A Life's Story

February 26, 2022

The woman behind the cheesecake (and perogies, pizza…)

Mary Krawchenko, 90, built Mrs. K’s Food Products from the ground up

By: Janine LeGal

Mary Krawchenko was a pioneering businesswoman — and a lot more.

Krawchenko, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, left a legacy of kindness and strength for everyone who knew her.

Mary at age 15. (Supplied)

Mary at age 15. (Supplied)

At a time when women-owned businesses were rare in Winnipeg, Krawchenko established Mrs. K’s Food Products in 1970.

With pizzas first, and then perogies and a range of deli items from salads to cabbage rolls and signature cheesecake, Mrs. K’s products were as popular as the well-loved woman behind them.

However, the era didn’t make it easy for women like Krawchenko to do business. Her daughter, Sandi Altner, remembers her mother’s experiences.

"She was absolutely furious when she went to the bank to set up a business account and was told she needed her husband to come in with her to open the account," Sandi says.

"‘But he is not part of my business,’ she told the banker. ‘The name of the company is Mrs. K’s. Not Mr. And Mrs. K’s. My husband has his own business to run.’"

Years later, Krawchenko’s son, Chris, told his mother: "You were a pioneering feminist, Mom." She sat back and scowled, then asked, "What’s a feminist?"

"Mom was an extraordinary woman, filled with love and compassion and driven by true grit," Sandi says. "She embraced life and met all of her challenges head on.

Carl and Mary married in 1953. (Supplied)

Carl and Mary married in 1953. (Supplied)

"She lived by the credo that, with hard work and determination, you could achieve just about anything, and you didn’t have to be a man to be a success."

Surrounded by family, Krawchenko died peacefully on Oct. 22, 2021 at 90. She was known for her love of people, music, and living life to the fullest. Stories of Krawchenko’s home-cooked food abound.

Born April 2, 1931, on a farm near Vita, Krawchenko was proud of her Ukrainian heritage — her first home had a mud floor and a thatched roof.

Canada was in a deep depression in the 1930s. There were no luxuries, but there were many good times and the family never went hungry, Sandi recalls from her mother’s stories.

At nine, Krawchenko contracted polio and was told she would never walk again.

Krawchenko, seen here with her husband, Carl (left), and son Chris at the Centrex in 1981, established Mrs. K’s Food Products in 1970. (Supplied)

Krawchenko, seen here with her husband, Carl (left), and son Chris at the Centrex in 1981, established Mrs. K’s Food Products in 1970. (Supplied)

"Mom was determined, and sure enough, a year or so later, she started getting the feeling back in her legs," Sandi says. "Once she got up on her feet again, she was unstoppable and enjoyed daily walks for the rest of her life."

Krawchenko attended Isaac Newton High School in Winnipeg and had hopes of continuing on to medical school. However, as was common in those days, she left school after Grade 10 to get a job to help her mother support their family.

While working at Schneiders Meats she met Carl Krawchenko, a Second World War veteran.

"He adored her from the first moment he saw her," Sandi says. "They were married for 53 years, raised the five of us children, and had a major impact on all of their grandchildren.

"They were tough, loving, determined, and noisy at times. Sometimes, really noisy, but always loving and generous," she says.

Mary Krawchenko, seen here in 1935, was born and raised on a farm near Vita. (Supplied)

Mary Krawchenko, seen here in 1935, was born and raised on a farm near Vita. (Supplied)

"We are a close family. Mom insisted on it and was a firm believer that, as long as you have family support, it doesn’t matter how crazy life gets."

While raising children and running a busy household, Krawchenko joined her husband in the family business, Frontier Packing Company Ltd., before establishing Mrs. K’s Food Products. She eventually directed the building of her manufacturing plant in Stonewall.

"She worked diligently to design the layout she wanted and to learn about every requirement that needed to be met," Sandi says.

"It was a very proud day when she learned her plant was qualified as a federally inspected food production facility, allowing her to ship her products across Canada. She also adored the fact she employed so many women and found joy in teaching them how to pinch perogies and clean up a kitchen properly."

Family friend Murdoch MacKay says Krawchenko was a person who despite the challenges of the time saw a future for women in business.

Mary Krawchenko taking a coffee break while baking. (Supplied)

Mary Krawchenko taking a coffee break while baking. (Supplied)

"Her venture into fresh unfrozen pizzas was a good start for her, although she was probably ahead of her time," says MacKay. "She had a little plant and hired several women employees. She was very fortunate to have a brilliant husband, but so was he lucky to have had her."

"For so many people. the most enduring memory of Mom will be of her in the kitchen in her white apron and hair net, pulling pans of baking out of the oven and singing along to Marty Robbins," Sandi says.

‘Mom’s departure for her final journey was everything she had wanted. She never had to go to a nursing home or use a walker or worst of all, in her mind, have someone she loved face having to care for her most personal needs. She held her head high and left with dignity, grace and comfort because that’s what Mom truly wanted."

Bill Bachynsky, Krawchenko’s younger brother, and his wife Irene were her dearest friends.

"I couldn’t have asked for a better sister. I don’t think anybody ever had a bad word to say about her," says Bachynsky. "She treated her employees like family. She had a good sense of humour; right to the end, we joked around.

Mary Krawchenio and her brother Bill Bachynsky were the best of friends. (Supplied)

Mary Krawchenio and her brother Bill Bachynsky were the best of friends. (Supplied)

"She’d bake pies and give them to the neighbour for cleaning her driveway. I think he came just to get the pies," he adds with a laugh.

Bachynsky also affectionately remembers the frequent calls with his sister. "At the end of each call she’d always say, ‘may the good forces be with you.’

"I talked to her on Sunday; she was making apple pies for Thanksgiving. She went to the hospital on Tuesday and passed on Friday. I teared up for about a month after that," he says.

"I got two of her pies in the freezer that I’m saving. I will eat one in her memory, maybe at Easter."

passages@freepress.mb.ca

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