Tucked just off of Main Street in Barrington, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, The Heart of Europe Cafe beckons customers inside with the scent of pastries and coffee.
The cafe’s owners, sisters Kasia Mierzejewska and Emilia Augustyn, just opened the shop in October of 2015.
Scroll down to learn how they got started, from Kasia herself.
We just moved from Poland and my sister was working as a logistics manager in the hospital and I was working for the European Fund Project. I was stuck in the office all day and working by my computer all the time having coffee three times a day, some days up to five.
One day we were just drinking wine and my sister was like, “Let's open a little bakery.” And I'm like, “Oh my god, this is kind of stupid idea.” But then we thought, “Well, someone might actually buy it. It is good.” So we gave it a try, and we see that people actually do like it!
We wanted to start it in the Chicago area just because I always wanted to go back to the States. I know I'm still the immigrant and everything, but I feel kind of home, like more home, over here than in Poland. I know it sounds stupid, but there is something about people. They're so nice.
We sold our apartments [in Poland]. My car is cheaper than my espresso machine and I never had such a crappy car like I'm driving right now. But it's a sacrifice, I guess. So we sold pretty much
everything we had.
We don't have anything, but we do have this space.
We gave up a couple of times of looking [for a bakery] because either the rent was very expensive or mostly it wasn't about the rent, it was about the look inside-- it didn't have any soul. And I'm like, you know what, we've seen 20, 30 places maybe up to 40, and I'm like okay, I will just go back to working for the corporation.
I was so upset and my sister went somewhere and she's like, “You know, It's not going to work for us because either someone didn't want to rent it to us because the money that we had was from overseas.” So we didn't have any credit history. It's like we don't exist.
I'm Catholic, and I'm like, you know what, let's give it another shot. I start praying and I finish praying and one lady called me up and she's like, “Are you still looking for the properties?” I'm like, “Yeah.” “Because I have something that matches the description.” And we went inside I saw the brick wall and I'm like okay. We were sold.
We did remodeling for three months with our own hands. I was putting drywall into it, painting it, siding it, cleaning the floor after painting on my knees. Terrible three months, trust me. This is all Ikea do it yourself we were putting it together ourselves. We were driving everything ourselves in one car because we just had our one car. We couldn’t afford buying another one. We couldn't afford getting U-Haul or like a van.
We met a lot of people who were kind of trying to use us for the money-- plumbers, electricians. Because they know we don't know the estimates. We don't know how much anything should cost.
The health department inspector came over, village code inspector and we're standing. I don't know if we were doing anything right or not. I don't know any codes anything.
We opened and the first client we got was after forty minutes and I could barely speak I was shaking.
I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how to use cash register. We didn't know anything like how many cups to buy and how many lights to buy. We didn't know if there would be a lot of traffic or not.
Now I just love when people come over and I talk to them, but at first it was-- and with the language barrier and everything-- I see them like they're trying to focus on what I'm saying. Terrible. I'm trying to even forget about that part of my life.
When someone was giving me money I felt pretty strange.
I wasn't used to taking money for my things that I just baked in the morning.
Most of it [the recipes] is my mom’s, but we make them way better. It's my grandmas-- my aunt, oh my gosh, she used to bake so much. And then it's sometimes we find something online, but my sister loves to experiment. She changes it; she makes them her own recipes.
The donuts are Hungarian. It's actually called chimney cake or kurtos. If you google, you're going to find so much things about it. I mean you can find it in Poland but I'm not going to take credit for that.
The oven that I make the kurtos in we actually shipped it from Poland. It took us three months to get it over and it was specially customized for those donuts.
The heater went down a month ago and we had to order double parts from Poland because it took three weeks to wait for it. When something goes down with it, we don't make any money.
Just for the deli we bake usually like eight items a day. Sometimes it's hard to do it. Some days when we're really busy and the entire cake sells out, I look at my sister and she's like, “I know. I'm going back and bake some more.” So we get something fresh. Sometimes people come over and we have hot sweet breads or hot poppyseed rolls.
We don't use any chemicals any preservatives, like usually organic stuff like you make it at home. Some people ask us, “Do you have any label?” Like what should I write on it? Flour, butter, eggs? That's why it all looks so homey.
I remember our first Fat Tuesday. We didn't know we were the only Polish bakery in the area and out of blue, out of sudden everybody started coming over. We open at six o'clock in the morning, we had a line out to the door, and we were' baking all the time. We sold over 1,000 pączki just me and my sister. And at the end of the day I'm like, “I have no idea how we managed to do that.” I mean we were praying in the meantime, all the time because people were getting nervous. They didn't understand that we didn't know there would be so much traffic. Like how could we know? We just opened. It was crazy.
We're the only ones in the area baking them, not deep frying. So this one we make them with rose marmalade, like traditionally. They don't need to be deep fried. But you know regular pączki has like 500 calories. This one has like 260.
We are closed on Monday and Monday is warehouses... cleaning. It’s not really a day off. That's the problem. It’s never a day off.
Sometimes I don’t feel like walking out of here after the day is over. But I close the doors sometimes, put my own music. Trust me or not, but I love Selena Gomez. I'm lame. I told you.
I just sit on Facebook and talk to people after we close up. Make a cup of coffee or get out a bottle of wine. I don’t know, just hang out when it’s closed.
If you love what you're doing then you're not going to be working any day of your life. And you can't give up because there will be days, even a week when no one might show up. You might be very busy in the morning for two hours, and the rest of the day no one's going to show up. And you be like, “Maybe they don't like it, maybe this maybe that. Maybe we should close it, maybe there's no point of it.” And there will be a lot of things like that. Whole bunch of days like that. But I believe someone put us over here for a reason.
The reasons are always to help people, so kind of have to follow it, I think. It feels like doing something good. Just don’t do anything that hurts other people because like I said what goes around comes around. And trying to be fair to everybody and not stepping over someone shoes or anything like that. I respect my competition.
I'm not doing anything to take their clients away.
I want to open another location for sure with my sister. And I wish we could be so huge to actually cater the weddings-- like having our pastry in hotels and everything. I know it's not going to happen within a year, obviously. But maybe at least a couple. I'm not saying this to get my hopes too high and then be like, “Well, didn't work out.” I mean I’m Catholic, and I believe that there’s a faith. And whatever’s supposed to happen to me, it will happen eventually sooner or later.
Story by: Hannah Doksansky and Samantha Harrington. Kasia’s quotes were edited for length and clarity