Smoke from the fertilizer plant explosion rises near the Czech Stop, a favored… (Andy Bartee / Dallas Morning…)
WEST, Texas – Most every small town in America has a local eatery that embodies its heart and soul – not to mention its stomach – a place where workers know the first names and the orders of customers by heart.
In this tiny community of 2,800, devastated by an explosion at a fertilizer factory that left scores injured and a yet-untold number dead, the Czech Stop is the place where locals and passers-through stop for the meat and fruit kolaches, (pronounced koh-law-chee,) a taste of the town’s Central European roots.
And when disaster struck, people came here – the injured and those trying to help them.
Within minutes of the explosion, local residents, some with their legs and arms bruised and bandaged, stopped at the ethnic bakery just to pick up a kolache or two. The three-decade-old business sustained minor damage from the shock waves that swept the town after the blast.
Local TV news coverage even had a brief report on the condition of the Czech Stop – people were just that concerned.
And on Thursday, the bakery and adjacent convenience store became a dropping off point for donations from residents who wanted to do something for their injured neighbors.
“This place is like the soul of this town,” Karen Tamayo, 17, who has worked at the Little Czech Bakery for two years, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s like a TV show, like 'Cheers.' You see the characters on the sitcom and you get to know them. Well, everyone in this community knows everybody else. And this is the place where they will most likely run into each other.”
Czech farmers first arrived in central Texas more than 120 years ago, and soon left their mark on the area’s commerce and culture. Today, more than 1 in 3 West residents report having Czech ancestry, and the community, along the I-35 between Dallas and Austin, is known for its Czech restaurants and bakeries.
Each July, the town sponsors an annual Czechsplosion event in which a Miss West is named and locals and visitors gorge on the signature kolaches, filled with spices and fruits such as peach, apple and cherry that are indigenous to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
State officials even declared West the Home of the Official Kolache of the Texas State Legislature and, in 1997, the Czech Heritage Capital of the Lone Star State. Workers at the Czech Stop said the Czech ambassador to the U.S. was expected to visit the town to pay his condolences.
Employee Rosa Kostecka told The Times that the Czech Stop has been here since 1983 – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. There’s that much demand here for the fruits of their labors.
But on Thursday, the two adjoining businesses, which usually have customers waiting outside the door, weren’t as busy as usual, despite the hundreds of travelers who pulled off I-35.
The difference: Most locals stayed home.
“I think most people are in mourning,” Kostecka said. “They’re taking care of their own, people injured and hurting, sons and daughters and grandparents. But they’ll be back.”
Tamayo said many workers watched the clock at the bakery, waiting for their shift to end.
“Nobody wants to be here today,” she said. “All of us, we’d rather be out there helping people in the community. I miss my regulars. I sure hope everyone is OK.”
All day, the customers came. The out-of-towners asked how residents were coping after the explosion.
“My daughter told me to stop here,” said Opal Rystad, 86, dressed in a blue sweater. “I said, ‘I don’t eat that kind of food. I watch my weight.’ But she said, 'If you want to know how the people of West are doing, that’s where you have to go.'”
Inside the Czech Stop, doodads are for sale that scream Texas, such as Lone Star hats, armadillo statues, even a plastic coiled rattlesnake. The restrooms include pictures of male and female square dancers. There are “Little Law Man” Texas Ranger stars for the kids and CDs of the The Holub Polka Band.
Many of the products have signs in English and Czech, such as Pivo (beer), Napoj (soda) and Chleb (bread). A sign near the cashier reads, “If we don’t take care of our customers, somebody else will.”
Raul Chavez, 25, a pastry chef at the Little Czech Bakery, told The Times that he has been deluged with questions from total strangers, customers who want to know how people in the town are doing. "I just tell them all the same thing: ‘We’re all devastated,'” he said.
Wiping her hands on her apron, Tamayo said that she isn’t sure if she’s going to leave West after she graduates from high school.
“I don’t know, you just get the hang of this whole country life,” she said. "It’s really calm, nothing happens.”
And then she caught herself.
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