Photos by Adam Detour
Every culture has its dumpling. At a glance, they might be thought o f as a rather simple food: a pocket of dough that’s typically stuffed with some sort of savory or sweet filling and steamed, boiled, pan-fried or deep-fried. These small wonders are more than the sum of their parts: They’re cheap, popular snacks; they range from simple to complex in flavor and construction; they’re both adaptable and stereotypical.
Dumplings are also cultural signifiers of their home regions, a comfort food that can evoke strong memories of place and time. Think of Chinese wonton, shumai and potstickers; Italian ravioli and tortellini; Indian samosas. Nepal has its momos; Japan, gyoza. And the Polish community is famous for its pierogies.
Pierogies are made from wheat flour, eggs, salt, water and butter, and the dough is thicker than its Asian and Italian counterparts. Traditional fillings include potato, farmer’s cheese, cabbage, mushrooms, meat; traditional accompaniments include sauerkraut, sour cream, applesauce or sautéed onions. For anyone with a hint of Poland in their blood, pierogies hold a firm place in their heart and home.
Sisters Casey and Vanessa White would know: Their Polish grandfather—who owned a turkey farm in Western Massachusetts—started a food business with his siblings some 65 years ago, handcrafting pierogi and other traditional favorites for the local community. Decades later, when they were in middle school, the girls learned the craft, too.
“We’d spend our Saturdays cutting, stuffing and sealing pierogies for our grandfather and he’d throw us a few dollars,” Vanessa says.
Pierogies were also a staple feature on the family dinner plate, one they took for granted. When they moved to Boston to study and work, though, they were met with a reality check: Homemade pierogies were nearly impossible to come by. They’d wait for their mother to deliver a batch so they could always have ready-to-cook pierogies in their freezer.
“Outside the ‘Polish Triangle’ in Dorchester, pierogies weren’t widely available. People would have to go to Trader Joe’s or buy the ‘Mrs. T’–brand mass-produced ones. They’d always ask us where we got ours,” explains Vanessa. “We asked ourselves, almost as a joke: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we actually made and sold these?’”
The itch of nostalgia is hard to resist, and the White sisters decided to scratch it. In 2016, they dug out their grandfather’s original recipe and started rolling out handmade pierogies for Boston. They named the company in his honor: Jaju (SHA-shoo) is the term for grandfather in Polish.
Starting a food business is no joke, but these sisters are no fools. Armed with a business degree from Bentley University, Casey crunches the numbers; Vanessa is a Tufts University graduate and manages the creative and marketing side of things. When they began, they worked seven days a week on their Gloucester-based business while still holding down full-time jobs. They were methodical and conservative in their approach: Instead of taking loans, they reinvested any earnings back into the business. But they were aggressive with their marketing: As brewery tours became increasingly popular in the area, there was a growing trend of pop-up on-site food vendors—and carb-rich, umami-laden pierogies are a perfect foil to beer.
Jaju Pierogi was soon doing three or four brewery events a month, getting in front of a lot of new customers and cross-promoting their product to the breweries’ large fan bases. They also tested their product at farmers markets, where they cooked mix-and-match flavors to eat right there and sold boxes of frozen pierogies to take home. In their first run at the Melrose Winter Market, they sold out 45 boxes in an hour, and got another 35 pre-orders for delivery. Within a few months they were in 17 farmers markets each week.
“Buying a few pierogies to taste first is a low barrier to entry for new customers,” says Vanessa. “We get high visibility, and the word gets out on social media.” Their strategy worked: It was only a year until Casey and Vanessa were able to quit their day jobs and focus full-time on running their own business. Now they’re foraying into retail and wholesale markets.
Despite their rapid growth, the sisters are still big on maintaining their quality standards and values. They use local ingredients as much as possible, and even experiment with flavors beyond the traditional to give their pierogies a seasonal New England spin. Blueberry-ricotta, prune and goat cheese, sweet potato, Buffalo chicken and a Reuben-inspired twist are some that they’ve offered.
“We partner with Lettuce Be Local, a company that connects local producers to suppliers,” says Vanessa. “Our pierogies taste so much better with local potatoes. And sweet potatoes from local farms are like candy.”
Charming, cheerful, covered in a perma-dust of flour, the sisters share what it’s like to work with each other. “We didn’t really hang out or talk that much before starting the business, and now we talk, like, 18 times a day,” jokes Vanessa. “Often, we’ll get so caught up in talking that we’ll breeze through 200 pierogies without realizing it. Still, there are times in a business where you’re bound to argue or disagree. We grew up in one of those families that bickered a lot but learned to move on and not hold grudges. Now, that skill is a big plus for us.”
“I’ve learned a lot about Vanessa that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. And I’ve learned to be patient!” laughs Casey. “Sometimes she won’t even count the cash box and that makes me lose sleep at night. But I wouldn’t do it with anyone else—we’re a great complement to each other, and it’s easy to be straight and not hold anything back.”
Their pierogies certainly bring about an emotional response from customers. The biggest compliment they receive? “This tastes like my grandmother’s.” But it isn’t just their customers that are so affected by their product. When Casey and Vanessa’s mother first visited their commercial kitchen and saw their Jaju’s—her father’s—legacy being carried forward, she was deeply moved. “She cried all the way home.”
Find Jaju Pierogi at local farmers markets, at brewery events and in stores around New England.
This story appeared in the Fall 2017 issue.