By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
It’s just past noon on a Monday morning and Natalya Babak has been at work since 11 the night before. Chances are good that she and her daughters, Olga and Anna, will remain here for the rest of the day.
After all, Babak’s Bakery and Deli Mart in downtown Missoula is celebrating its first official week in business.
“We’ve been looking for a storefront for a while,” said Olga Babak, who stands behind the counter slicing Russian bologna. “Finally, we found this place and said it was time to expand our business. We’ve finally started to grow.”
Regulars at the Missoula Farmers Market might know the Babak family for its fresh European pastries – the keks, poppy seed rolls and cream horns. They might also recognize the family for the Russian dialogue that often swirls around its vending booth on Saturday mornings.
The same is true on Monday when Natalya, the family matriarch, engages in easy conversation with a group of Russian women who’ve come to shop for cured meats and the market’s other offerings. They may also be friends catching up – friends partaking in the excitement of the newly opened ethnic market.
“My dad, Igor, is from Ukraine and my mom is from Belarus,” Olga explained. “All the kids were born in the U.S., but Russian was my first language. I needed a translator or tutor throughout elementary school.”
After gaining a following at the local Farmers Market, the family opted to expand its business into the brick-and-mortar location at 134 W. Broadway, one that represents Missoula’s first authentic Eastern European market.
Some Russian families – including those who have already found the new market – can trace their arrival in Missoula back to the resettlement of Russians in the 1980s and ’90s. Others have arrived more recently, sworn in as U.S. citizens at the federal courthouse in Missoula.
However they arrived, for many Missoulians, the new market represents a welcome step toward greater ethnic and cultural diversity.
“We have a small- to medium-sized Russian community here,” said Olga, who graduated from Big Sky High School. “Mostly everyone knows everyone, so word travels fast. The nearest Russian store is in Spokane, so for a lot of them, it’s now a 15-minute drive instead of three hours.”
While the dumplings, pickled tomatoes, canned pork and kielbasa are recognizable in any language, the contents offered at Babak’s aren’t easy to read, given their authentic packaging. The same holds true for the spices, noodles and buckets of candies, some paying tribute to Eastern European cartoon characters, like the rooster-shaped suckers.
As for the pastries, those are baked fresh at Babak’s each morning, which explains while Natalya arrived the night before. On normal days, she plans to clock in at 3 a.m., though this isn’t a normal day – it’s Babak’s first Monday in business.
“I really like (baking),” said Natalya. “I like doing what I can do for people to share it.”
Natalya arrived in the U.S. around 26 years ago, the daughter of parents who immigrated from Belarus. She has lived in Missoula for the past 14 years and now has two sons and two daughters, most of them engaged in the family business.
One of those daughters, Anna, was recently married and has moved to Seattle. Still, she returned to Missoula this past weekend to help open the store.
“It’s an exciting weekend,” she said. “The goal is to get really busy, get lots of customers, have fresh food, stay on top of things, and bring more culture into Missoula.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at email@example.com