By Bella Minyo
Pittsburghers love pierogies. Many of us trust family recipes or grandma’s secrets on how to make them best. But did you know that you could easily buy affordable and delicious pierogies from a Pittsburgh-based food truck?
The Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck parks in the Shaler North Hills Library lot on Fridays during Lent, so my mother and I set out to determine if their popular pierogies measured up to my polish ancestry’s lofty standards.
During the experience, I was blown away by how friendly the owners were as well as the generous helpings of food they gave. Their pierogies were fresh and delicious, and the whole experience made me feel like I had been magically transported to a Poland eatery.
Stephen Szarnicki is the man who cooked up the pierogies for my mother and me. He’s the brother of the truck’s owner. He talked to me about Covid’s toll on the business, what it takes to operate a food truck, and what it is like to be in the pierogie business.
The Pittsburgh Pierogie Truck has been selling pierogies to hungry customers for more than a decade. The origins of the business came from Mr. Szarnicki’s sister, who started the business after college. She decided that the family recipe could be sold and shared with Pittsburghers.
When Mr. Stephen finished college, he couldn’t find much work since it was at the height of the Great Recession. He decided to help his sister with her business part-time, and after a while, it became a full-time thing.
“You’re never gonna know what you going to do in life,” Mr. Szarnicki said. He never thought that his family would run a food truck but the Pittsburgh Pierogie Truck is one of the most successful and well-known food trucks in the city.
Despite the truck’s popularity, the Szarnickis’ business was hit hard when Covid-19 struck last spring. It was the middle of Lent when businesses were closed and people were asked to stay home. The Pittsburgh Pierogie Truck made some Lenten sales but missed out on key events such as the Three Rivers Art’s Festival and Children’s Fest.
The Truck also normally does a lot of business selling lunch outside of office buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, and that was lost with people working from home. Before Covid-19, the Truck was extremely busy with loads of events, and although we have inched back to normal, the Szarnickis still haven’t made up for the losses. After months of no sales, the Truck was able to re-open in June 2020 and business started to pick back up.
Mr. Szarnicki said that the general public has kept his Truck afloat. He said that when the Truck goes out in public now, like when it parks next to SAMS, it serves more walk-up customers than they did before. Profits are down due to the loss of events, but individual sales are higher.
So what does it take to start and operate a food truck? Mr. Szarnicki said that there is a lot you need to get right, and there is a lot more that goes into operating a food truck than people think. You need a separate kitchen and refrigeration space for the food. You also need a garage or parking space for the truck. There are a lot of hoops that businesses need to jump through before opening. The restrictions for selling food from a truck are a lot tighter than being in a restaurant, and getting a permit is sometimes harder.
Finally, Mr. Szarnicki had suggestions for people who want to start their own food truck business. Here are some of the things he said:
“Don’t do barbecue, it’s overdone and everyone does it. You’ll never stand out by doing it,” he said. “Find a product that works for you. Choose something that you like, and are good at. It should be fun, not a burden.”
He also said that a business should be different but not too unique.
“Do something not too niche, but keep it different so as not to blend in with the crowd,” he said.
Lastly, running a food truck can be quite hard. “Cooking is not as glamorous as it looks on TV,” he said. “You will usually spend as much time cleaning up as you will cooking, so prepare to get dirty.”
So what is his favorite kind of pierogi?
“Sauerkraut and Mushroom!!” he said.
It was an extremely fun interview. The Szarnickis have great personalities, fantastic work ethics, and delicious food. If you are looking for something new to try and want some authentic Eastern European food, check out the Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck! The link to their website is here: http://pghpierogitruck.com/