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Piroshky Piroshky: This is how you deal with a crisis

July 2020: You stick together, you support other businesses and take one day at a time.

Olga Sagan has owned Piroshky Piroshky for the past few years but has been involved with the business for far longer. Famous for their location inside Pike Place Market, the company has quickly found success and acceptance as they’ve grown throughout the downtown core. However, that concentration in downtown has also left them vulnerable in the COVID era. Through a series of innovations, Piroshky Piroshky is now finding new grounding and purpose. And they are now the launchpad for Sagan’s newest venture: Catch22 Market, which launched in March 2020 to organize restaurants to retain more of their sales and profit, at the time when they need it most.

Community: Downtown Seattle

Interview with: Olga Sagan

How did Piroshky Piroshky get started?

My former parents-in-law founded the business. They were an immigrant family from Estonia: when they arrived in Seattle, she went from a prominent attorney to starting at square one again, cleaning of rooms in the Hyatt. They came across that little spot at Pike Place Market and decided to open the bakery, based on his experience in baking back home. They were in their 40s, 50s. when they started their life over.

I came on board 20 years ago, after I married their son. It was a great love story that had two beautiful children but, unfortunately, like some love stories, we got divorced. I stayed in the business with the family for another six years but went to them and said that I couldn’t do it anymore. They came back and they said that they blessed me staying onboard. And I have been a solo business owner now for this last three years.

When did you arrive to Seattle? And why?

I came from St. Petersburg, Russia. My dad moved to United States when I was three and he became a U.S. citizen. In 1999, I thought that I would come over as well and kind of decide what I want to do is my life.

I love my home country. I love Russia. But, I also love the work I’m doing here. I love working with my team and developing people. I love being an immigrant and achieving things as an immigrant - I think it is such an honor. I am proud to showcase to other immigrants that this is possible, that you can do things.

You are of course famous for the Pike Place location but you’ve also grown a lot over the past few years. How did the other locations fall into place?

The first new one we opened was at Northgate Mall and that was by complete accident. My kids were 6 or 7 at the time and we had just stopped by the mall. And they saw that Sbarro’s Pizza was closed. They had a sign up, looking for a new tenant – so I just called and said, let's try Piroshki Piroshki here. The leasing agent – Michelle, who is the most incredible person, immediately said, yes, we want you here, let's try it. She made it so easy for us to open up at Northgate and try our concept there.

We were so popular, at the Market and we wanted to know if people knew us outside of there. Everyone always said the Market location worked because of its location. And, that gets in your head – you start to wonder if you actually have a good product or a good business or if it’s just the location. It was scary to move beyond that space but we wanted to know if we were good enough. Especially, as a female entrepreneur, I needed to know if I could make it work somewhere else.

Northgate made it really easy – we were open within a month. And, when we opened, we immediately had a line of people who were so happy to see us and they really welcomed us with affection and love. We were shocked by how much people loved us because this whole time we’re at the Market, we had spent so much time really teaching people who we are and what our product is. We weren't just being a bakery. We were educating our customers for twenty years. And, when we opened that Northgate space – it was like all of the work of the past 25 years was paying off.

So, that gave us the strength to keep going, to open up at South Center and then the Columbia Tower. In 1.5 years, we went from having that one great location in the Market to having 2, 3, and then 4 stores. We have since closed Northgate and South Center but we learned a lot from those spaces.

Now we have the Pike Place Market location, Columbia Tower, and a third location on 3rd and Pike.

You now have this stronghold on downtown which, of course, is the area that was first affected by the shutdown. How was the business doing before COVID, at the beginning of the year? And then what happened come March?

We were strong. We knew we wanted to get back up to 5 stores and then 7. We had everything set up to be running 7 stores.

But, the downtown core was the first region to be dramatically affected. We closed the Columbia Tower store pretty fast. And luckily enough, I was able to transition employees to my other locations. Ultimately, the Columbia Tower location was the only one to close. Everything else stayed open the entire time.

But, business has been far slower and we’ve seen significant staff reduction. At Pike Place alone, we went from 30 to 12. Now it's only one.

What have you been hearing from your customers during this time?

We’ve really a lot of support at our 3rd & Pike store. We have kept serving every single day, even throughout the protests and the shut-downs.

And, even before all of this, with the shootings on that block – it’s just been one thing after another. But we have customers who tell us that having the store open and our lights on is giving them hope for tomorrow.

And we experienced the most incredible thing during the protests and riots in downtown - our whole block was graffitied and messed up, but our store did not get touched. Something magical happened to our store to have it protected. I mean, there is a magic to being a small business owner and in doing a good thing, every single day.

Even when we don’t make enough in sales to cover our staff time in keeping a location open, we are showing people that this is another day and we're there, we're open, we're standing and we're ready. It has so much meaning and it brings so much positivity, so that's why we're open: we're bringing hope to ourselves and hopefully our customers.

Have you wrapped your head around what’s next for the company?

We have launched traveling pop-up’s and they’ve doing great, so we will keep digging into those. We just did a pop-up in Bellingham. We go overnight; we partner with another business; and we do a pop-up Piroshky Piroshky for a day. And that day covers 20% of my payroll. So that kind of business model is working for us right now. We're doing pop ups all over the state and we're looking for partners in Port Orchard, Vancouver, WA, everywhere.

We have also created make-at-home piroshkis.

And we are looking around for more locations outside of downtown Seattle because downtown Seattle is not the place to be.

There is no doubt that people still want our food. We are just getting so much support.

People look at us as something that is still normal. They see how we're supporting other businesses.

This is how you deal with a crisis. You stick together, you support other businesses and take one day at a time.

What support have you, as a business owner, been digging into to keep you going?

I have incredible mentors. For a long time, I was shy in running a business. I was worried about that about the business’ connection to my ex-husband’s family and how my place would be perceived as a business owner.

But, then a few years ago, I decided, you know what? I have done the work: the countless hours of baking, educating myself, getting everything together. I have to stand up and say this is this is who I am. I am an immigrant. English is my second language. But I get things. I understand how things work. I understand how business works and I understand what's important: listen to your employees, listen to your customers, and give people what they need.

For mentors, I have Taylor Hoang by my side, from Pho Cycle; Jasmine Donovan, from Dick's Drive-In. They are especially strong and giving.

And, I try to support others too. If somebody asks me, I need to say yes – it doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter if you're just starting up. I have to say yes, because I have many, many times picked up the phone or I have sent an email to Tom Douglas, Bob Donegan, and so many more, and said, please give me half an hour or of your time because I want to learn. And they did.

I am realizing I need to carry that forward for the next generation.

And, this year, getting the SBA 2020 business of the year award, that has put that on display. Especially, this year.

Any last thoughts?

My biggest concern in going through the shutdowns, is not even that businesses are closing, which is obviously a big problem. I’m most concerned that people will not want to start businesses, for a very long time.

Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!

  • Order some piroshkis!

  • Use Catch22Market the next time you want take-out or delivery, to support other businesses across the city

  • Connect Catch22Market to businesses in other cities who may be able to host pop-up's!

  • Follow Olga's lead and mentor another business, entrepreneur, or individual during this time of chaos and change.

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