They come to St. Louis bearing the scars of war, many of them not speaking English.
But Bosnian and Croatian immigrants here are finding jobs and fitting into the American economy – partly because some St. Louis businesses and other employers have gone out of their way to help the newcomers adapt. Tessa Greenspan, owner of the Sappington Farmers Markets on Gravois and Watson roads, views her business with the local Bosnians and Croats almost as a community service.
“Many of these people have lost everything – home, family members, country. By providing their traditional foods, it gives a bit of their homeland back to them, ” Greenspan said.
Local business owners are serving their own interests, too, when they find ways to serve these new immigrants.
Anna Crosslin, the director of the International Institute, which settles new refugees in St. Louis, said more than 3,000 Bosnian and Croatian immigrants have arrived here since 1993.
“What’s interesting is that the St. Louis population has grown to the second-largest site for Bosnian and Croatians in the United States, ” Crosslin said.
Several food merchants have become major magnets for Bosnian and Croat shoppers. The Mondovics Bakery at 3659 Minnesota Avenue is one such shop.
John and Maria Mondovics are Hungarian immigrants who have owned the 70-year-old bakery for 20 years. They are the fourth owners. They have seen their weekend business jump by better than 25 percent because of bread sales to the Bosnian and Croatian immigrants
“We call it Hungarian bread. Or, sometimes I put the sign out and just say `European Bread, ‘ because we have lots of European customers. We have Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, Romanians, ” said Maria Mondovics. “It’s a hard, crusty white bread. . . . Hungarian bread has no sugar, no shortening, no milk powder, no preservatives. It’s just a pure bread – flour, yeast, salt, water – the purest bread in the world.”
On Saturdays, Mondovics said the bakery sells about 600 loaves of Hungarian bread. With German ryes and other breads, it sells 800 loaves. This in addition to cakes, cookies, pies and pastries.
Two blocks to the west at 3401 Winnebago Avenue is Lindy’s Meats & Sausage.
“The former owner did a lot of word-of-mouth (advertising). But I decided to go one step up and do a little bit of print advertising, ” said Frank Koziacki, Lindy’s owner.
“And we started getting a lot of people from outlying areas – Manchester, Chesterfield, Ladue . . . a lot of West County, ” Koziacki said. “And then business expanded from there by word-of-mouth among the Bosnians, Croatians, Poles.”
Then Koziacki took out a display ad in Plima, the local Bosnian-language magazine, which drew in even more Bosnians and Croats.
For many of the Bosnians, who are often Muslim, Koziacki makes different types of beef sausages and smoked meats. Croatians will eat both beef and pork.
“We make beef bacon and a beef sausage in a lamb casing for the (Bosnians) because they don’t eat pork, ” Koziacki said.
The store is open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, because Koziacki and his staff are processing and smoking the meats during the first part of the week.
Greenspan, of the Sappington Farmers Markets, said she expanded into Bosnian and Croat foods almost by accident.
“We have had a lot of ethnic foods – Hispanic, Asian, Russian. But I didn’t have a contact for Bosnian and Croatian foods until Dijana Groth (the publisher of Plima) gave me a New York distributor, ” Greenspan said. “I didn’t know anything about the type of foods, so I had them send out a mixed pallet of canned goods and jars. I was sold out within a week. We are now on our third pallet.”
Some firms have a long history of dealing with Bosnian and Croatian immigrants, like Standard Travel Service Inc., at 5865 Hampton Avenue, which has been handling the travel needs of new immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe for decades.
“In the old days, we would have people in the New York office meet new immigrants at the boat, hand them a box lunch and put them on the train to St. Louis, ” said Michael Weidhaas, Standard’s president. The firm was established in 1912.
In his travel business, Weidhaas has built up repeat trade with Croats, Bosnians and other immigrants the old-fashioned way: by providing services , often on an emergency basis, when a family member dies or is taken sick in the old country.
Weidhaas also provides other services.
“For example, if they have a bill of sale for a car being transferred, they need to get it notarized. Guess what, I’m a notary public, ” Weidhaas said.
Southern Commercial Bank found its niche serving the Bosnian and Croatian immigrants more recently.
“Sometimes you just get lucky. We’ve hired a couple of young Bosnian women as tellers. And they have told their friends; it’s been strictly word-of-mouth, ” said Byron W. Moser, vice president of Southern Commercial at 5515 South Grand Boulevard.
Moser said language was a major barrier at first.
“But having just a couple of tellers on our staff has really helped, ” Moser said. “We have taken one of tellers, Jasna Ajanovic, and we are training her for our installment loan department.”
Southern Commercial has issued some 300 car loans to Bosnian immigrants, Moser said. “We have not had one missed payment.”
Moser is impressed with his Bosnian customers. “They are very industrious. If I were in production, I would want these guys on my payroll.”
“They understand dollars and cents real well. They are very tight with their money, ” Moser said. “They are very aggressive on their payments. They don’t want a five-year car loan. They will buy a moderately priced used car and pay it off in two years.
“We are getting into home loans for (the Bosnians), ” Moser said. “We are getting into a niche market here, because there are a lot of lenders who do not want to be bothered with a $20,000 or $30,000 home loan.”
William A. Roewe Sr. is another businessman who is impressed with the work ethic of the Bosnians. Roewe is president of Missouri Pipe Fittings Co., which produces threaded steel, brass and plastic pipes at 400 Withers Avenue in north St. Louis.
“We have been fortunate to obtain them. When we hired the first ones we found them to be hard-working, dedicated people, ” Roewe said. “One led to two and then the others had friends.”
Roewe said he didn’t have to go out and seek new Bosnian employees; it’s all word-of-mouth.
Roewe’s son, William, added that while many had no machining background, they were educated and all were quick learners.
“It’s based on the record of the previous man you hired, ” the senior Roewe said. “If he has done a good job, you to tend to give the next one a chance.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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