Tram and car traffic is heavy on Prague’s Dukelských Hrdinů St. – not a very inviting location to open a business in the middle of the financial crisis. Yet the 45-year-old cook gone entrepreneur Petr Kosiner has set up his store Lázníčkový knedlík here. It is the only brick-and-mortar shop in Prague to sell homemade dumplings. Since it opened seven months ago, the store and the humble goods it sells have turned out to be so popular that already its owner has a hard time keeping up with the huge demand. Both restaurant professionals and regular people shop here, he says.
“At the moment, it is about fifty-fifty. In the beginning, most of my clients were people who lived in the neighborhood and people who happened to walk past the shop. Today, people come here from all over Prague to buy dumplings. Some restaurant owners also shop here. Most have them delivered but some only stop by when they know they will need them, say when they are planning to serve svíčková. Then they buy 15-20 packages. We also had a lot of fans at the farmers’ markets, even some TV celebrities bought them and said: Lázníčkový knedlík – they’re really good dumplings, we’ll keep buying them.”
During the hour that I spent at his shop, Petr Kosiner helped several regulars make their selection. Some were disappointed that their favorite variety had sold out. In fact the shop is so popular that there are already plans to expand.
“On average, I would say that in one day, we make 400 to 500 rolls, plus the fruit dumplings, which I count separately, because their number varies, depending on what fruit we can get. At the moment, demand is three to four times as high as what I manage to produce, which is why I am moving into a bigger kitchen, my own space.”
Making a business out of something as plain and simple as dumplings – this idea first occurred to Kosiner a few years ago, when he was the chef at a restaurant in the center of Prague. Was it daunting to trade his secure full-time job for the uncertain future of an entrepreneur?
“Of course, I didn’t go into this blindly. I was making dumplings for the restaurant where I was working, and I found out that I was one of the few chefs who still do that. Most of the cooks today do not have the time or capacity, and many don’t even know how to make a good one. So I was making my dumplings and getting a lot of compliments on them. And I was already thinking it could be a good business idea, but only in the back of my mind. Then I offered some samples to two butchers’ shops from where we got our meat, and they were really impressed. They said: ‘You should think about making a business out of this, because these are really good dumplings, and if you managed to keep the price low, then you would probably be very successful.’ But that was two, three years ago.”
When he finally decided to take the leap and start his own business, Kosiner put together the start-up investment from savings and loans from friends and tried to convince restaurant owners of his product by handing out free samples.
Although today he supplies such well-known traditional Prague restaurants as U Vejvodů and U Švejka, it was not easy to break into the market. In the process of trying to win business, Kosiner even encountered corruption. When he approached the manager of a large canteen, the potential client opened a moneybox and said: ‘We need 3000 rolls of dumplings a week, that’s a lot. It’s up to you.’ Bribes, backstabbing and badmouthing – the business can be very cutthroat.
“The competition is huge, even bigger than in other areas of the food business. The main players on the market manage to push down the prices, so it’s hard to keep up. For most people, the price is still the deciding factor, even though that is slowly changing. I think I was able to combine the two: good quality at a fair price. But I made some enemies. Some two months after I opened, when I had also started to sell my products to butcher shops and canteens, the food and hygiene inspection came here. The company that had delivered dumplings to one of my customers for seven years was angry that their client switched to me, and so they tried to get me in trouble.”
Needless to say, he passed the inspection with flying colors. Kosiner says that now, dumplings taken over his life. But the successful entrepreneur is really a jack-of-all-trades. Before his own business took off, he worked as a waiter at Prague’s Hotel International, in an electronics factory in Germany, taught children to play guitar and turned to carpentry for a while. Dumplings first entered his life during his time as a cook for the army. But churning out 1000 dumplings and goulash for a group of hungry men is very different from what he does now, he says. Still, his hectic schedule is almost as regimented as a soldier’s.
“I get up at 5 or 6 in the morning. First, I have to deliver all over town, which I do by myself. For a while a friend was helping out, but now I am waiting until I have my own kitchen, and then I will see if I can’t find someone to deliver them for me. So I still do that on my own, until about lunch. The store opens in the morning. After my deliveries, I get all the ingredients I need to make dumplings, flour, bread rolls, etc. And then I make them, in the afternoon, from about 2 or 3 until 7, 8, 9 or 10 in the evening, depending on demand. So my workday ends around 10 every night, and then I go to bed at midnight.”
Currently, Lázníčkový knedlík offers bread and potato dumplings, herbed dumplings, as well as potato dumplings filled with smoked meat and sweet ones with seasonal fruit. But regardless of the variety, there are some very specific demands a good dumpling has to meet, its owner says.
“A good dumpling should not fall apart, it should retain its texture, and it has to have a pleasant smell. You shouldn’t be able to smell the yeast. That is very important. You don’t want it to overpower the taste of the meat and the sauce. It has to keep its shape on the steam tray for a few hours, so that it does not fall apart or get lost in the sauce. If it does that, you have a good bread dumpling. And of course, it needs to be made with a good amount of bread rolls, which is not always the case. Often, you buy these bread roll dumplings and when you cut them in half, you realize that there are no bread rolls in the dough.
In the future, Petr Kosiner is planning to further expand his range; even gluten-free dumplings might soon be on sale. For now, the master dumpling maker is moving into a bigger kitchen and looking for a business partner so that he can finally meet Prague’s feverish demand for one of the most beloved Czech foods.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on December 3, 2011.