The gift of potica: Iron Range business gives Slovak pastry to military members freeAndrej’s European Pastry owners Ján and Jean Gadzo extend the gesture to people serving in the military to show their appreciation for their service.
By: Angie Riebe, Mesabi Daily News
AURORA — Andrej’s European Pastry owners Ján and Jean Gadzo have left many people speechless during the past decade.
Often there is silence on the other end of the line when they call certain customers to say the potica they ordered will be on the house — shipping and all.
People are utterly dumbfounded, and it takes a moment for them to recover from the shock, Jean said. “They say, ‘You’re doing what?’ ”
It’s a rather generous gesture Ján has extended to people serving in the military. But for the veteran — who served during the Vietnam War with the 242nd Air Assault Support Co. in Alaska — it’s simply a small thing to do to show his appreciation for their service.
After all, the Czechoslovakian immigrant knows what it’s like to be away from family.
Gadzo was not quite 20 years old when in 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to put down a political reform effort and to strengthen the hand of the ruling Communist Party.
After the invasion, there was harsh retaliation against supporters of the reform movement.
“I escaped in 1969,” he said. “I had to leave or spend time in jail.”
Gadzo was granted political asylum and came to the United States.
He soon was drafted into the U.S. Army and trained at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Aside from a few uncles on the East Coast, “I didn’t have any family in this country,” said Gadzo, who was then sent to Alaska.
“I have a soft heart for GIs,” said the veteran. “I know what it’s like to be by myself on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Gadzo, who served with the Army for two years until 1973, later moved to New Jersey. His background is as a mechanical engineer, he said, and in 1976 — during a trip to the Iron Range on a mining project — he met his future wife.
He and Jean, a Chisholm native, lived for a while in New Jersey before returning to the Range.
In the early 1980s, they began making potica from their Chisholm home using an original Slovak recipe handed down by Ján’s mother. As their thinly rolled sweet bread with a rich walnut filling gained popularity, the couple launched a small business — Andrej’s European Pastry, named for their son as well as Ján’s late father.
While still based in Chisholm, the bakery has expanded to a production facility in Aurora, where the gourmet pastries continue to be made to Ján’s high standards.
Only the best, all-natural ingredients are used, he said, including whole milk, butter and cane sugar. There are no preservatives in the potica, Gadzo said. Walnuts are purchased from a respected family operated grower in California.
Andrej’s sells fresh potica locally at Super One Foods locations and at Natural Harvest Food Co-op in Virginia.
But the business ships potica rolls, which last up to six months when frozen, worldwide. The “world famous” potica is even among the Minnesota goodies that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., serves at her weekly Thursday breakfasts in Washington, D.C.
But perhaps most special to the Gadzos are the orders placed for people who are serving in the military.
The couple had been sending complimentary potica to Jean’s friend and part-time co-worker at Heritage Manor in Chisholm, who was serving with the Army.
“We kept sending potica to her,” Gadzo said. They also sent cases to Minnesota troops deployed to serve in the Iraq War.
After the war began in 2003, they noticed more and more orders coming in with military addresses, said Gadzo, who accepts orders by phone or e-mail from his website, www.poticawalnut.com.
It was a rather spontaneous decision for Gadzo to fill those requests free of charge, which he has been doing now for about 10 years. People ordering online are contacted by the couple and told they will not be billed. Almost always the response is the same.
“They are speechless,” Jean said.
In fact, when an order comes in for a high-ranking officer, the couple sends additional free potica loaves so it can be shared.
The act of kindness, however — offered so many times over — doesn’t seem to strike Gadzo as something much out of the ordinary. It’s just the least he can do, he says.
His shrug-his-shoulders attitude is somewhat fitting, though, when considering that despite the success of Andrej’s European Pastry, the business has retained its mom-and-pop flavor — right down to the invoices which are still sent out in the packages.
Someday soon a PayPal option may be available, but otherwise customers are not charged up front. And Gadzo has no qualms about sending out product before an order is paid.
Only once did a customer not pay. Gadzo contacted him and he promptly sent a check. Occasionally, people will question the policy, wondering how the couple can be so trusting. Gadzo tells them that should someone stiff him, a typical order “won’t make or break me, but if you ever want to order again, you will pay.”
That always works, he said with a smile.
The businessman said he has no idea how many free poticas he has sent to men and women serving our country. He can’t even estimate the monetary value. He has not kept track — nor has he ever expected recognition.
But one day a few years ago, recognition arrived in the mail.
Gadzo was the recipient of a Freedom Team Salute certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Army, honoring his “patriotism and continued support of the Army family.”
Gadzo said he has no idea who recommended him for the honor. In fact, when he received it he filed it away and only recently came across it again when adding papers from a visit to the Veterans Administration clinic to the file.
He appreciates the honor, he said. But Gadzo spends more time thinking about service members receiving his homemade potica.
He knows first-hand how they must feel when it arrives. And he knows, he said, how much the gift is appreciated — “especially during the holidays.”