Though Russian in origin, a Paramount Piroshki is viewed by some San Franciscans as a native food, akin to the It’s-It. Decades ago, this brand of individually wrapped, savory meat-filled pies were a mainstay at corner stores — cheap enough and filling enough to be eaten as an on-the-go meal.
The piroshki is made from a yeasted dough and deep-fried; the texture is much like a doughnut, though without the sugar. People commonly mistake it with pierogi, which is a Polish dumpling.
“The [piroshki] dough doesn’t get oily or soggy, it stays light and spongy even after freezing and reheating in the microwave,” said Len Galant, part of the family that has run the company for 25 years.
The company was started in 1956 by Greek couple George and Helen Theoridis with a small shop on Geary, until they sold the business in 1995 to Mayer “Mark” and Clara Galant, immigrants from the former Soviet Union. As the business grew, the piroshki production was moved to a Potrero Hill facility and they were delivered fresh to the corner stores that sold them.
Today Paramount Piroshkis are made at a 10,000-square-foot, USDA-approved facility in San Leandro. There is still a demand among people who grew up with them.
The business looks quite different 25-plus years later, but it’s still very much a family affair. It’s now overseen by the second and third generations of the Galant family, with Mayer’s son Len serving as general manager and Len’s children (and Mayer’s grandchildren) Josh, 27, as director of sales and marketing and daughter Arielle, 31, as office manager. Len’s wife, Zoya, is a dentist, but she also helps out by doing the books.
The factory entrance has its storied history on display: a fading article in a community newspaper from 1987 profiling Mayer Galant and his food truck, which he parked near San Francisco State University; a photo of the Theoridises; and others. Mayer Galant died in 2019.
Mayer and son Len, then 17, came to San Francisco from Odessa in 1980. Wife Clara and daughter Galina had to stay behind; they finally were allowed to leave a few years later.
Mayer and Clara had worked in the food industry in Odessa, so after several years in the U.S. they bought a friend’s food truck and started Mark’s Bay Dreams Catering Truck, offering piroshkis and other items.The catering truck, too, was a family affair.
“In the beginning, I’d solicit business for him, as I spoke better English than he did,” said Len. “He’d get up at 2 a.m., and with dedication and hard work his business grew. He never shied away from hard work. He taught us how to follow in his footsteps.”
Once they had taken over Paramount, the family realized that as beloved as the piroshki was to some locals, it didn’t have mass-market appeal. So over the years they introduced new items, such as calzones and bagel dogs. Sold under the label “Benny’s Bagel Dogs” (Benny is a cousin), they are still widely available in many supermarkets’ frozen sections.
Though Paramount also made vegetarian-filled piroshki, dietary trends continued to change and the appeal of a fried, doughy pie was not finding new audiences. The product was being shipped around the country (mostly to San Francisco expats), but the business needed to grow in new directions.
“We couldn’t survive on piroshki and bagel dogs alone,” said Josh, who was a baby when his family bought the company in 1995. “We had to grow in new directions.”
(While the company makes pork products, none of the family members eat them.)
To expand capacity, they moved the operation to the San Leandro facility in 2012 — the Galants still live in San Francisco, where Josh picks up his father every morning at 4:30 for the drive to the East Bay — but it was a difficult time for the business. That’s when Josh decided to drop out of Santa Clara University for a while and turn his attention to the family business, helping to reimagine its future. It was his idea to add a new line of foods called Clara’s Kitchen.
“Who better to name it after than my grandma?” said Josh, who noted that the name Clara exists in many different cultures.
The Clara’s Kitchen label appears on frozen breakfast sandwiches, as well as fresh, organic wraps sold in the refrigerated sections of Whole Foods, Sprouts and other markets. Since Josh survived on breakfast burritos while in college, there is a green chile breakfast burrito, and other international flavors such as Thai chicken. Clara’s is now a significant part of the business.
“Withdrawing from school turned out to be a blessing,” said Josh. “Although it was hard, I got to step up for my family. Not a lot of people get that opportunity.”
Len credits Josh with having the foresight to introduce the new product line, and he feels grateful to have his family still working together.
“It was my idea to pivot to making something totally different that requires different equipment, and different processing procedures,” said Josh, “but my dad has an open mind, and the two of us complement each other well.”
While Josh may have the ideas to bring the company into the future, Len and his father were the ones who built the lasting relationships over the years.
“One of the reasons we’re successful is that we’ve never overpromised or underdelivered. Our word means more than any contract,” said Len.
While many immigrants hope their children will have an easier life than they did, he sees the family business as a legacy he can leave behind.
When his children were young and came to Paramount, they were given a ball of dough to play with. And should grandchildren show up — God willing, Len says — it will be the same thing.
“That’s the original Play-Doh,” Len said with a big grin. “That’s how it starts.”