The kolache is breakfast food. It's road food. It's a snack desperately trying to break big outside of Texas.
The kolache will be the cronut of 2015, Bon Appetit magazine recently announced, which was not the first such prediction. A Houston company hoped the kolache would be the next bagel when it expanded to New York City in 2009. Four years later, in 2013, Smithsonian.com slapped a headline on its kolache story, calling them "the next big thing in pastries," even if Roll Call's Warren Rojas had to trek all the way to Ellicott City, Md., to find the snack in the DMV.
The "next big thing" prognostications may strike old-timers as odd, given the Czech dish is not some flavor-of-the-month invention designed to bedazzle the modern eat-seeker but a snack with a history that stretches back to the mid-to-late 1800s in Texas. But whatever. Brian Stanford and Chris Svetlik will take it. The former Houstonians are days away from launching their weekly Saturday pop-up, Republic Kolache, at American Ice Company on V Street NW. It opens to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 22.
Despite the rosy forecasts about the kolache's future in locales far removed from the Czech belt, Stanford and Svetlik remain curious about how the snack will be accepted in Washington. (The kolache shop that opened in New York in 2009? It closed.) Will locals embrace it as a breakfast food? Or will it assume a different persona here?
"We have chatted with a couple of restaurants about potentially getting on their menu," says Svetlik. "A lot of people are asking for, essentially, late-night food. They want something that they can give to people after they shut down their kitchens, but which fills drunk bellies with calories.”
"So we’re kind of going through this debate as to like, ‘Do we preserve what we know kolaches as? Do we totally let go and let the market decide when people want kolaches?” the co-owner continues. "For now, I think, we want to set the tone that this is a breakfast food. . .If no one shows up and then we do partner up with bars and sell them late-night, and they just go like hotcakes, maybe we’ll rethink.”
If kolaches do evolve in their transition to the District, it wouldn't be the first time. The Czech pastry already assumed a different persona after its move to Texas, where locals added sausages, sauerkraut and jalapeno-and-cheese fillings to the traditionally sweet pastries stuffed with prunes, apricots and the like. Even the kolache's pronunciation changed in the Lone Star State. (The generally accepted pronunciation: "ko-LAH-tchee.")
How much kolaches will change in D.C. is a central question to Svetlik and Stanford. They grew up eating the snack in Houston doughnut shops and at venerable gas stations/roadside shops such as Hruska's, conveniently located between Austin and Houston. Svetlik even helped his grandmother make kolaches at home. The owners clearly respect the pastry's history, even if they don't always respect the pastry's ingredients in Texas.
"Generally, we’re trying to be a little more gourmet or creative with flavors," Svetlik says. "A lot of the kolache shops in Texas, people are just dumping pie fillings out of a can. We’re trying to elevate a little bit from that."
Republic Kolache plans to offer classics, such as a poppyseed kolache (Svetlik's favorite as a child), but will embrace seasonal and local flavors as well. The founders have been experimenting with kolaches such as cream-cheese-and-toasted-pecan, honeycrisp apple, Maine blueberry, chorizo and even one stuffed with a half-smoke made locally by Meats & Foods. They eventually want to collaborate with chefs, such as Erik Bruner-Yang, on specialty kolaches.
The partners' ambitions are impressive for two guys without culinary training. Svetlik's background is in digital marketing and branding. Stanford is a lawyer for NASA. They met through mutual friends and almost immediately started talking kolaches, which became "this recurring conversation that almost turned into like a dare," says Stanford.
Stanford began spending his free time working on the dough, which to him is the essential part. He devoted more than a year to developing the perfect dough recipe, first at his apartment and later at Mess Hall, the business incubator and commercial kitchen, where the guys rent space to produce their kolaches.
"If you can nail the dough and get that right, the fillings are a wonderful bonus," Stanford says. "There’s nothing better than biting into it when it’s soft and sweet and yeasty.”
Though Republic Kolache's incubation period has been long, it has also been charmed. The owners have built a sizable mailing list; they've raised more than $15,000 on Kickstarter; and they generated press before they sold a single kolache to the public. Now they're hoping the pastry — one that's hard to pronounce and from a food culture mostly unknown to outsiders — will resonate to Washingtonians.
One lesson the guys have learned along the way: Don't try to explain a kolache. It will only confuse the issue.
"As I describe it, the words coming out of my mouth. . . I'm not selling it to people," Stanford says, with a laugh. These days, he lets the kolache speak for itself. "Please just taste one," Stanford tells customers. "I can’t describe it. They're very good.”
Republic Kolache pop-up from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, starting Aug. 22, at American Ice Company, 917 V St. NW. Kolaches will cost for $2.50 for sweet ones and $3.50 for savory ones.