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Restaurants, food and farming go together

John Oncken
Nick Semovski, owner of Monona Garden Restaurant suggested writing about Macedonian-owned restaurants...”food and farming go together, don’t they?”

It was some four or five years ago that I first learned about Macedonian-owned restaurants.  A friend and I had lunch at the Monona Garden restaurant just off of the Madison Beltline on Bridge Road in Madison.  This family style restaurant located about half-way between our two offices replaced a former – but, long closed –  Lums eatery.

Came to America

Sometime during the meal, maybe at checkout, we began talking with the restaurant owner, Nedzmi "Nick" Semovski, about his good food and service. He told us that he had emigrated from Macedonia some years earlier where he had been a semi-driver and had attended an engineering college. He further explained that he was only one of many Macedonians who came to the U.S. and now own and operate restaurants in the Madison area and across the state.  

Romeo and Jonida Ademi are second generation family owners of Sir Hobos in Sun Prairie.

“You ought to write about us,”  he said, “After all, restaurants, food and farming all go together.” (I had mentioned to him earlier that I and my eating companion both did a lot of writing and that I wrote about agriculture in a statewide newspaper.)

“Stop in again and I’ll tell you the whole story,” he said. “You might find it interesting.” 

At the time I agreed that it might be an interesting story but sort of forgot about it for several years. Then a year or so ago I resurrected the idea when my friend Lois and I began having after-church lunches together mainly at area diners not of the franchise kind. These were diners and family type restaurants in Madison, Oregon, Stoughton, Columbus, DeForest and around the area.  

Similar stories

Early on I realized, as I most always talked with the owners, that these businesses were alike in many ways: The owners were always present; the facilities were very clean and the food was plentiful, tasty and relatively inexpensive. And, surprisingly, the owners were all Macedonian in background with fairly similar stories.  

Had never heard of

At the time I had really never heard of Macedonia so did a bit of research. North Macedonia (its official name) is a small country (2.4 million people) in the south-central Balkans and is located in the northern part of the larger area traditionally known as Macedonia. It is bordered to the north by Kosovo and Serbia, to the east by Bulgaria, to the south by Greece, and to the west by Albania.

The Macedonian area of the Balkans changed its name and borders over the years and after WW II became a part of communist Yugoslavia until 1991 when the country declared its independence.

Nick Semovski owner of Monona Garden restaurant who calls himself an Albanian of Macedonian descent, was born and raised in communist Yugoslavia. In 1984, Nick, his wife and their son left for America and lived in a number of cities before arriving in Madison in 1990 where he began working in the Dairyland Family Restaurant on Cottage Grove Road in Madison (with his in-laws). After several years, Nick purchased a sports bar in Sun Prairie and in 2003 opened Monona Garden restaurant, which thrives yet today.

Washed dishes

The Dairyland Family Restaurant owned by John Zytgjo and his son Vasco is one of Madison's older Macedonian-owned restaurants dating back to 1986, Dad John came to the U.S. in the 70’s and learned the restaurant business by washing dishes.  

“You don’t need to speak English or have any money to wash dishes,” Zytgjo says. “And if you work hard you can learn the business.”  And he did just that, resulting in his purchase of a vacant Dairy Queen on Cottage Grove Road that remains popular today under his son Vasco’s management.

Gus Selimi has owned Gus’s Diner just west of Sun Prairie since 2008 after taking over a previous failed and closed diner. Gus came to the U.S. in 1977 from Macedonia “for a better life” and came to Madison in 1990 to work with two of his brothers at the Parkway  Restaurant on Fish Hatchery Road . In 2007,  Gus briefly leased the American Table restaurant in the Northgate Mall until moving to Sun Prairie and opening Gus’s Diner.  He also owns a Gus’s in Verona managed by his son.

Gus Selimi has owned Gus’s Diner just west of Sun Prairie since 2008, he  came to the US in 1977 from Macedonia “for a better life.”

In mid-80’s

The Sir Hobo restaurant in downtown Sun Prairie dates to the mid-‘80’s when it was opened by the Ademi family who had come from Macedonia earlier. In 1987, Pete Ademi who had worked in an apple orchard in Macedonia came to the U.S. to join his sister and her husband as a partner and eventually became the sole owner. After the death of his father two years ago, Romeo Ademi and his wife Jonida now own and operate Sir Hobo’s.   

In addition to these several Macedonian-owned restaurants that we've dined at, we’ve stopped at others in Oregon, Stoughton, DeForest, Columbus and Madison. And I also ate in Thorp where I stopped at the Thorpedo, a longtime and popular cafe, that I had visited while living in Neillsville so long ago. It has long since relocated nearer US 29 and is owned by Asan Maksuti who came from Macedonia in 1999.  

A way to start

Sam Kasa who owns Sonny’s Kitchen in Oregon was a barber in Macedonia before arriving in the U.S. in 1993.  As many of the Macedonian imports seem to have done, Sam began his restaurant life as a dishwasher at the Parkway in Madison which was owned by Gus Selimi (now owner of Gus’s Diner) and his brothers. “Gus’s wife  is my sister,” he says.

Sam Kasa who owns Sonny’s Kitchen in Oregon was a barber in Macedonia but began as a dishwasher in the US.

The Macedonian restaurateurs that I talked with agree that there are hundreds of such restaurant owners across Wisconsin and more in Iowa, Illinois and elsewhere.

Why have so many people of Macedonian/Albanian heritage came to the U.S.? I asked each one.

“For a better life,” all agreed. “Living under communism is terrible and there is no way to make for a better life. Most of us were poor farmers or worked in construction and the communist government encouraged us to leave.”

“No, we had not worked in the food service business before coming to America, but if you have no money and can’t speak English what else can one do but wash dishes, bus tables and learn?” they say.  “Many of us then became restaurant owners.”

Many of these restaurants offer fresh pies and cakes.

Many of the Macedonian emigrants have become U.S. citizens and are very proud of it.  I had never before ever thought of a Macedonian-owned restaurant (who does?) until I started asking questions at places we ate. 

Now I know and admire their efforts and professionalism...and food! Look around, there may be one in your area, you’ll enjoy.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.