South Dakota couple turns dairy products into traditional ethnic foods
By Jerry Nelson-Daily Star
SCOTLAND, S.D. - The holiday season is a time for many of us to enjoy traditional ethnic foods. Such foods are doubly delicious when they contain a goodly measure of dairy products.
No one knows this better than Roger and Lori Pietz, owners and operators of Pietz's Kuchen Kitchen.
Kuchen originated in the Russia-Germany region and has since evolved into innumerable variations. The kuchen made at Pietz's might best be described as a sweet bread pie crust that's been filled with a fruit-laced custard. And like most kuchen, those made at Pietz's involve large amounts of dairy products.
"I grew up on a farm near Tripp, S.D.," said Roger, who describes his heritage as heavily German. "We had a typical operation for that time, some beef cattle, a few hogs and a flock of layers. I milked a dozen cows by hand until I was in high school."
Although Lori was raised in the town of Tyndall, South Dakota, her family has deep roots in dairying.
"My dad's parents had a Grade A dairy operation," she said. "My mother also grew up on a dairy farm. I remember her telling me what it was like to clean all those cones from their hand-cranked cream separator."
The Pietzes farmed and fed beef cattle until two years ago, when back injuries forced Roger to exit agriculture. Too young to retire, Roger began to cast about for his next career.
"I was always fascinated by Mom's cooking," he said. "Maybe being the youngest of five boys had something to do with it. I would stand on a chair by the stove so I could watch Mom make her strudels and kuchen. It seems like everything she cooked had a lot of cream in it.
"I couldn't wait until mealtime. We did a lot of hard physical work back then, but we also learned a lot of values such as respect for others and common courtesy."
After much consideration, the Pietzes decided to pursue their lifelong dream of making a product to sell to the public. With that in mind, they remodeled the basement of their home to accommodate a commercial kitchen.
"It's a lot like running a dairy," Roger said. "We constantly worry about what the state inspector might think."
They produced their first kuchen in March of 2008.
"Developing our kuchen recipe took quite a bit of experimentation," Lori said. "We were playing with Roger's mother's recipe one day when we decided to add an extra ingredient. That tiny ingredient made a huge difference, and we knew we had our recipe."
The Pietzes' kuchen recipe is a closely-guarded secret, although they will divulge that the main ingredient of their filling is cream.
Having perfected their kuchen, the Pietzes next tackled the problem of marketing.
"We didn't know how to sell it, so we decided to hold a kuchen tasting day at Gemar's Market here in Scotland," Roger said. "We told everyone about the event and did a little advertising in our small local newspaper. My only thought was, 'What if this stuff doesn't sell?'"
Roger's fears would prove to be unfounded.
"The number of people who turned out was just unreal," he said. "Greg Gemar said it was the busiest day his store has ever had. We received a lot of good feedback. We had 700 kuchens on hand and went through nearly all of them."
Bolstered by the positive reviews, the Pietzes began to take their kuchen to area supermarkets.
"I had worked part-time for a short while at the Yankton Hy-Vee," Roger said. "So I used my contacts there to get our kuchen into that store. We now have a kuchen bunker in 60 stores located all across the state, from Brookings to Belle Fourche."
Depending on demand, the Pietzes will make between 400 and 800 kuchen per week. Baking takes place on Thursdays, although preparation takes another full day.
"We'll make the filling the day before," Lori said, who also works as a registered nurse at a Yankton hospital. "It varies according to demand, but we'll go through between 90 and 150 quarts of cream per week. We only use the best stuff - the heavy cream. We also buy as many ingredients as we can locally."
Kuchen making day begins early for Roger.
"I'll get up at 4 a.m. and start mixing and proofing the dough," he said. "Our crew comes in at 8 a.m. and we'll bake kuchen all day."
As many as five local women will help out on kuchen making day. The Pietzes offer 15 different flavors of kuchen, ranging from apple to apricot, from strawberry-rhubarb to raspberry. Most flavors are available year-round, but some are seasonal.
"We have a wonderful crew of workers. None of them are afraid to make constructive suggestions," Roger said. "A recent hire is Dawn Vaith, whose family dairy farms southeast of town. Dawn started working for us last spring after their crops were devastated by a hailstorm."
Once the kuchen has been baked and cooled, it's sealed in an airtight plastic wrapper and frozen.
"We tell folks that our kuchen can remain frozen for up to four months," Lori said. "But we tried some that had spent nearly a year in the freezer and it was just fine."
The Pietzes have advertised but it is by no means the only method they have used to spread the word about their kuchen. A prime example of this would be last summer's inaugural Kuchen Feier, which featured the crowning of a Kuchen Queen.
"I think we have the first Kuchen Queen in the state, maybe even in the nation," Roger said.
"Scotland has held a rodeo every August for the past 40 years," Lori said. "So we thought, why not do something with kuchen in conjunction with the rodeo?"
A panel of three judges chose the Kuchen Queen. Candidates were scored on a point system with 50 percent of their points coming from essays they had written about German heritage or history, 30 percent for talent, and 20 percent for personality and poise.
The Pietzes also helped organize community musical events and a German heritage community meal. A kuchen eating contest was also held.
"All proceeds from the Kuchen Feier were donated to the community," Roger said. "We were just glad for the opportunity to give back to the folks who have been so supportive of us."
Looking toward the future, the Pietzes hope to get their kuchen into more stores and in more areas. They are also expanding their lineup of products to include such things as the traditional Czech pastry called kolaches. Lori, who is part Czech, said their kolaches are based on her mother's recipe.
The holidays are by far their busiest season, but Pietz's Kuchen Kitchen is finding other venues for their products.
"We will cater kuchen or kolaches to co-op meetings and other special events," Lori said. "A few people have even decided to serve our kuchen at their wedding instead of cake."
"There are a lot of other kuchens out there, and I've tried most of them," Roger said. "I don't mean to sound biased, but ours is the best!"