Thousands of paczki going out the door this week at Bridgeport Bakery

The beloved neighborhood bakery has been through a lot in the past three years.

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A box of strawberry paczki at Bridgeport Bakery.

A box of strawberry paczki at Bridgeport Bakery. The staff at the South Side bakery prepped around-the-clock for Paczki Day. | Mendy Kong/WBEZ

Mendy Kong/WBEZ

Can Lao is running on two hours of sleep and his clothes are covered in a light dusting of flour, but even as chaos swirls around him, the Bridgeport Bakery owner seemed calm on Monday, the eve of Paczki Day.

Also known as Shrove Tuesday and Fat Tuesday, the holiday of feasting is akin to the Super Bowl for Chicago bakeries like this one on South Archer Avenue. By mid-morning Monday, there already was a steady stream of customers picking up orders of the traditional Polish pastry — available here in 22 flavors.

It’s Sirk’s first year working this pre-Paczki Day shift, but like most people around here she’s well acquainted with the bakery. Her grandmother, on duty in the kitchen Monday, has lived above the bakery for nearly three decades. Sirk grew up wanting to work in the sweet shop downstairs, but she couldn’t have imagined it would be this busy, she said.

“My feet are gonna run away,” she said.

Monday’s crowd consisted of the seasoned veterans of paczki lovers. Terry Lill is there picking up orders for both herself and her daughter — they favor the chocolate whipped cream variety. Chris Kornita opts for strawberry. Others have ordered custard. Customer after customer said they’ve lived in Bridgeport for decades and are happy this beloved bakery is still here for them to patronize.

Can Lao bought Bridgeport Bakery in 2019.

Can Lao bought Bridgeport Bakery in 2019. A pharmacist by trade, he had never been a baker before, but in the last three years, he has worked to revive the beloved neighborhood spot.

Mendy Kong/WBEZ

In 2019, longtime owner Ron Pavelka announced he would close the bakery after some health problems. That’s when Lao, a Chinese immigrant who has lived in Bridgeport for 23 years, stepped in. A pharmacist by trade, Lao was not a baker, but he figured it couldn’t be too different from his chemistry background. By January 2020, the doors were back open at the business he has dubbed “Bridgeport Bakery 2.0,” offering old favorites like bacon buns and new, Asian-inspired offerings like shrimp dumplings.

In the years since he took over, Lao has encountered a series of challenges. After making it through the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lao announced he would close in October 2021, citing financial problems brought on by legal fees. But once again, it didn’t take long for the little bakery that could to bounce back. Since early last year, Lao’s shop has been open four days a week, mostly for pickup orders because of remodeling.

But the hardships continue: Inflation has made everything more expensive, sometimes tripling costs of bakery basics like flour and eggs. And Lao has had a hard time finding workers, he said. It’s all forced him to raise prices, but people keep coming.

“People smile when they get a paczki,” Lao, 43, said. “That makes me keep going.”

Boxes of paczki orders stacked up at Bridgeport Bakery.

On Monday, a steady stream of customers dropped by Bridgeport Bakery to pick up their paczki orders.

Mendy Kong/WBEZ

This week, Lao anticipates they’ll sell 10,000 paczki — although he admits he hasn’t had time to tally up all the orders. It’s scaled back from the bakery’s heyday, when they’d move north of 25,000 pastries on Paczki Day to devotees lined up for blocks.

In part, the decline is because Lao has limited the number of orders during that ongoing remodeling, meant to give the bakery a more modern feel. The neon sign that long hung in the front window is gone, replaced by a new “2.0” version near the register.

On Monday, after the doors closed for the day at 1 p.m., the work was only ramping up on the inside.

Eleven hours later, the “open” sign flipped back on. When the clock struck midnight, it was Paczki Day in Chicago and Bridgeport Bakery was open for business.

Bridgeport is continuing to take orders for paczki via its website — and possibly always sell them.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.

Dough is prepped and ready to become paczki at Bridgeport Bakery on Monday.

Dough is prepped and ready to become paczki at Bridgeport Bakery on Monday. The bakery estimates it will sell 10,000 of the famed Polish pastries this week.

Mendy Kong/WBEZ

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