It was actually funny. The three of us were standing in the kitchen when I started to share about my joy of making pasta. The two laughed and said they could never do non-Polish food but it was fun to think about them making pasta. I did point out they had the machine and it is something that is doable if they wanted to try. It was Joanna’s response to this that made me stop and think.
“Well we are not Chefs. Maybe one day if we train we can do it!”
I was shocked. For what is a Chef but someone who puts out quality food for their guests? A leader in the community during hard times. The person who has the grit to chase that goal of owning a restaurant. The purpose and drive to go through 21 inspections before opening. To face a pandemic head on and work 7 days a week for three months when all else was shut down and they were deemed essential.
Maria and Joanna are Chefs. They are talented, self-starting and strong willed people who see a world of opportunity. They have the courage and determination to work hard and achieve what they set out to do. To represent the country and food they love and to serve the community in which they feel immense gratitude for.
I wish we highlighted in the industry more of the Chefs like Joanna and Maria. The ones who are scrappy. Who had to make it on their own and make it on their own standards. You might not find a white tablecloth or extensive wine list here. You will find, however, delicious Polish food and drink. But furthermore, you find a team of people who are willing to educate, share stories and serve you great food all the while welcoming you into their space.
If you ever get the chance I would highly recommend you visit Polka Deli. Not only for the food, but for the chance to meet Joanna and Maria. To hear their stories, learn about Polish food and be surprised and delighted by what this great culture has to offer. It is people like them that made me start Line Cook Thoughts and it is an honor that they start this restaurant blog series. Thank you both.