As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Josi Jahic, co-owner of J’s Pitaria in St. Louis, Missouri,
Josi is a successful female entrepreneur who originally arrived in the U.S. as a Bosnian refugee. With a tenacious, can-do attitude, she earned her master’s from Washington University in St. Louis, earning her degree in human resources. This degree and experience became part of the foundation that she and her husband, Zamir, would eventually pour to create their future restaurant.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Imagine a young girl and her family being forced to flee a war-torn country, creating a new home for themselves in foreign countries not once but twice within a span of 8 years. That girl was me. I was born in Bosnia to working parents, who had four other daughters to love and support. Sadly, I didn’t know my home long because of the Bosnian War in 1992. I was 11 years old at the time, and my mother, four sisters, and I fled to Germany to live with our uncle, who graciously took us in. My father was not allowed to leave Bosnia, so we didn’t know if we would ever see him again. We left everything we had behind except for the clothes on our backs and a few paltry suitcases. It was such a scary time for us all.
In Germany, we had nothing but our uncle. We scrambled to learn an entirely new language and culture, all while my father was trying to escape our homeland. Thankfully, he was able to reunite with us in Germany a year later, even though it felt like a lifetime to me. After living there for eight years, we were told that our refugee status had expired and we needed to return to Bosnia since the war was over. However, the country that I loved and grew up in was completely changed by the war. There was nothing left for us. While it was sad knowing that we were now “homeless,” we were fortunate enough to stay in the U.S. and were eventually granted citizenship. We packed up only a few suitcases again and moved to a new country with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a dream.
Once in the U.S., we moved to St. Louis. We had to learn another language and culture again, but we were filled with gratitude to be safe and to have our entire family together. While it wasn’t easy to once again move to a foreign country where you didn’t speak the language or understand the culture, my family and I worked hard to make the U.S. our home. My parents found successful jobs and were able to support us five girls as we began a new chapter of our lives in America.
These experiences, while difficult, have helped shape me into who I have become today. I consider the U.S. my home and I’m very grateful to live in this amazing land filled with opportunity.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My husband, Zamir, has always been my biggest supporter and he’s the main reason why I became an entrepreneur. After earning my bachelor’s degree in international business and finding a full-time job at Washington University in St. Louis, I actually decided to go back to school for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree in human resource management. He supported this decision and put his dream on hold, which was to open a Mediterranean restaurant. Once I earned my MBA, we decided to open his restaurant and named it J’s Pitaria. Zamir is hands-on, great with customers, and truly enjoys speaking with everyone. I’m more involved in the business side of the restaurant, figuring out how we can make money and what our business plan looks like moving forward. With his passion for nourishing others through family recipes and my business education, I feel the sky’s the limit!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
J’s Pitaria first opened on a Labor Day weekend and, to our surprise, we had over 100 people lined up at our doors when we opened. This would normally be music to any business owner’s ears, except for the fact that we completely sold out of food within the first two hours. Our mistake was that we never anticipated such a successful opening after building our business from the ground up and only promoting ourselves through word of mouth and social media.
The experience was incredibly overwhelming as we worked so hard to get orders out, while the line only continued to grow. We eventually had to turn people away because the oven started to malfunction and there was just nothing left to sell after those two hours. This, however, was our first real promotion, and we learned a lot from it:
- Opening a restaurant is challenging — Even if you think you have everything covered, something could go wrong. Learn to calmly manage any situation.
- You will make mistakes — Mistakes are inevitable, but they are opportunities for learning and growth. Instead of being afraid to make mistakes, realize that it will happen eventually and that you can flourish when you learn from them.
- Teamwork is crucial for success — One person’s mistake is the rest of the team’s mistake. Sharing responsibility collectively has built our team’s morale and has made us stronger, more communicative, and more able to pivot quickly today.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Absolutely. I am incredibly grateful for a mentor I gained while working at Washington University in St. Louis, Bill W. He is the reason that I decided to pursue my MBA at the university. At the time, he was the University Director of Maintenance Operations and I was working in human resources with union workers. He took me under his wing because we worked very similarly to each other, and I never took his feedback personally — I only saw it as an opportunity for growth. At the time, I had no plans of returning to school, but one day he walked me over to that year’s MBA graduation ceremony. Something just clicked in my head and I looked at him and said, “Bill, you’re going to come to my graduation one day.” And, as if he could read my mind, he said, “I know I will.” Even though he retired before I finished my MBA, he and his wife showed up on my graduation day. That was an incredibly special moment since he remembered me and kept his promise, proving that he still believed in me to that day.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Moving from Bosnia to Germany and then immigrating to the U.S. was hard for me for a few different reasons. First off, as an 11-year-old girl leaving her home for a new country over the summertime, I thought that our “trip” would only last until school started again. I was off by about 7 ½ years and our family completely started over in Germany. None of us knew the language or the culture, but my sisters and I still had to go to school and our parents had to get new jobs. Mom found a job at a restaurant and Dad worked in a manufacturing plant. Just as we were getting settled in, we had to do it all over again by moving to the U.S. I was a senior in high school, learning another new language and culture, along with my sisters and parents who had to find new jobs again. Starting from the ground up once is hard enough; imagine doing it twice as a young girl in two completely foreign lands. But those experiences shaped me into the resilient, resourceful woman that I am today.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My drive comes from my past experiences. I don’t stress about the little things in life because I know without a doubt that there are worse things than selling out of food in two hours on opening day. The challenges I faced growing up helped me develop a hearty work ethic and a can-do attitude. I’m not one to give up when things get a little difficult or uncomfortable. Instead, I see them as opportunities to grow, and I run toward them without any hesitation.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I have been able to build a successful life with my husband and we now have a child that we are incredibly grateful for. We’ve both been lucky enough to travel the world and experience many authentic, healthy Mediterranean dishes throughout our lives. When we landed in St. Louis, however, they were practically impossible to find. Before opening our restaurant, we made it our mission to perfect the recipes that our menu would include while upholding the tradition surrounding each item. We are surviving a pandemic that the entire world is enduring, but it’s nothing new to me to have to adapt. We just haven’t been afraid to take risks and are always encouraging each other to never look back.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are in the business of providing hand-made, from-scratch Mediterranean food and artisan Somun bread (which is baked fresh each day in our stone brick oven). We do this because we truly care about our customers and their health. We know that good food is the medicine we need to live our best lives, which is why we make everything from scratch using fresh, organic, premium ingredients. Our customers come in, place their order, and patiently wait as we craft their meal right then and there for them. The wait is absolutely worth it because you’re experiencing a healthy, decadent, unforgettable Mediterranean dish. Our customers can tell how much effort and care we put into their meals. That’s what sets us apart from other restaurants.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
To avoid burnout, you must have a routine of some kind in place. It’s all about living an active and healthy life. For example, I work out on a regular basis — one hour a day. It gives me time for myself so that I can have a strong mind-body connection. Now, I won’t deny that a little bit of retail therapy gives me the same feeling, but everything in moderation, right? I’d also recommend setting aside a regular amount of alone time for yourself and time for the family. Zamir and I have weekly date nights still and dinner on Sundays with the family.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
After my husband and I experienced our own share of health scares, we made it our mission to serve our community the best way we knew how — by providing healthy, delectable, authentic Mediterranean cuisine. We work hard each day to create handmade, from-scratch Mediterranean food and artisan Somun bread, drawing in regulars and changing their health for the better. While I know three languages, I also communicate with customers through the homemade, flavorful fare we lovingly craft each day.
We are also currently working to regularly donate our food to frontline hospital workers, the very same that helped save Zamir’s life when he had a recent heart attack. It gives us such joy to help others and to provide them with healthy, nourishing food.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Location, location, location — It’s crucial to do demographic research so that you can figure out who your customers are going to be and what their lifestyle looks like. This kind of information will make or break you no matter what kind of product you sell.
2. Consistency is key — It’s important to uphold a high standard for every product produced. Customers know they will get quality and a consistent presentation every time they order with us.
3. Consider customer feedback — Focus on receiving the feedback you get from your customers and learn from it whenever possible. As a restaurant, we’re willing to listen to our customers and change what needs to be changed. While you can’t always be everyone’s “cup of tea,” you can always try to better yourself for those you serve.
4. Build a team around you that shares your vision — Many people don’t understand how detrimental it can be to the business when employees feel underappreciated and uninvolved. On the other hand, a team that feels heard and valued can make a business soar. It’s my goal to let our team in on all the decisions we make. Before making menu changes, we all get together and discuss changing items and prices. This shows them that they are part of my team. If your team does well, then you will be successful.
5. Business ownership is a marriage — You have to be willing to put everything aside, because you are going to be married to your business. We could never find time to go on weekend picnics with our friends. But if you aren’t willing to put in the time and work past your typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, then you will not be successful. It takes hard work and dedication to get to where you want to be.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Yes, our training for employees has changed and we include them in on the decision making process like I mentioned before. I used to just do it all on my own and expect them to be on board. I opened up conversations and now get valuable input from my employees who are on the frontline. They appreciate being such an integral part of our team.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
It certainly would have helped knowing all of the things I mentioned above, but I really do believe that we still would have made the same mistakes. Learning from your mistakes is the best way to move forward. I don’t think anyone takes everything as seriously as they should until they’ve experienced it for themselves. Making mistakes has helped our business flourish by listening to our customers’ experiences, getting feedback from the team, and adjusting accordingly. We can’t be set in our ways, so we’re always trying to improve where we can, when we can. We’re willing to listen and change what needs to be changed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m glad you asked because I’ve already started a movement of my own. I’m educating my community on how healthy our food is and the importance of changing negative eating habits. There’s a real disconnect right now with people thinking that good food is boring. That’s simply not true — it can actually be both your medicine and unbelievably delicious, and it can improve your quality of life. When you think about the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, it’s quite different from what you see today in the U.S. People who follow that lifestyle make time to gather around the table with their loved ones and linger mindfully over the fresh food on their plates. They are also very connected with their bodies — they take daily walks and make time for joy-filled movement, and they also know when to step back from daily stressors and count their blessings — maybe with a cup of herbal tea in hand.
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes and has shown us how vital good health is. When you don’t take care of your body, mind, and spirit, disease and illness can start to control your life. It is crucial that we make time for ourselves, no matter how busy we are, to cook and fuel our bodies with nutritious foods, to stretch and move, to breathe deeply and give thanks for what we have, to laugh loudly with our loved ones. Health is one of those things in life that you tend to take for granted until it’s gone. We should take steps now to recognize how good our lives are, be thankful, and continue developing and actively partaking in good habits that promote a healthy life.
Be on the lookout for a new YouTube channel where I’ll try to show people my lifestyle as an inspiration for theirs.
How can our readers further follow your work online?