At 6 a.m. the streets of this Buffalo neighborhood are deserted. Dawn is gradually washing away the film of night, transforming lumpy gray forms into a scattered array of brick houses and the occasional leafy tree. Midway down the block in a lone storefront a soft fluorescence accompanied by the clanging of pans hints at early morning activity. The neon sign out front, still two hours away from glowing red, is barely visible. This is Mazurek’s Bakery, and Michael and I are here to apprentice for the day.
This old-time Polish outpost has been supplying Buffalo residents with rye bread, donuts, cakes and pazcki for over 80 years. That alone would warrant a visit for any lover of baked goods. Add in my polish heritage (and a maiden name of Mazurek, no less!) and you’ve got a recipe for a must-see destination.
Owner Ty Reynolds has been kind enough allow us a behind-the-scenes look at this First Ward institution. It is arguably the last of a breed in a town that has seen its ups and downs in recent decades; many of the grain mills and shipping companies that once dominated the Buffalo waterfront have either closed or moved elsewhere. But Mazurek’s Bakery remains.
The young entrepreneur purchased the bakery along with business partner Nick Smith two years ago when Jack Mazurek, son of the bakery’s founder, retired. Reynolds sees tradition coupled with opportunity here: the First Ward is immediately adjacent to a waterfront undergoing a multi-million dollar revitalization. The neighborhood, which was sleeping for decades, is slowly waking up.
We are still half-asleep ourselves, but bakers Bill and Don are already busy at work. Both are long-time bakery veterans. Bill was trained by Jack Mazurek himself, Don came from another bakery when Reynolds took over. Despite our desire to pitch in, we recognize a well-oiled machine when we see it and spend a mesmerizing 30 minutes simply watching the perfectly choreographed movements of these two long time pros working magic in their flour-filled workshop.
The smell of yeast punctuates the moist air. Bill finishes the dough for Mazurek’s justifiably famous rye bread and sets it to proof while the ancient 20- by 30-foot brick oven slowly begins heating. Across the room, Don hand-folds shortening into a sweet dough that will form the base for Danish pastries. Scoop, spread, fold, twist . . . scoop, spread, fold, twist . . . the methodical motion reminds me of my childhood, watching my grandmother make pierogies.
Soon it is “time to make the donuts,” and for this Michael and I are put to work. What utter glee this brings to the face of my donut-loving husband! Ty leads us to the “frying room,” tucked behind the famous rye bread oven. He demonstrates how to gently lay wire baskets filled with small rectangles of yeasty dough pillows into the hot oil. With the precision of an orchestra conductor, he deftly uses a wooden baton to turn over each sizzling mound, ensuring the perfect degree of doneness. Like most skills, it is harder than it looks. Suffice it to say that our “orchestra conducting” produces music, but hardly a symphony. (Fortunately donuts don’t have to be pretty to taste good.)
Ty wisely keeps us out of the paczki making. Pronounced “PONCH-kee,” these dense, round egg buns filled with cherry preserves are a Polish treat traditionally served just prior to the start of lent. Mazurek’s makes paczki on Thursday, Friday and Saturday year-round; purists come to the bakery especially for them. A fumbling effort by the intrepid (but inept) apprentices for the day would definitely have spoiled the quality control on this neighborhood classic.
While the paczki makers are busy at their craft, Michael and I are entrusted with filling the donuts. I take charge of custard: slicing the fresh donuts and placing a dollop of either vanilla or chocolate custard inside and closing them like a sort of donut sandwich. Michael presides over jelly, managing a double-barreled filling contraption that looks like something from a World War II bomber, squirting jelly into two donuts at once. Our success at these tasks earns us the privilege of dusting our freshly filled delicacies with powdered or granular sugar.
By this time rye bread making is in full swing, and the combined aroma of sweet and savory baked goods is dizzying. Don maneuvers golden crackling rye loaves out of the vast brick oven with long wooden peels then expertly shapes the next batch for baking. Timing is critical here: Mazurek’s promises the bread will be ready for slicing (i.e. cool enough) by 10:30 a.m., in time for regulars to have fresh bread for their lunchtime sandwiches. I would be content with a tub of whipped butter to complement my loaf.
To meet customers Ty takes us to the “front of the house” to work the counter with Angela, another two-decade veteran who lives right across the street. She knows almost every customer—if not by name then by the treats they usually purchase. She introduces us to Buffalonians of multiple ethnic backgrounds; most have been coming to Mazurek’s for decades as well. Many no longer live in the neighborhood, but make the pilgrimage for the traditional breads and pastries not available elsewhere in town. One customer, Bruce, is collecting treats as part of a “Taste of Buffalo” care package for a relative who now lives in Wisconsin. In addition to some of the city’s finest hot dogs, Mazurek’s rye bread is a must-have on the list.
But Mazurek’s isn’t only about nostalgia. We meet a few customers who have recently discovered the bakery based on Ty’s efforts with local press and social media. Dave, proprietor at the critically-acclaimed Risa’s restaurant, now has a daily standing order for Mazurek’s rye bread to cradle his corned beef sandwiches. And Reynolds and Smith have opened a second location right in Buffalo’s central business district, introducing these Polish bakery delights to a whole new batch of salivating fans.
The hours have flown by and shortly after noon Don and Bill are hanging up their aprons in preparation to head home. While we are chatting up customers they somehow manage to finish making the Danish pastry, bake two huge sheets of brownies and several dozen cookies, decorate a few cakes, and fry and glaze the paczki. Clearly our assistance barely makes a dent in their workload.
Ty declares we’ve earned a reward for our “help” and offers us our choice of goodies for a snack. I’ve been eying those chocolate custard donuts all morning, so I immediately choose one. It’s damn fine donut, with a dough that is denser and chewier than mass-produced versions and an appealing deep golden color and crispy crust. The chocolate custard is a brilliant filling idea, and I resolve to suggest this to every donut shop I visit in the future.
Our apprenticeship is over for the day. We dust the flour off our clothes, our shoes, our hair. It’s 1 p.m. and we are ready for a nap. We’re not used to “baker’s hours.” As we head for the door, Ty presents us with a parting gift: a loaf of Mazurek’s rye, freshly sliced and still crackling. We drive away, the warm loaf cradled in my lap filling the car with the scent of toasted caraway seeds. I ask Michael to make a quick stop on the way back to our lodging—to the grocery store for a tub of whipped butter.
Our thanks to the terrific staff at Mazurek’s Bakery for letting us be bakers for a day.
To my regret, I am not related to the family of the former owners.
Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.