Updated: Oct 6, 2021
Pierogies Plus–celebrating 30 years
Photos by Tara Bailey Pierogies Plus has been a staple in the Stowe and McKees Rocks communities for 30 years.
-DID YOU KNOW?-
By Tara Bailey
I had the privilege of spending a quiet morning with Helen Pelc Mannarino on a quaint bench in front of her life’s work, Pierogies Plus, to discuss her business spanning 30 years. I’m seldomly impressed by people, but Helen made an everlasting impression that I will always value. Before our interview I thoroughly researched every article and video about her, but everything available was surface information, and I knew there was more to her story. And there is. Helen told me stories that she told no one before, and I’m elated to share tales of her life.
→ Did you know Helen’s family owned a diner in Poland? Well, not exactly. While she was growing up in communist Poland, the government prohibited citizens from owning businesses. Her Aunt Eva Rostkoska was a superb cook in the family. One day, Eva’s neighbor came to her house and told her, “My husband is out of town. Can I eat dinner with your family?” Eva obliged, then word spread about her delicious food. Another neighbor asked if her daughter could eat dinner at her house after school. Soon after, Eva turned her dining room into a diner. Young Helen played her part in the family business as a cook, cleaner and delivery girl.
→ Did you know Helen’s grandfather was the first in her family to emigrate to the United States? Her grandfather came to the United States in 1908. He settled in the Presston area and worked in the steel mill. After becoming established, he sent for his wife and his daughter to join him and once here the family expanded.
Helen Mannarino and the crew at Pierogies Plus in an undated photo.
Living in a democratic country may sometimes not be enough to soothe the aches of missing home. Helen’s grandmother missed their beloved country of Poland and the family returned to the old world after just 10 years. Unfortunately, during World War II Helen’s mother, Julia Balik, and her siblings were taken to a labor camp. When the U.S. liberated Europe, people were given the option of going back to their homeland or emigrating to the United States. Helen’s aunts and uncles, John, Anna, and Marcia, relocated to the U.S., more specifically to the Presston neighborhood where they had been born. Helen’s mother and another of her siblings returned to Poland, where Helen was born.
→ Did you know in 1974 Helen came to the United States from Warsaw at the age of 27? Before stepping foot in the “land of the free and home of the brave,” Helen said she was subjected to propaganda that demonized the United States. Because of the propaganda, Helen was hesitant to visit her aunt in the U.S. While telling me this Helen became overcome with emotion. Her cousin was making the trek to the U.S. but did not want to venture alone. She convinced Helen to get her passport and visa. To her surprise, Helen was permitted to leave Poland. “I felt like a bird flying out of the cage. It was as if the doors opened, and I could finally breathe and leave. It was an awesome feeling,” said Helen.
But she couldn’t escape the propaganda that weighed heavily on her heart. While traveling stateside there was inclement weather in New York that caused Helen and her cousin to layover in the “Big Apple.” They were alone and afraid in an unknown land when a couple took Helen and her cousin under their wings. The couple took them to dinner and gave them refuge in a hotel, which was her first time being in one. The next day, all of them flew to Pittsburgh and once they departed the plane, Helen and her cousin were surrounded by family. In the midst of being greeted by loved ones, the lovely couple who were total strangers walked away, and Helen never saw them again. A random act of kindness by two strangers dissipated the ingrained fear and Helen decided at that moment she never wanted to go back to Poland...
Years went by, and Helen got married. Her husband Gerald Mannarino was a restaurant enthusiast. He took her to Mexican, Chinese and Italian restaurants and opened her palate to different tastes and flavors. Helen missed the traditional dishes from Poland, noting there is nothing more comforting than home cooking. It is amazing how things come full circle. Helen is a great cook and her neighbors enjoyed eating her Eastern European dishes so much they started paying for them. She turned her kitchen into a makeshift takeout restaurant just as her Aunt Eva did in Poland. However, the Allegheny County Department of Food and Safety frowns upon such acts. For the first time, Helen prayed for guidance.
Did you know the Urban League of Pittsburgh provided the funding and training for Helen to open Pierogies Plus? Knowing she was ill-equipped to run a business, she turned to The Urban League of Pittsburgh. There she received self-employment training. Two hundred Black and two white applicants, including Helen, vied for a spot in the program which only accepted 15 people. There were three rounds of interviews and Helen did fantastic in all three. The Urban League granted 14 Black applicants and Helen access to training. “For the first time in my life I experienced what it’s like to be the minority,” said Helen.
For her business plan, a mentor in the program instructed Helen to keep her overhead low and choose two items to sell. Pierogies and stuffed cabbage were her ideas of the perfect representations of her homeland dishes. Helen initially scouted locations in the densely populated European descent communities of Lawrenceville and Polish Hill. As things are today, they were back then, rent being sky-high. Her husband Gerald owned a vacant gas station on Island Avenue in McKees Rocks. “We might as well put your restaurant in here,” Helen recalled Gerald saying. She agreed and together they hung a sign that said: “Pierogies Plus Coming Soon.” That sign swayed in the wind for two years before even one pierogi was pinched.
As time went on Helen and Gerald divorced, and she now had to carry out her dream solo. Helen prayed again for guidance and the Lord pointed her toward the Urban League for the second time. She received a loan for $5,000 and $3,000, which went toward paving the parking lot. More of her prayers were asked and answered, then Helen was open for business, where she’s been for 30 years.
Did you know her friend Bert Wojdowski became her support system and cheerleader? Bert worked in other people’s restaurants for years before she realized she gave too much of her time to them and it was time for her to help Helen. Wojdowski’s work peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes for free gave Helen a leg-up. Feeling overwhelmed, as many small business owners do, Helen was conflicted about how she would run a full-time business. Being the supportive advocate that Bert was, she told Helen to open only two days a week. “I can do that,” said Helen. From there, Pierogies Plus operating days were Mondays and Fridays.
Did you know that Lekvar (prune butter) is Helen’s least favorite dish on the menu? Made from prunes, this intensely flavored dish is mostly used to smother pancakes, as Hamantaschen cookie filling, jam, or used as an oatmeal additive. I doubt she would recommend Lekvar for a first-time pierogi eater like myself. Everything else on the menu is her favorite. When asked which pierogi I should eat, she suggested the potato and cheese. She took me on a tour of her lovely kitchen and personally made me a to-go container filled with potato and cheese pierogies. “Take this with you, this is your lunch,” said Helen. With appreciation and without hesitation I took my lunch that she packed me with tender loving care and drove away. At the first red light, I opened the container and tasted my first pierogi. It was spectacular, just as she is. With renewed hope and inspiration for achieving the impossible, Helen’s life is the definition of the American Dream and serves as a reminder of what principles this country was founded on. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” – Emma Lazarus.