Bringing a little more Europe to Lake Placid
Owners of the new Mini Euromart make connections through food with visitors, expats
LAKE PLACID — Imagine you’re in Europe, in a country where American staples like hamburgers are hard to come by.
“You’re fine for some time,” said Bogdan Polak, owner of Lake Placid’s Redneck Bistro, who runs their businesses with his wife, Anna. “Then you crave.”
In the Adirondacks, European expats, students and visitors don’t have to imagine this scenario. Products readily available overseas can be hard to come by here, in part because the rural location and the comparatively small population of customers here can be a tough sell for certain distributors. Oftentimes, people in this region go without food they’re used to, or food they miss — unless they’re willing to drive long distances to get it.
Polak grew up in communist Poland. He left by way of Austria, and after being granted political asylum in the U.S., life took him through Rhode Island and Connecticut before he moved to New York.
One would think that Polak’s decision last year to open a grocery store that specializes in imported products from Europe — Mini Euromart on Saranac Avenue — came from a craving for food he grew up with. Polak said he’s a foodie.
“I used to miss being able to get this stuff, but I love food. I’m not partial to any ethnic division,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t for us as a family. Rather, it started from requests from people here. We started with bringing Polish sausage, and we put it on the menu (at Redneck Bistro). Slowly, people started asking for more and more. We couldn’t just open a restaurant that would serve so many dishes.”
In Lake Placid, Polak saw a unique opportunity to fill a void. This village’s international reputation in the world of sports doesn’t just draw visitors every year — it has also drawn families from overseas who ultimately decided to settle down here.
“Not a lot of people are aware of it, but Lake Placid… I think we’ve counted so far, well over 20 nationalities who live here permanently,” Polak said. “On top of that, we have people who travel regularly to Europe, coaches, all the supporting staff, athletes who are used to European foods and looking forward to it. It’s a strange little place.”
After opening the Mini Euromart, the Polaks saw firsthand what it meant to establish a way for people to reconnect with their childhoods through food.
“We had a couple of people in their 80s cry when they came in and saw something that they ate back in Germany before the war, when they were little kids,” Polak said. “It’s incredible, seeing people’s faces when they walk in.”
And for those who visit and don’t see what they’re looking for, the Polaks often offer to try to find it for them. That’s why the Mini Euromart’s selection is growing all the time: the requests for different European products continue to roll in, according to Polak.
“(Larger grocery stores) usually buy their stuff in bulk, in huge quantities, because that makes sense to them,” he said. “In this instance, we’re very flexible. We don’t have everything, but we have quite a bit.”
Their stock has expanded to include some French, Spanish, Russian, Bulgarian and Ukrainian products, in addition to its existing stock of eastern European products. Customers who walk into the store will be greeted by a wide swath of delicacies: a selection of sausages from Poland, pasta from Italy, pierogi, candy, sauces, spices, cheeses. The Polaks have also brought in some luxury products that can be hard to find here, like caviar and foie gras.
Standards for food in European countries are also different than in the U.S., according to Polak. A lot of the products at the Mini Euromart are GMO-free because of that.
Because Lake Placid is so far away from places like New York City, where there are a lot of businesses that directly import products from Europe, sourcing products for the Mini Euromart proved to be a challenge.
After deciding to open the store, Polak knew he didn’t want to work with a retailer, but with people who directly imported products to keep the cost of goods lower.
“The only problem was that we had to deal with importers who would not deliver up here,” he said.
That didn’t deter him. If they wouldn’t deliver, Polak decided he’d go to them — and every week, he does just that, driving over 10 hours roundtrip to New York City and New Jersey from Lake Placid.
“I deal with close to 20 vendors,” he said. “Some will have this, some will have that. They’re not huge outfits, they deal with small European companies, in many instances, they’re family-owned companies. It’s not a large scale, it’s not something that a big importer would carry because they don’t produce enough of it. It’s almost like up here with the small farms, artisanal cheesemakers. It’s this, but it’s coming from across the pond.”
When COVID hit
The Mini Euromart didn’t open right away, even though Polak knew where he’d be getting his products from. Last year, for months, a sign that read “coming soon” hung in the window of the Saranac Avenue storefront.
“I knew I was going to open it. With the restaurant, we were very busy. It was difficult to concentrate on the store. We ended up saying, OK, we’ll wait until the busy season is over and then we’ll concentrate on the store,” he said. “Well, then the busy season extended and COVID hit. So that set us back tremendously. Maybe it would’ve been the right decision to open it, but that would’ve meant travel to New York City, and you didn’t know what the restrictions are.”
The coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on in tandem with a historic vaccine roll-out effort. In the early days of the pandemic, how exactly the virus spread, and so many other factors about it, were unknown. In the months since, how to curb the risk of exposure and slow the spread of the virus has become clearer.
“Now, there’s a certain protocol in place and you’re really not in direct contact with people,” Polak said of his trips downstate. “Back then, nobody knew. You think, ‘What if I go there, get the disease and come back here?’ Nobody knew a whole lot about that disease. So we put the store on hold for quite a while.”
Then, late last year, the Polaks took a few weeks off from the Redneck Bistro to focus on opening the market, and that “coming soon” sign was gone by late November and replaced with a red-white-and-blue OPEN flag hung on the front of the building at the Placid Pond complex next to Terry Robards Wines & Spirits.
During that downtime before opening the store, the importers he planned to work with stayed in business.
“They all did. I asked them about it. They told me a simple thing: ‘Everybody has to eat,'” he said.
Despite the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic, Polak’s restaurant survived, too.
“I don’t know how many (restaurants) are going to survive this thing, statewide,” he said.
Polak pointed to the 25% capacity limit for restaurants in New York City.
“You still have to pay for rent, but you’re only making a quarter of what you made before. It’s just horrific,” he said. “You’ve had a business all your life and you’ve relied on it, and all of a sudden not of your own fault, you can’t conduct your business anymore. So what do you do then?
“We survived, and we seem to be doing fine,” Polak said. “We’ll see what the future is going to bring.”