One of Barb Vratanina’s treasured childhood memories is eating kolaches baked by her Czech grandmother.
Vratanina’s grandmother made three varieties of the sweet, yeasty bread buns: Apricot, poppyseed or cherry, Vratanina’s favorite.
As she grew up outside of Chicago, Vratanina learned to like making kolaches as much as she liked eating them. Kneading the dough, dolloping in the filling, baking the rolls until they turned puffy and golden — “that’s relaxing to me,” she says.
After moving here a decade ago, Vratanina discovered that Kansas City was seriously short on kolaches. So she decided to swap a career in inside sales for full-time baking and opened Barb’s Kolache Bakery in a Shawnee strip mall just east of Kansas 7 and Shawnee Mission Parkway. Vratanina chose the location because it’s nestled in a heavily residential slice of Shawnee that’s home to busy families and commuters.
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Kolaches “are a grab-and-go thing,” she says, “so they’re easy to take on your way to work or if you’re headed out to run errands.”
In the seven years since Barb’s Kolache Bakery opened, customers have become more familiar with kolaches. Vratanina estimates that around 25 percent of the people who frequent her shop are of Czech descent, or have lived in a Czech neighborhood at some point in their lives. The other 75 percent tried their first kolaches at Barb’s.
I’m in the latter group: There’s no bakery in the small Kansas town where I grew up, let alone a kolache bakery.
Recently, when I stopped by Barb’s Kolache Bakery before work, it took me several minutes to decide on what to order. The small bakery offers sweet kolaches in more than a dozen flavors, from fruit-filled apple, blueberry and peach to chocolate and cream cheese. Barb’s also serves three savory kolaches: sausage and cheese, jalapeno sausage and cheese and bacon and cheese.
I picked out four kolaches (apricot, apple, chocolate chip-cream cheese and jalapeno sausage) to share with my co-workers. I also threw in a couple of impulse buys. The saucer-sized cinnamon roll ($2.18), with its zig-zags of white icing, looked too good to pass up. So did the blueberry Danish meltaway ($2.64), with its puffy layers and buttercream core.
The meltaway, which lives up to its name with its sugary melt-in-your-mouth layers, was the first to get snapped up. I tried bites of the pleasantly spicy jalapeno sausage kolache and the apple kolache, which reminded me of a mix between apple pie and a pillowy, fresh-baked dinner roll. I also tried a bit of the chocolate chip-cream cheese kolache. The filling tasted like chocolate cheesecake, but the soft, flaky texture of the kolache was lighter than that decadent dessert or, say, a fried doughnut.
Vratanina says traditional kolache recipes call for cottage cheese, but that most Americans prefer clump-free cream cheese. Another traditional kolache filling is prune.
“They’re good,” she says, “but people get scared off by that name.”
Prune kolaches are popular with Czech customers, but the shop’s best-selling flavors are apple and strawberry cream cheese. Barb’s Kolache Factory also sells homemade German-style bierocks ($3.58) stuffed with ground beef, cabbage, onion, garlic and cheese, and calzone-style meat pies filled with ham and Swiss cheese.
Vratanina arrives at her bakery every morning at around 3:30 to prepare a 42-pound ball of dough that eventually gets divided and baked into kolaches and other pastries. Last Wednesday, her busiest day of the year, she got to work extra early at 2 a.m. to bake a whopping 200 dozen dinner rolls before Thanksgiving.
The holidays are always busy for the bakery, and then business slows in January and February, when everyone’s trying to stick to New Year’s resolutions. But Vratanina says her best customers, who have become like extended family over the past seven years, can’t stay away for very long. She welcomes them back with open arms and plenty of kolaches made from a recipe inspired by her grandmother’s.
“I love it when customers come in and talk,” she says. “The people side of it — that’s the reason I do it.”
Enterprise reporter Sarah Gish writes about Johnson County restaurants every first and third week of the month. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @sarah_gish.
Barb’s Kolache Bakery
Location: 22354 W. 66th St., Shawnee
Hours: 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Closed Monday. Note: The bakery closes when it sells out of kolaches, so it’s a good idea to call ahead if you’re making a special trip.
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Free lot
Don’t miss: The apple, apricot or chocolate chip-cream cheese kolaches ($1.60 each), the spicy jalapeno sausage and cheese kolaches ($1.96) and the irresistable blueberry Danish meltaways ($2.64).
More info: barbskolache.com