The Beauty of Dumplings

Petr Kosiner makes knedlíky that people don't mind standing in a kilometer-long line for

When Prague's first-ever dumpling shop opened, hardly anyone paid much attention. Upon entering the store, however, customers found goodies offering a unique compromise between homemade knedlíky and the crumbly loaf found in supermarkets. Since then, Láznička dumplings have steadily become more popular, to the extent that the shop owner, Petr Kosiner, is beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. "I fear the huge demand for my dumplings is going to kill me," he says.

Every day 150,000 Czechs eat dumplings as a side dish, according to an exhibition called Dumpling Heaven that took place last year. It was dumplings that Kosiner bet on when he entered the world of business, aged 44. He entered the dumpling trade by way of various other occupations, among them working as a waiter, a carpenter, a music teacher, in a factory and, finally, as a cook.

He spent the last six years working as a chef in a sports bar. The owner, who had no understanding of Kosiner's favored Italian and German cuisine, kept reducing the number of kitchen assistants. "I used to make dumplings for 800 tank-drivers [when serving in the army]," says Kosiner, explaining how he came to open the shop. "Then the sports bar visitors liked them as well." He also liked the fact there was no need for heavy investment and, if the worst came to the worst, he could always cook, deliver and sell them himself. "At first I was afraid there might be no demand," he says. "So I offered samples to 100 companies. When 98 of them said yes, I quit my job [in the sports bar]."

In the market and at U Vejvodů
He used all his savings and borrowed some money from friends -- 400,000 crowns in total -- for the start-up. He rented a kitchen, bought ingredients and a dumpling-cutter, hired cooks and launched production. He named his firm "Knedlíky Láznička" ("Little Spa Dumplings") because of a nickname given to him by former colleagues who'd heard him singing the popular song Švihák lázeňský ("Spa Dandy") several years ago.

The strategy in the first two months was clear: to give away as many free samples as possible and break into rival suppliers' networks. Then came Kosiner's first encounter with corruption: "A university canteen administrator opened a tin money box in front of me, tinkled the money inside and said, 'We need three thousand dumpling loaves per week and it isn't easy to get in. It all depends on you.'" Fortunately, dozens of other restaurant managers liked his dumplings and didn't require bribes, and today Kosiner delivers dumplings to big restaurants such as U Vejvodů, U Švejka and Malostranská pivnice, and to various butcher's shops and smaller eateries. In June, he opened a shop in Prague 7-Holešovice, the first of its kind in the city.

Over the summer, farmer's markets helped spread the popularity of Kosiner's dumplings. "Towards the end of the season I sold over a thousand loaves in the market at Anděl (Prague 5)," says Kosiner with satisfaction. "There was a kilometer-long line and people even wanted to buy the free samples."

With winter approaching, farmer's markets are closing for the year but customers have learned about his shop in Prague 7. The reason is simple: Láznička dumplings are top quality, a fact confirmed by a food inspection conducted in the summer. Price-wise, Kosiner's filled dumplings are around a third more expensive than those found in supermarkets but his regular dumplings cost about the same as those in big stores. Kosiner uses only fresh fruit to fill his fruit dumplings (not marmalade) and his potato dumplings contain a generous portion of high-quality smoked meat. To get the best flour Kosiner visited 10 mills. "When you open a sack of flour, you have to smell the mill, grains and wood inside," Kosiner says. A good bread dumpling ought to be soft, shouldn't crumble and shouldn't contain any additives other than yeast.

Besides the regular type of dumplings, his most popular range is his herb dumplings, of which there are three types -- basil, parsley and dill. "They are good with svíčková (beef sirloin in cream sauce) and rajská (tomato sauce) because they are vegetable-based," he says. "On top of that, I use only fresh herbs."

Cottage cheese, Gluten-free, German
Every day Kosiner makes 400 loaves of Láznička dumplings and 200 loaves of filled round dumplings. The demand is five times higher, though, so customers often find empty shelves in his shop. The kitchen that Kosiner rents on a half-day basis can't produce more, so he's now looking for bigger premises.

Kosiner isn't afraid to experiment. Right now he's trying to make gluten-free dumplings and, not long ago, he discovered a way of making dumplings filled with meat specifically designed for svíčková sauce, so customers only have to make the sauce and don't have to bother with the laborious preparation of the meat. "To have small shops all over Prague and to expand my range with cottage cheese dumplings and German dumplings" is Kosiner's dream. "That would be wonderful."

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