When you step behind the counter at Piroshky Piroshky Bakery in Pike Place Market, it’s like a well-coordinated dance. Workers are gracefully dipping and dodging each other through the crammed 300-square-foot space. Some are hoisting hot trays, others are rolling dough at a work station, while even more are chopping fresh fruits and vegetables.
The only thing in the way on this “slow” day in October is me, standing in the middle of the work space with my camera. “Heads up!” and “Behind you!” are just a couple of warnings I hear. People are buzzing all around me, forcing me to keep my head on a swivel. They tell me it’s even crazier behind-the-scenes during the peak summer season. I can only imagine the organized chaos, because it’s already hard for me to understand how they survive.
But that’s what happens when you’re committed to fresh, handmade products like Piroshky Piroshky. If piroshky sits in the case for two to three hours, they’re tossed aside and a new batch is moved in.
“Freshly baked, freshly baked, freshly baked,” says Piroshky Piroshky owner Olga Sagan. “People appreciate handmade products, freshly baked.”
And that’s why tourists and locals flock to Piroshky Piroshky everyday. There’s often a line wrapping outside the bakery. I even overheard a woman tell her friend that she’s waited 45 minutes for piroshky before, but she finished her story with “it was well worth the wait.” There’s never a shortage of customers at Piroshky Piroshky – new or repeat.
“I really think it’s consistency. It’s not expensive,” Sagan said. “And then there’s customer service and the quality of our product. All these years, we’ve kept our quality and service the highest.”
Zina and Vladimir Kotelnikov emigrated to the United States with their son Oliver in 1989. They were political refugees from Estonia, fleeing as the Soviet Union was starting to collapse.
“They were in their 40s and they started from scratch,” Sagan said.
By trade, Vladimir was a baker and Zina was an attorney. But they didn’t know how to speak English when they arrived. Vladimir started working for a company in downtown Seattle, while Zina took a job cleaning hotel rooms. Oliver, who was 13 when his family moved to Seattle, was also settling into life in the United States. He joined a chess club, eventually becoming a state champion.
That chess club produced more than a state title for the Kotelnikov family, though. It also led to the start of Piroshky Piroshky.
The mother of one of Oliver’s chess club mates owned a shop at Pike Place Market. When the kids were talking one day, she overheard them say that Oliver’s dad was a baker. A small location had just become available in the market, and she thought they’d be a perfect fit to fill the vacancy.
“She said you guys need to, need to, need to get in there,” said Sagan, adding that the classmate’s mother assisted the Kotelnikov’s through the process of starting their own business.
There was a big problem, though. Starting a bakery requires money, and that’s something Zina and Vladimir didn’t have. They were hardly in a position to receive a loan, so the community jumped in to help.
“Market people were helping, random Russian immigrants were helping,” Sagan said. “Just anyone and everybody.”
Despite all the gracious support, the family was still slightly short on money. Oliver had been washing dishes all summer, saving up to buy a car. He had about $2,500 stocked up. It was now October and the family was desperate for cash, so Zina and Vladimir asked for his savings.
“He was on board. Seeing your parents and seeing an immigrant kind of life makes you appreciate things,” said Sagan, “You know, when you have a Russian mom, you’re going to be on board. If she tells you to do things, you’re going to do things.”
Oliver, who is now also an owner of Piroshky Piroshky, says it was the best investment of his life.
The Kotelnikov’s were able to buy all the equipment they needed, but they were still short on supplies to make piroshky. Now just a day away from opening, Zina was nearly in tears wondering what the family would do.
But once again, the community came to the rescue. That night someone slid $1,000 under the bakery door. When the Kotelnikov’s arrived in the morning, they had the funds they needed to get started. Piroshky Piroshky officially opened on October 24, 1992.
“As soon as the doors were opened, people started coming in,” said Sagan. “One person came in, a few minutes later another, and then another. And it’s just been like that ever since.”
When Olga Sagan was two years old, her father moved to the United States from Russia. It wasn’t until she was older that she decided to join him overseas.
“When I finished high school, I wanted to come and get my citizenship squared away because my dad was here,” Sagan said. “And I just kind of wanted to see what life here looks like.”
But life looked different than she expected. Sagan was sent back to high school when she arrived in the United States, and she felt like an outcast because she didn’t know English. She recalls a story of playing baseball in gym class. Sagan had never even heard of the game before, so she didn’t know what to do when someone handed her a bat.
“People didn’t know if they should laugh at me or help me,” she said.
There was one place Sagan did feel at home in Seattle: Piroshky Piroshky. She was working at another spot in Pike Place Market before she met the Kotelnikov’s, but that didn’t stop her from putting time into the shop.
“I started helping out with the bakery, and just started helping more and more,” she said. “I eventually dropped out of school because I was needed here a lot.”
When she started working at Piroshky Piroshky in 2000, there were only five employees. They did it all: bookkeeping, baking, running the cashier, cleaning – everything.
“We really started becoming more of a staple probably ten years ago,” said Sagan. “The market has become this amazing place that everyone goes to, and downtown has become a vibrant environment. 15 years ago that wasn’t the case.”
Piroshky Piroshky is much more than a bakery these days. It’s a constant in Seattle – a way of life. Just about everyone has a story to share about an experience there.
“That’s what amazes me every day. I hear stories of people connecting our bakery with life events,” said Sagan. “We had an engagement proposal at our bakery. There are stories of kids coming here with grandpa. Now people – grown up people – tell me ‘I came here as a kid.’ This is the next generation of Seattleites. They grew up with this and know what it is.”
You can now find four Piroshky Piroshky locations: Pike Place Market, Northgate Mall, Columbia Tower, and Southcenter Mall. The bakery hires nearly 20 employees, and they offer 30 different types of piroshky, including cabbage and onion (the most traditional, but the least selling), beef and cheese, and smoked salmon (the two most popular items).
When she started working at the bakery nearly two decades ago, Sagan never saw this growth coming.
“No, I did not,” Sagan said. “Maybe in my wildest dreams.”
The Piroshky Piroshky story is still taking shape, and there’s no sign of slowing down. Who knows what the future holds?
“There is Mexican food, Italian food, Chinese food, and there is Russian food,” said Sagan. “We’ll continue to do what we do best and have piroshky be a part of people’s weekly breakfast, lunch, and dinner choice.
“Keeping it fresh-baked, keeping it local, keeping it a family-owned business. That’s the goal.”
Have you ever visited Piroshky Piroshky Bakery? What is your favorite memory there? We’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Don’t forget to also check out Seattle Bloggers for more great places to visit around the Emerald City!