In 1974, Helen Mannarino came to McKees Rocks from Warsaw to visit her relatives.
There, things fell into place for her. She married and put down roots, eventually becoming an American citizen.
However, while adjusting to life in this country, she never lost her love for her native food, especially pierogies, the pasta-filled pockets, of potato, cheese, sauerkraut, meat and even apricots.
“I grew up in a family-owned restaurant in Warsaw,” said Ms. Mannarino.
It was this love of food coupled with her knowledge of the business that led her to open Pierogies Plus in McKees Rocks.
“I could never find good pierogies,” said Ms. Mannarino.
Through an Urban League of Pittsburgh program, she received business training and secured a $5,000 loan.
“It took time to train,” she said. “And then I had to find a site. I looked at the South Side, but it was too expensive.”
Eventually the right location turned up in her own backyard, so to speak. Her husband had operated a gas station on Island Avenue in McKees Rocks. The business had closed and the building was empty, costing the couple money.
With the location issue solved, Ms. Mannarino scavenged for equipment.
“I went to auctions,” Ms. Mannarino, who is now divorced, said. “It took two years to redo the station. It was a scary time.”
But she persevered and opened Pierogies Plus in 1991. In the small, white building, with a parking lot that is usually jammed, she sells pierogies, as well as haluski and stuffed cabbage for takeout customers. The shop, which will make special-order pierogies, is too small to seat diners.
The interior is nondescript with the exception of the aroma of potatoes, meat and onions baking. Ms. Mannarino uses a recipe brought from Poland, modified for the quantities being produced. The menu changes daily.
She employs 15 during the busy spring season when Lent buoys sales. At nonpeak times, the number drops to 12. Among the employees is her mother, Julia Balik.
Most of those working at Pierogies Plus are from Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus and are veteran pierogie makers. Her employee with the longest tenure has been with the business for eight years.
“This kind of food is from Eastern Europe,” she said. “If it wasn’t for (the employees) I wouldn’t be here.”
Initially, Ms. Mannarino planned to operate two days a week. Brisk word-of-mouth advertising increased demand, with the shop at one point operating six days a week. But that pace proved too hectic and Ms. Mannarino is now open five days.
Her day begins at 5 a.m., when she comes in to check on the progress of her potato baker, who works through the night. It’s usually 9 p.m. when she goes home to do paperwork.
“I have mixed feelings about being in business for myself,” Ms. Mannarino said. “I like working for myself and making my own decisions. I answer only to myself. I am not making great money, but have managed to open retirement accounts for my employees. Health insurance too. This is a labor-intensive business.”
Sharon McGinnis, one of the owners of specialty grocer, McGinnis Sisters, said Pierogies Plus is available at their stores in Brentwood and Monroeville for two reasons. They’re good and they sell, she said.
“We’re very committed to selling local products,” Ms. Young said. “The pierogies are natural looking. They sell well too, especially in the springtime.” Ms. Mannarino also does business with some local caterers and restaurants.
Despite the long hours, Ms. Mannarino has no plans to sell her business, or retire.
And though she said Mrs. T’s frozen pierogies are a fine alternative, they can’t compare with her own offerings. “I love my food,” she said. “That’s one of the secrets of my success. I have been approached a few times about selling my business. I prayed about the decision. … But, I have satisfaction. I can pay my bills and I’m able to give people jobs.”
MS. ELLIOTT may be contacted at email@example.com.