Family traditions shape lives. The most recent business venture of Texan native Chris Svetlik (SFS ’09) is a testament to the enduring influence of tradition and heritage. Republic Kolache, co-founded with fellow Texan Brian Stanford, embraces not only Texan culture but also the old customs of Svetlik’s Czech family, the first member of which arrived in the United States in the late 19th century.
When Svetlik was young, he and his siblings would go out to visit his grandmother. More often than not, she would be making kolaches, the pastry that now serves as the pillar of Svetlik’s business. Though the word might seem foreign to some, Svetlik notes the commonality of the baked good.
“It is actually very familiar,” Svetlik said in an interview with The Hoya. “It is dough with filling, something that eve
ry culture throughout history has had a version of.”
At its core, the kolache might just be a piece of kneaded dough with filling, but it carries with it the story of an entire people. It is this story that Svetlik hoped to share when he and Stanford founded Republic Kolache in 2015.
From helping his grandmother when he was young to messing around with test batches on the weekends with Stanford, Svetlik began to perfect his skills.
“Each year, I would get a little bit better, not knowing that one day I might be doing this on my own,” Svetlik said.
Svetlik says this business is his way of carrying the torch and ensuring that his own Czech traditions can be passed on to another generation.
Extolling the diversity of Texas and the quirky aspects of the state’s culture even before launching Republic Kolache, Svetlik grasped this opportunity to hone his message and pass it along through a language everyone speaks: food.
“[The business] gave me a platform to explain and not just tell, but show where I come from, how we do food and drink and how we build spaces around food and drink,” Svetlik said. “Sharing the story was the biggest goal in all this.”
Selling kolaches in Washington, D.C., however, presented a new challenge.
“We wanted to put our own spin on kolaches,” Svetlik said, noting that he and his business partner tried to develop a pastry tailored specifically for the District. Neither purely Czech nor purely Texan, the resulting kolaches riff off of D.C. themes, maintaining their original multi-cultural roots while nodding to the people and communities here in the District.
These ideas came to fruition in Republic Kolache’s half-smoke kolache. Staying close to typical Texan ingredients and flavors of sausage, cheese and jalapenos, this kolache incorporates the half-smoke sausage, an iconic D.C. food staple and a close relative of the sausages one might find in Texas.
“It’s our nod to D.C. as well as where we came from,” Svetlik said. It has been their most iconic item to date, and kolaches and coffee on Saturday mornings have become a ritual for their customers who visit shops where the pastries are sold.
Republic Kolache has yet to open up a brick-and-mortar store, though a storefront is one of their present focuses. In the meantime, Republic Kolache holds weekly pop-up shops on weekends and sells wholesale to Whole Foods and local coffee shops, including Uncommon Grounds and Midnight Mug on campus.
Svetlik is excited about creating Republic Kolache’s own space in which to serve their customers, but the team has also enjoyed reaching a wide swath of people through their wholesale practices.
“Through wholesaling to coffee shops, we have these moments in which we’ve had the opportunity to illustrate what kolaches are to people who have never heard of them before,” Svetlik said. “Here and there, you’ll walk down the street and hear a reference to a kolache or see someone order one in a coffee shop, and that’s always a proud moment. Truly, many people in D.C. would not have known what kolaches were if it wasn’t for us.”
By drawing from his familial and Texan traditions, Svetlik has, through Republic Kolache, effectively introduced a new and exciting pastry to the coffee shop industry. Challenging the idea of what might count as a breakfast pastry, the kolache differs from a donut enough to catch people’s attention but resembles one enough for people to give it a shot.
In Svetlik’s father’s household, it was a common custom to prepare kolaches on weekend mornings, anticipating the possible arrival of guests. It was a demonstration of warmth and courtesy to have fresh kolaches waiting.
Republic Kolache’s business maintains this sense of hospitality. By tailoring to Washingtonian tastes, Svetlik and Stanford have made it easy to sit at their table and get a taste of their culture. Republic Kolache melds culinary influences from across the globe into a delectable pastry.