Senada Grbic will never forget her mother’s reaction to the news that her father had bought a restaurant. Even though he had been talking about it for years, Ms Grbic had assumed that her vehement protest against such a move was enough to persuade her husband. They had three children and were also taking care of his mother. He worked full time with a stable trucking job; she too worked full time. There was just no way for them to do it, she insisted.
However, one day he piled the family into the car and just told them they were going for a ride. Along the way, Senada, her sister Erna and her brother Ermin sat in wide silence in the backseat while their parents argued in Bosnian. But it wasn’t just any argument. It was the kind of silence that made them realize that something important was about to fall.
“You know these silent fights are the most vicious,” Senada laughs when she recalls the scene. “The next thing we know is my dad pulls up in the parking lot of this spooky building. We all get out of the car and my mom is still screaming, but my dad is laughing. I’m still not sure what she was saying, but I can hear it in my head. It was then that my father said he had bought a restaurant. The three of us kids said, “This is so cool! But my mother still held her purse for life.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Senada’s mother, Ermina, was not entirely in agreement with the opening of the southern institution of St. Louis which is named after their family. Since opening in 1992, Grbic has been the most visible symbol of the impact the Bosnian community has had on the city’s food scene, in large part thanks to Ermina’s exceptional cuisine. In almost 30 years, the place has grown from a simple restaurant to a massive operation that includes event space, making it the place in town for those who want to experience traditional Bosnian cuisine, be it the diaspora. who still wants to taste from home, their children eager to discover their culture or non-Bosnian guests who are discovering this rich culinary tradition for the first time.
In retrospect, Ermina was destined to become the matriarch of such an establishment. Born in a small village in the former Yugoslavia, she not only grew up in the food business, she was actually born in a restaurant. As Senada says, the event is one of the best ways to understand one’s family’s commitment to the business.
“My grandmother actually gave birth to my mom at the restaurant, in the middle of a shift,” Senada says. “Seriously. She was working, went to the back, gave birth to my mom, cleaned her up and went back to finish her shift. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about my grandma. .
Considering the circumstances of her birth and her upbringing in the restaurant, it was no surprise that Ermina got into the kitchen. As soon as she was old enough, she enrolled in culinary school, then got a job in the city school cafeteria, where she became a beloved figure. Everyone in the area knew her and, as Senada explains, she was considered the sweetheart of the city. It made sense then that when Sulejman Grbic returned from the United States to visit his family, the two would be introduced.
“My parents were from the same village, but they didn’t know each other because my father is older and left for America in 1972,” Senada says. “He worked in a meat packing factory and a slaughterhouse because it was the trade he had learned from his grandparents, and he saved enough money from these jobs to come back to his village and make visiting family and friends. People wanted to show her around the restaurant my mom worked in, and here’s this great American hotshot. She was cutting beef and asked if he wanted to try some. My dad always says he knew then that he was going to marry her, because it was the best steak he had ever eaten in his life.
Ermina and Sulejman married and made their living in St. Louis, where they were seen as the social center of a community comprising immigrants from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece. Senada remembers that their house was constantly packed with people; they always had parties with her mom in the kitchen and her dad outside on the grill. Their hospitality was so legendary that their friends regularly encouraged them to open their own place, planting a seed in Sulejman’s head that would eventually lead him to quit his job in the trucking industry and take the plunge.
The restaurant that would become Grbic was a disaster when Sulejman bought it. As Senada recalls, the building at 4071 Keokuk Street on the outskirts of Dutchtown looked like a haunted house with bare wires hanging from the ceiling, holes in the walls, no floors, no kitchen, and no plumbing. However, his father insisted he had a vision, and the family spent four years cleaning and arranging the space into a brilliant restaurant that served its first customers in 1992.
From its origins until today, Grbic has been a full-fledged family business. Senada, Ermin and Erna – until her death from cancer in 2019 – worked alongside their parents to create a warm, welcoming and delicious space for everyone who walked through their doors. Senada, who went to culinary school like her mother, is committed to carrying on her family’s legacy and is overwhelmed by the love she has received from the great St. Louis community over the years. . She believes that the food, basically, is the reason for this and is always thrilled when people tell her that the restaurant’s food tastes the same as what their grandmother used to cook. These compliments support her, and she knows they support her mother, who she says secretly wanted to have a restaurant as much as her father did – which is why Ermina can’t let him go, even though she would. retired.
“My father is there every day; I don’t know what he would do without the restaurant, ”Senada says. “But my mother is the one standing over my shoulder there. She loves to stand there behind my back and tell me all the time, ‘This is how mom does.’
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