By ANGIE RIEBE, Mesabi Daily News
AURORA, Minn. (AP) -- Andrej's European Pastry owners Jan and Jean Gadzo have spoken with many speechless people during the past decade.
Often there is silence on the other end of the line when they call certain customers to say the potica they ordered will be on the house -- shipping and all.
People are utterly dumbfounded, and it takes a moment for them to recover from the shock, Jean said. "They say, 'You're doing what?'"
It's a rather generous gesture Jan has extended to those serving in the military. But for the veteran -- who served during Vietnam with the 242nd Air Assault Support Co., in Alaska -- it's simply a small thing to do to show his appreciation for their service.
After all, the Czechoslovakian immigrant knows what it's like to be away from family, the Mesabi Daily News reported.
Gadzo was not quite 20 years old when in 1968 the former Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to put down a political reform effort and to strengthen the hand of the ruling Communist Party.
"I escaped in 1969," he said. "I had to leave or spend time in jail." Following the invasion, there was harsh retaliation against supporters of the reform movement.
Gadzo was granted political asylum and came to the United States.
He was soon drafted into the U.S. Army and trained at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Aside from a few uncles on the East Coast, "I didn't have any family in this country," said Gadzo, who was then sent to Alaska.
"I have a soft heart for GIs," said the veteran. "I know what it's like to be by myself on Thanksgiving and Christmas."
Being stationed in Alaska with a helicopter unit did have some advantages -- "the food was pretty good," Gadzo said. "But it was still a mess hall." And the fare, especially during the holidays, "is nothing like home."
Gadzo, who served with the Army for two years until 1973, later moved to New Jersey. His background is as a mechanical engineer, he said, and in 1976 -- during a trip to the Iron Range on a mining project -- he met his future wife.
He and Jean, a Chisholm native, lived for a while in New Jersey before returning to the Range.
In the early 1980s, they began making potica from their Chisholm home using an original Slovak recipe handed down by Jan's mother. As their thinly rolled sweet bread with a rich walnut filling gained popularity, the couple launched a small business -- Andrej's European Pastry, named for their son as well as Jan's late father.
While still based in Chisholm, the bakery has expanded to a production facility in Aurora, where the gourmet pastries continue to be made to Jan's high standards.
Only "the best" all-natural ingredients are used, including whole milk, butter and cane sugar. There are no preservatives in the potica, Gadzo said on a recent day at the Aurora facility. Walnuts are purchased from a respected family operated grower in California, and the poppy seeds used in the poppy seed variety are also of the finest quality.
Andrej's sells fresh potica locally at Super One Foods locations and at Natural Harvest Food Co-op in Virginia. In the Twin Cities, it is available at Byerly's and Lunds stores, as well as at the Mississippi Market and the Roseville Bakery.
But the business ships potica rolls, which last up to six months when frozen, worldwide. The "world famous" potica is even among the Minnesota goodies that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., serves at her weekly Thursday breakfasts in Washington, D.C.
But perhaps most special to the Gadzos are the orders placed for those serving in the military.
The couple had been sending complimentary potica to Jean's friend and part-time co-worker at Heritage Manor in Chisholm, who was serving with the Army. "We kept sending potica to her," Gadzo said. They also sent cases to Minnesota troops deployed to serve in the Iraq War.
After the war began in 2003, they noticed more and more orders coming in with military addresses. "You can tell when it's a military address," said Gadzo, who accepts orders by phone or e-mail from his website.
It was a rather spontaneous decision for Gadzo to fill those requests free of charge, which he has been doing now for about 10 years. People ordering online are contacted by the couple and told they will not be billed. Almost always the response is the same. "They are speechless," Jean said.
In fact, when an order comes in for a high-ranking officer, the couple sends additional free potica loaves so it can be shared.
The act of kindness, however -- offered so many times over -- doesn't seem to strike Gadzo as something much out of the ordinary. It's just the least he can do, he says.
His shrug-his-shoulders attitude is somewhat fitting, though, when considering that despite the success of Andrej's European Pastry, the business has retained its mom-and-pop flavor -- right down to the invoices which are still sent out in the packages.
Someday soon a PayPal option may be available, but otherwise customers are not charged up front. And Gadzo has no qualms about sending out product before an order is paid.
Only once did a customer not pay. Gadzo contacted him and he promptly sent a check. Occasionally, people will question the policy, wondering how the couple can be so trusting. Gadzo tells them that should someone stiff him, a typical order "won't make or break me, but if you ever want to order again, you will pay."
That always works, he said with a smile.
The businessman said he has no idea how many free poticas he has sent to men and women serving in the U.S. military. He can't even estimate the monetary value. He has not kept track.
Nor has he ever expected recognition.
But one day a few years ago, recognition arrived in the mail. Gadzo was the recipient of a Freedom Team Salute certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Army.
The certificate honors Gadzo: "For outstanding service to the Nation as a United States Army Soldier." It also states: "You are being recognized for your patriotism and continued support of the Army family. Your legacy is today's Army and the values Soldiers exhibit while fighting the Global War of Terrorism. Their efforts are a direct reflection of your service, and the United States Army and a grateful Nation thank you."
The Freedom Team Salute was an Army program that ran from May 2005 to February 2010. It aimed to recognize all Army veterans for their service, and in 2008 was expanded to include anyone who supports the Army in a variety of ways, such as by raising funds and purchasing care packages for deployed soldiers.
The second category required the person nominating the recipient to write a few sentences describing why the nominee should be recognized.
Gadzo said he has no idea who recommended him for the award. In fact, when he received it he filed it away and only recently came across it again when adding papers from a visit to the Veterans Administration clinic to the file.
He appreciates the honor, he said. It was a nice thing to receive.
But Gadzo spends more time thinking about service members receiving his homemade potica.
He knows firsthand how they must feel when it arrives. And he knows, he said, how much the gift is appreciated -- "especially during the holidays."