Photos and text by MEREDITH FORREST KULWICKI
Published August 18, 2023
Editor’s note: This is another installment of "Out of Office," a new series highlighting UB faculty and staff who pursue interesting hobbies, community engagement and other endeavors outside of their day jobs.
The Silly Yak, a new vendor at the Erie County Fair, is serving up gluten-free fair food this month, making many with dietary restrictions and food allergies feel welcome again.
“I forgot how good all of this was,” says Melissa Koller, a West Seneca resident who has been gluten free for the past nine years. “Normally I come to the fair and I can’t eat anything.”
Koller jokes that when she does order food from fair vendors, there’s a 50-50 chance she’ll have a reaction. But while dining at The Silly Yak, she and her boyfriend happily shared a corn dog, a funnel cake and blooming onion.
Koller is the customer that Rachael and Michael Krupski hoped to reach when they decided to launch The Silly Yak. Being left out of the social aspects of food is personal for them: Rachael was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2021. And as avid fair attendees, the couple saw a need for more gluten-free dining options.
“We’re definitely not a healthy stand,” says Rachael, assistant director of marketing and communications in the School of Law. “We’re going with the classics, the iconic things that people who cannot consume gluten would not be able to get at the fair.”
That includes corn dogs, French fries, deep-fried Oreos and an original creation they call the brekky-dog. Rachael hopes it’s the item people will talk about at the fair as the food to try.
“It’s delicious, both savory and sweet” Rachael says. “Everything you want mixed together. It’s just happiness. It’s so good.”
Michael, an entrepreneur and clinical assistant professor in the School of Management, took on much of the initial work to find ways to enjoy many of their favorite foods — but in a gluten-free form.
Michael essentially grew up at the fair. He was a 4H participant and a member of the Erie County marching band. As an adult, his volunteer fire department is responsible for staffing the fair, and he is on the grounds all day most days during the run of the fair.
When the couple started dating, Rachael found herself at the fair many nights, too. After her diagnosis, she missed the deep-fried Oreos the most. “It was what I admittedly got nearly every single day at the fair,” she recalls.
In 2021, Michael offered to make the treat for her, as Nabisco had recently come out with a gluten-free Oreo. He brought a small deep fryer to the fair-based fire station and started playing around until he perfected the recipe.
“They were delicious,” says Rachael. “All the firefighters and their families tried it, and they could not tell the difference.”
“We poured our heart and soul into making this a reality,” Michael says. “It was a lot of sleepless nights talking through every detail, and luckily we are surrounded by family and friends who believe in us.”
The Krupskis spent the spring developing recipes and perfecting their menu. In mid-July, The Silly Yak launched with a private event, testing the stand setup in the driveway of their Hamburg home. About 60 of their closest friends and family attended.
Although Michael grew up around his grandparents’ catering business, is an avid cook and has started a business before, this venture was very different.
“This is the first thing Michael and I have ever done like this,” Rachael says. “We are not in the restaurant industry. We’ve never done anything like this before. This is really our first crack at it.”
Things quickly fell into place for the couple, giving them confidence that they were on a good path with the business plan. After Rachael’s diagnosis, Michael would call her a “silly yak,” which is also the name of a children’s book about celiac disease. When the domain name “thesillyyak.com” became available for purchase, it felt like a sign that the time was right. They were then able to connect with the fair and secure a spot.
The reception The Silly Yak has received at the fair is proving the point. The stand is busy — sometimes with a wait time. And it has received the Best New Food and Best Sweet & Treat awards in the fair's New Food Showdown, as voted on by the public.
Moreover, the WNY Gluten Free Diet Support Group on Facebook is full of posts about The Silly Yak. Rachael says they’re serving many repeat customers who come to the fair just for their food, and fielding lots of inquiries about purchasing gluten-free food outside of the fair.
Although their mission is to provide gluten-free options to those who need them, they want everyone to enjoy their food.
“We want to make food that’s so good you wouldn’t even know the difference,” Michael says.
There’s still time to try the offerings at The Silly Yak: The Erie County Fair runs through Sunday.