By the time Dinkel’s Bakery opens to the public at 6 a.m. on Paczki Day, or, as its known to the rest of the world, March 1, the production line in the back of the 100-year-old bakery in Lakeview will have been running for eight hours straight, a full working day in preparation for the hoards of Chicagoans who will be lining up for the traditional filled doughnuts. By closing time at 5 p.m., Dinkel’s will have, in the past five days, made — and if all goes well, sold — 25,000 paczki.
“It’s kind of insane,” says Luke Karl, the bakery’s general manager and the leader of the paczki operation.
Last year, a combination of the ongoing pandemic and a heavy snowstorm kept customers away, and, for the first time ever, Dinkel’s opened on Ash Wednesday to fry up extra paczki for people who literally couldn’t get out of their homes. This year, Karl hopes everything will be business as usual — or, rather, business as it was pre-pandemic. Dinkel’s has endured a hard, slow winter so far, and has been suffering from the same staffing and supply chain shortages as every other food business. Preorders were also slow, but, as Karl notes, “human nature is notoriously last minute.”
The paczki-making process starts in the bakery’s basement, where two giant German mixers, each more than 100 years old, churn 800 pounds of doughnut mix apiece, enough for 1,400 paczki. Should one of the mixers break, the bakery has to order parts from the one company that still makes them, on the East Coast, and then hire a local mechanic to do the actual repairs.
Once the dough is prepared, bakers break it down into two-and-a-half ounce balls and let them rest and rise before they fry. The process has to be staggered so the doughnuts don’t get over-proofed before they take a bath in hot oil. The fryer operates on a conveyer belt that carries six paczki through at a time. It takes a minute and a half to fry one doughnut and three-and-a-half hours to do an entire batch. During a single paczki season, which runs from the Thursday before Paczki Day (Fat Thursday, to Chicago’s Polish population) through Tuesday, Dinkel’s can make a maximum of 20 batches.
Most of the paczki are stuffed by a machine except for apple cinnamon, which is chunky and tends to clog; bakers stuff those by hand with a pastry bag. The application of chocolate on top is also done by hand. This year, Dinkel’s is offering nine flavors, down from 13 a few years ago. “We’re trying to keep things simple and manageable and deliver on what we promised instead of overpromising and working ourselves to death,” says Karl.
In the past, Dinkel’s would take special orders for custom mixes of flavors, but after a while, Karl says, everyone was asking for special orders and hundreds of boxes piled up in the bakery and it would take workers several minutes to find them, which would make the wait in line even longer and cause extra stress for bakers and customers alike. “It’s a heated holiday,” he says. Three years ago, Karl decreed that everyone who wanted to preorder an assortment of flavors would get the same box; if they wanted a special mix, they would have to wait in line and request it at the counter. It was “revolutionary,” he says, and led to a much more peaceful Paczki Day.
Most customers arrive at Dinkel’s early in the morning so they can grab their boxes of paczki on the way to work. The vast majority of them are not regulars; they’re once-a-year customers or even one-time customers. There’s a lull during the standard 9-to-5 work day, then it picks up again just before closing time. The bakery staff has no special paczki-related songs or dances to help them stay awake through the night and the following day. Instead, Karl says, they rely on lots and lots of coffee and adrenaline. Sometimes his non-baker friends will come in to help.
Karl grew up in Kansas City and was unaware of Paczki Day until he became the general manager of Dinkel’s 13 years ago after marrying into the Dinkel family. But even then, Paczki Day wasn’t that big a deal. Well, as big a deal: the bakery would make about 13,000 paczki every year, roughly half of what it makes now. The big Fat Tuesday draw was hot cross buns. Now, they are so overshadowed by paczki that Dinkel’s only sells them on the weekends; on weekdays, they tend to sit around so long, they go stale. Dinkel’s also makes about 300 king cakes, but without the traditional plastic baby inside. “Mr. Dinkel has a law degree,” Karl says. “From a liability standpoint, we put the baby on top and whoever is hosting the party can put it in there.”
Once the bakery closes on Tuesday evening, it will stay closed until Thursday. The Dinkel family has always held the position that Ash Wednesday is a religious holiday and that the bakery shouldn’t serve people that day. Last year’s snowstorm notwithstanding, Karl tries to hold to that. Most years, he goes home, has dinner, and tries to wind down and wash the smell of frying oil out of his hair. Sometimes, he’ll split a fresh-fried paczek with one of his coworkers (his favorite flavor is plain), but these days, he seldom indulges: “I don’t have much of an appetite for them anymore.”