Cabbage rolls by the thousand: Peg's Kitchen's success lies in bringing 'down-home' Sask. cooking to the city
Local foodie eats his way through Regina to share his take on what’s good
Peg Leippi invites me to the back of her restaurant, where 10 people are hunched over a conveyor belt, assembling cabbage rolls at a mesmerizing speed. One elderly woman scoops filling onto the conveyor belt as those flanking the sides grab the mixture of meat and rice to plunk into prepared cabbage leaves.
By the end of the day, they'll pump out 6,000 cabbage rolls. They'll be sold to hungry labourers who pop into Peg's Kitchen for a hearty lunch, be shipped out by the hundreds for catered events, and be frozen to be sold to long-time customers who visit the Park Street location to stock up on the goods.
Peg's Kitchen is obviously much more than a kitchen.
"We are three businesses in one," says Peg of the outfit she and her husband, Vern Leippi, founded more than 20 years ago.
It took a bit of encouragement from family and friends, a joy of cooking that she and Vern inherited from their German mothers, and a strong community-mindedness that led them to sell their farm near Kronau, Sask., and commit to serving handmade cabbage rolls, perogies and sausages for a living.
In 1998, Peg and Vern hosted 250 guests for their 25th wedding anniversary, serving a huge meal on the farm.
"People came up to us and said, 'This food is so good. You should charge people for it. You shouldn't just give it away,'" Peg recalls.
They started by selling Vern's smoked turkey legs "that tasted like ham" and sausage at nearby farmers' markets and craft sales, using the brand Peg's Legs.
Over time, they introduced perogies and cabbage rolls, a recipe honed over many years and taste-tasted by their three children.
By 2002, demand for their food reached the point where Peg and Vern had outgrown the commercial kitchen they built in the basement of their farmhouse. It was time to move the operation into the city.
"At that time my husband was farming, and farming in the '90s was going downhill and going into the big farms, which we weren't," says Peg. "And so we decided something had to change."
Adding catering to the operation came about unexpectedly. When the health inspector came to assess their new Regina location, he gave them a licence for catering. They quickly learned.
"We started with small ones — [parties of] twenties, thirties, forties … and we've worked up to hundreds — in town, out of town, and any kind of function you could think of," says Peg.
As their catering business grew, so did the Peg's Kitchen brand. People drive in from out of town (some folks are the same customers who frequented Peg and Vern's craft sales), have lunch and buy a few boxes of frozen food. Demand spikes around the holidays.
Peg says they often comment the restaurant feels homey and inviting, like a small-town restaurant.
"We told the interior designer when we built the restaurant that we didn't want it to look like a chain restaurant. We want to look like down-home cooking. We want it to look like Grandma made the meal. So we're happy with how the restaurant turned out."
Peg has me taste the Ukrainian lunch, complete with borscht and a freshly baked bun from Indian Head Bakery. It is delicious. I am a second-generation Filipino-Canadian and my grandma did not serve this to me growing up. But I am born and raised in Saskatchewan: perogies, sausage and cabbage rolls most definitely taste like home.
Looking back over the past 20 years, it's the connection with her customers that Peg says makes her most proud.
"When you see them here at Christmas time and they're lined up ... from the door for hot food and from the freezer for the frozen food," she says, tears welling up, "it really makes your heart happy and they know you by name."
Now grandparents, Peg and Vern are looking to slow down and sell the business, but they want to pass it on to someone who can keep it going with their own touch.
I thank Peg and head for the door, but she refuses to let me leave without giving me a cinnamon bun — just like grandma would do.