Enes, Mira and Sandro Sljivo of EMSA Inc., pose in their sparkling clean kitchen.
One taste of their hearty, garlicky beef kebob sausages and you understand how this family-owned business bringing authentic European flavors to Nebraska is enjoying great success in the marketplace.
Lincoln-based EMSA, Inc., crafts unique recipes for inside a couple of spotless, bright kitchens in a nondescript office park, offering its delectable meat delights for distribution to a local grocery store specializing in European products and to nine wholesalers across the country, from Clearwater, Fla., to St. Louis, and to places in 38 states. Last year, they began exporting to Canada delectable beef kabobs and ready-to-eat products such as beef goulash and bean soup with smoked beef.
From war-torn Bosnia to business in the Cornhusker state
The story of this thriving business begins back in 1998, when Enes, along with his wife, Mira, and their two children, fled their home in Banja Luka in war-torn Bosnia, with only two small suitcases in his hand and a dream in his head of a prosperous life. The war ripped the former Yugoslavia apart and forced many thousands of refugee families to leave the country throughout the 1990s.
Eventually, the family settled in Lincoln, and Enes got a job at a local factory. But after years of sweat and hard work, he left the shop floors behind and with his wife and son working alongside, opened a small grocery store at 27th and Superior, where the family could sell the gourmet meats and foods they enjoyed in Bosnia to their American neighbors.
"We started making the recipes in our basement," remembered Enes, who speaks with a twinkle in his eye and an easy smile. They found customers in the Bosnian community in Lincoln, which numbers around 2,000 people, and soon found demand in a larger diaspora in Des Moines. By 2002, they'd moved production from their basement to a USDA-approved kitchen in back of the grocery store, and by 2003 they began producing sausages for another nationwide label in addition to wholeselling under their own brand.
The Sljivos were grateful for the help offered by the Lincoln Action Program, a local non-profit focused on self-empowerment, which gave them business advice on marketing, record keeping, USDA regulations and building and safety requirements as the business began to grow.
Going the extra mile to spread the word about their tasty meats
When it came to a loan for the equipment and machinery to meet the growing demand for their food products, Cory Smathers, the program's entrepreneur development administrator, referred them to Rick Wallace, the director of Community Development Resources (CDR), a micro-lender serving the area, who gave them a $5,000 micro-loan, using the machines as collateral.
"Nobody would give us a business loan until we had two years in the business," Mira said. "Rick was with us from the beginning. He saw how we grew, he was confident we’d be okay." They would be better than that.
Two years later, EMSA outgrew the back of the grocery store and moved to its present home on Fletcher Avenue in the northwest part of the city, not far from the family's home. And according to Enes, the business has averaged annual growth of 10-15 percent since. These days, hungry customers can find their products in two Hy-Vee grocery stores in Lincoln, but the small company lacks a sales person to market their frozen dinners, microwave products and smokehouse meats on more store shelves.
"Our product is really good," he said with pride, "but our problem is advertising. Our advertising is word-of-mouth."
They go the extra mile to spread the word--literally. They'll drive down to St. Louis, where there is an estimated 70,000 Bosnian expatriates living, to grill their beef kabobs during a festival in an area park where 200 to 300 of their former neighbors from Banja Luka gather to share stories and plenty of food.
The company also uses their web site, with content in both English and Serbo-Croatian accompanied by mouth-watering pictures, to market their products. They’ve gotten calls from a distributor in Jacksonville for a community of more than 20,000, and a getting call from a woman in Alaska who wants to stock the meats for a Bosnian group of 60 people—except to ship that far away would be expensive!
"Watching everything come from when it started I was there and I saw what it was like when we were making sausage from a Kitchen Aid now to big machines that produce a couple thousand pounds every day," said their son Sandro during a segment on Lincoln's KOLN-TV. He's worked for the family business since he was a teenager.
"It's amazing how it all just grows and grows and keep growing," he added.
EMSA returned to CDR for another micro-loan last fall for $35,000 to defray the cost of translating their packaging into French for sale in Canada, for overnight printing of full-color print catalogs and for web site bandwidth. The rest of the proceeds were used for machines to add goulash to their product line and for refrigerators.
Not everything is perfect, though.
"You can feel the economy slow down the business," Mira said. "Ethnic stores in other parts of the country have closed." And while EMSA's expenses have increased, the profits haven’t as they keep prices low.
According to Enes, the company plans to expand into the burgeoning demand in Halal certified products to break into Islamic ethnic food stores, and already has paid membership dues to a group which certifies kitchens and products. Someday soon they want to expand the meat production into a new facility, which would allow a leap ahead in turnaround time.
They've come a long way since they left Banja Luka behind.
"It's really hard to believe, it's really rare to get his kind of feeling knowing that we didn't have a lot," Sandro said. We were running away from the war so coming to a country like this and become something, it's just amazing to me."