QUEENS — It’s holiday season at Homestead Gourmet Shop in Kew Gardens, and that means the store is filled with the smell of baking strudels, German pink herring salad and a stew of cabbage and meat known as Polish bigos.
Homestead, which offers unique, hard-to-find holiday treats, has been in business for about 65 years. Its current owner, Teresa Wianecka, 56, a Polish immigrant, bought the store nine years ago after working there for more than a decade.
The previous owners, she said, were of German and Polish descent, and the store has sold mostly German food for decades.
Many recipes were created by one of the previous owners, Teddy Gajza, who came up with the unique cooking methods that are still meticulously followed at Homestead, Wianecka said.
“He spent many nights working on strudels, salads and potato pancake recipes,” said Wianecka, who inherited Gajza's recipes when she purchased the store in 2003.
The shop, she said, takes pride in its homemade products. “We even make mayonnaise ourselves,” she said. “When we tried to use a regular mayonnaise, it didn’t taste right.”
Pink herring salad, which consists of Matias herring, beets, apples, potatoes, eggs, pickles, capers and mayo, is the most popular dish during the holiday season. Customers also like herring with onion and sour cream, Wianecka said.
German pastries, including Stollen, a bread-like fruit cake, and Strudels with cheese, cherries or apples, are also in high demand. Wianecka says the shop bakes at least 100 strudels each holiday season.
Among other homemade dishes that the store offers is stuffed cabbage (German style, without rice) and a German potato salad with bacon.
There are also many mouthwatering homemade desserts, including baked apples and custards.
Most of the cold cuts are provided by a German company — Forest Pork Store — based in Ridgewood, Queens.
Over the years, the store won a strong base of loyal customers, some of whom return almost every day, Wianecka said.
Riva Koltun said she comes with her granddaughter Elizabeth to buy coffee, sandwiches and salads.
“The food is really unique,” she said. “But at the same time it is similar to the food I remember from home,” said Koltun who immigrated from Lithuania.
Wianecka said it was her dream to work at Homestead. She arrived in the U.S. 25 years ago, escaping communism and a broken marriage. A bank employee in Poland, her first jobs in the U.S. were as a babysitter and housekeeper.
When she moved to Kew Gardens, she found Homestead charming: Not only did it serve delicious food, she said, but it was located in one of the prettiest buildings in the area, a neo-Tudor style building on Lefferts Boulevard.
She said she walked in one day and asked for a job. She was hired, even though her English was poor at that time. She was eventually promoted to manager and when the owners decided to retire, she bought the store.
Since then, Wianecka said, she has added a couple of dishes that are typical in Polish cuisine and have become popular.
Among the favorites are pierogi, served with potatoes and cheese, or sauerkraut and mushrooms, she said.
Customers also like blintzes served with sweet cheese, apples or cherries, and potato pancakes, which she said are the specialty of her husband, Zdzislaw Nieprzecki.
Another dish, bigos, also has attracted a following among locals, as well as uszka — small dumplings typically served during Christmas with red borsch.
In December, Wianecka also sells Christmas wafers, baked from flour and water, which Christians from Eastern Europe share on Christmas Eve as a symbol of forgiveness.
The prices are not cheap, Wianecka admits. A pound of pink herring salad, for example, costs $17, while each custard costs $3.75. “But we make everything from scratch,” she said.
Homestead Gourmet Shop is located at 8145 Lefferts Blvd., in Kew Gardens.