Pierogi on wheels

Dana Szczepaniak.

It’s lunchtime, and Betty Crockski is slinging homemade pierogi in Buffalo, a city whose Polish heritage dates to the mid-1800s. A crowd has formed, likely drawn by the enticing smells of sauerkraut, handmade kielbasa and other Polish staples.

Betty, the city’s first Polish food truck, is the brainchild of cousins Kate Hey and Dana Szczepaniak, BS/MBA ’11, who left a stable accounting position in New York for this venture.

“Opening your own business is the scariest thing you could ever do,” she says. “You risk a lot, but without any risk, there’s no reward.”

After receiving her bachelor’s degree and MBA from the UB School of Management, Szczepaniak earned her CPA and joined WeiserMazars LLP in New York City as a staff auditor in November 2011. However, she eventually realized that working in a cubicle wasn’t for her.

Last year, over casual conversation at a Memorial Day barbecue, the cousins devised the idea for a pierogi truck. By Christmas, Szczepaniak had written a business plan, quit her job and returned to her hometown.

“We’ve both worked in the restaurant industry, and it’s very difficult to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. You’re limited to one fixed location, so it doesn’t allow as much flexibility,” she says. “With a truck, you can go where the people are. I like that strategic aspect of the business.”

To develop their menu, which regularly includes four types of pierogi, sausage and daily specials, the cousins started with time-tested recipes from Szczepaniak’s grandmother and reinvented them. Hey did extensive research into Polish customs and cuisine, and both traveled to Poland for two weeks, sampling traditional ingredients and gathering ideas for side dishes in Warsaw and Krakow.

On their way back, they stopped in New Jersey and drove home in their brand-new food truck, an eye-catching, bright red vehicle with their logo and social media profiles displayed prominently. The entrepreneurs have used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to develop buzz and inform customers about the truck’s location and hours.

“Without social media, food trucks could not exist,” Szczepaniak states. “We were selective in what we posted, and within a month we had more than 500 followers on Twitter, which was amazing to me.”

The truck had a soft opening on March 7 at the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle on Buffalo’s East Side and will formally celebrate its grand opening on April 21: Dyngus Day, the annual celebration of Polish culture.

“Our first service was amazing. Seventy-five people drove there specifically for our food. The line wasn’t too long, and it was the most fun we’d had in weeks,” Szczepaniak says. “Buffalo is a Polish town, so people have just been ecstatic about the concept.”

As the business grows and the pair preps for a busy summer of festivals and corporate lunch services, Szczepaniak plans to draw from critical lessons she acquired from the School of Management.

“A major takeaway from the MBA program that has helped me immensely is the importance of teamwork and presentation skills,” she says. “Betty is a two-person operation that would not be possible without Kate’s culinary skills and my business acumen. Plus, every time we go somewhere, we are presenting ourselves, so knowing how to interact with people has been essential.”

Written by Matthew Biddle